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Brief Thoughts on Day 1 of the Jisc Digital Festival 2016

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 Mar 2016

The Jisc Digital Festival 2016

The two-day Jisc Digital Festival began early today and continues tomorrow. This was my first Jisc event for some time and provided a valuable opportunity to gain an overview of Jisc developments and, perhaps more importantly, meet many friends and former colleagues. Unfortunately due to family commitments I was only there for the day and had to leave at coffee time – in addition I spent most of my time talking to people and therefore didn’t attend any of the many parallel sessions. However I did attend the opening plenary which provided useful insights into current Jisc thinking.

Jisc digital festival 2016

The Power of Digital

The opening plenary session, entitled “The Power of Digital” had four plenary speakers: Dr Paul Feldman, chief executive, Jisc; Professor David Maguire, chair, Jisc; Professor Andrew Harrison, professor of practice at University of Wales Trinity St David and director of Spaces That Work Ltd and Professor Donna Lanclos, associate professor for anthropological research at UNC Charlotte.

The sides used by the speakers are available on Slideshare and are also embedded below. There is therefore no need for me to comment on the details of the opening talk. However one slide in particular caught my eye: the overview of the three key areas of work provided by the Jisc for the sector:

Slides from opening Jisc plenary talk

As can be seen Jisc do three main things for the sector:

  1. Provide shared digital infrastructure and services. This includes the Janet network, shared data centres (formerly known as Mimas), Eduroam and geospatial services provided I understand by Edina) with new services in the area of learning analytics, research data management and “FE college in a box” currently being developed.
  2. Sector wide deals with IT vendors and publishers. In the past the focus would probably have been on deals negotiated with publishers and have primarily been of interest to librarians, together with deals for large data sets. However it was interesting to note that the current emphasis is on the deals with IT vendors, with deals with Microsoft and Amazon being mentioned.
  3. Expert and trusted advice and practical assistance. This includes advice on open access, cloud services and cyber security (which I’m familiar with) and “financial x-ray” which is new to me, with plans to move into FE area reviews and a national monograph strategy.


I was particularly pleased to see the high profile which was given to the importance of Jisc’s work in negotiating deals for institutional use of Cloud services, such as those provided by Microsoft and Amazon. In the past legal issues such as data protection and uncertainties of the robustness of the Safe Harbor agreement were cited as barriers to the widespread deployment of such services.

The Jisc web site contains brief details of the deals which Jisc have negotiated for the sector, which includes deals for Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps for Education and Amazon Web Services, although details of the provides of file synch and share services do not seem to be available.


I should also add that at the event there was an announcement of a deal for Amazon Web Services, which is described in more detail on the Jisc blog. This announcement reminded me that back in 2008 Jeff Barr of Amazon Web Services gave a talk at the IWMW 2007 event on “Building Highly Scalable Web Applications” – although it appears that the deal is for use by researchers and not for those providing large-scale web services.

But what did I think was missing from this overview?

It was interesting to note that although open access continues to be of great relevance to Jisc, open source software no longer seems to be being mentioned. Funding for the Jisc OSS Watch service ceased some time ago and advice and support for the sector on procuring open source software products or on developing open source software does not seem to be provided. In addition, although there was an expectation that software developed by Jisc projects would be available as open source, it does not appear that current services being developed or procured will be as available as open source. Perhaps we should accept that openness tends to be popular in times of growth (as we saw in the early part of the 21st century)  but at a time of cutbacks openness is deemed no longer to be relevant?

I also noticed that the relevance of Wikipedia also appeared to be dismissed as part of the ‘wild west’.  This made me wonder whether such community-led approaches to content development were at odds with the Jisc view on the importance of “expert and trusted advice”.

Finally I wondered not that Jisc has negotiated deals for the mundane office products and we have a reliable networking environment, with many (but not all) users owning their own powerful devices, where the support for local development work will be provided. In the past the DevCSI initiative was successful in motivating institutional development activities; although the Jisc Summer of Student Innovation has been valuable in providing students with skills in IT development, such expertise will be lost to the sector when they graduate.

jisclive tweetPerhaps the most valuable comment made in the opening plenary was the comment by Dr Paul Feldman, chief executive, Jisc. As summarised in a tweet on the @jisclive account:

Feldman: Jisc is here to support institutions innovate and use technology. We want to hear what you need at #digifest16

I welcome this invitation to give comments and feedback. I’ve shared my thoughts of the areas I’ve welcomed and the gaps. I’d welcome thoughts from others.

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The Long And Winding Road

Posted by Brian Kelly on 30 Nov 2007

I was recently an invited speaker at Intute’s first Staff Conference, which was described in a blog post on Intute’s newly launched blog service. The title of my talk was “What If Web 2.0 Really Does Change Everything?. Before exploring the challenges which the range of externally hosted Web 2.0 service would pose to a JISC-funded service such as Intute I took the opportunity to revisit the early days of Intute, when, in the days of the eLib programe the services were known as Subject Based Information Gateways (SBIGs), before becoming known as the RDN (Resource Discovery Network) prior to their current name.

What, I asked, was the key to Intute’s success? Was it, I wondered:

  • ROADS: the open source software which formed the basis of services such as SOSIG in the early days?
  • The lightweight whois++ distributed searching protocol supported by ROADS, which would allow users to cross-search across the various SBIG services?
  • The MySQL database, which formed the core data management tool for ssome of the services?
  • The PostGres database, another open source relational database management system, which provided richer functionality than MySQL?
  • The distributed approach to development and hosting, which enabled a diversity of technical approaches to take place?

From today’s perspective, we can see that the only technical component of the Intute service from the list given above which is still critical is the MySQL database. ROADS is now festering on SourceForge and the whois++ protocol seems to have dropped off the radar screen, having been superceded by the SRU/SRW cross-searching protocols which were designed for a Web environment. And the distributed development and hosting approach has been replaced by a centralised service, hosted at MIMAS.

At the conference I argued that the success of Intute wasn’t due to the initial technical choices. Rather it was due to the effectiveness of their outreach activities, with staff from SOSIG, EEVL, OMNI and the other hubs regularly appearing at conferences, giving seminars, running training sessions and writing articles for many publications.

There was, however, one piece of technical innovation which has shown itself to be sustainable, which was described in a short paper on “RDN-Include: Re-branding Remote Resources” by myself, Pete Cliff and Andy Powell published in May 2001 in the WWW 10 Conference Poster Proceedings. RDN-include allowed the RDN service to be embedded in third party Web pages. The initial development made use of a CGI script which needed to be installed on the institution’s server. However we realised that there was always likely to be a SysAdmin barrier (“no third party script to be allowed on my server”) so a lightweight JavaScript alternative was also developed, RDNi-lite. And, as described in a post on Integrate Intute content on the Intute blog, this service is still being provided, although under a new name and using, I believe, rewritten software.

A focus on users? A lightweight approach to embedding content? This sounds pretty much like Web 2.0 to me. As I said in my talk, I think the success of Intute was due to the Web 2.0-style approach they took, before the term was coined.

But in the light of what we now know, how might Intute have developed? We can see that the distributed approach taken initially wasn’t sustainable, and the emphasis on cross-searching would have been misplaced in a more centralised model. Looking at The History of Yahoo! it strikes me that, in an alternative universe Intute could have been the Yahoo! of the planet.

We thought we were at the start of a long and straight Roman road in the days of eLib. Looking back, we can see that it was a long and winding road, and occasionally we’ll realise that we’ve been heading in the wrong direction and retrace our tracks. If we were starting all over again, which way would we go?

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JISC Capital Circular 2/07: Call for Proposals

Posted by Brian Kelly on 31 Jul 2007

The JISC Capital Circular 2/07: Call for Proposals was announced on Friday 27th July 2007. This circular invites institutions to submit funding proposals for projects in the following areas:

  • Enterprise architectures
  • e-infrastructure
  • Users and innovation

Proposals may be submitted by HE institutions funded via HEFCE and HEFCW, and by FE institutions in England that teach HE to more than 400 FTEs.

Further information is available at at:

The “Circular 02/07 appendix F: Next Generation Technologies and Practices call” MS Word document in particular includes a variety of issues which relate to the topics which have been addressed, including the role of standards in emergent technologies, accessibility, risk assessment, etc.

I’ll discuss some of these issues in more depths in forthcoming posts over the next few weeks and months.

Posted in jisc | 2 Comments »

From The DNER To Web 2.0

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 Jul 2007

Original DNER diagramMy former colleague Andy Powell was one of the key developers of what was originally known as the DNER (Distributed National Electronic Resource) and was later rebranded as the JISC Information Environment (IE). Andy produced a diagram of the IE architecture, an early version of which is illustrated.

This diagram (and subsequent versions which further developed the initial model) illustrate how JISC’s development strategy recognised the importance of the network as a platform for providing access to services across the higher and further education communities.

I was involved in some of the early discussion about the JISC IE. And the following diagram (taken from a talk on The Web In The 21st Century given at the JUSW 2001 workshop on 4-5th September 2001 at Loughborough University) gives my interpretation of how the JISC IE might develop.

DNER Diagram

It should be noted that in this diagram I floated the idea that the JISC IE could be enhanced to include access to application services and not just middleware services such as authentication. It is interesting that my vision was for access to lightweight services such as spell-checks and bookmarking services. The idea came to me after reflecting on services such as HaL’s Web-based HTML validation service which was announced way back in 1994 and was subsequently mirrored on the (now defunct) national HENSA mirror service. It struck me back then that this concept (based on simple REST interface) could be applied more widely.

Back then I didn’t envisage that it would be possible to deploy networked versions of full-scale applications such as a word processor. But this is now available, as the Google Docs service (and many other competitors) clearly illustrate.

I also did not foresee that the service we use within the higher and further education communities could be provided by the commercial sector. But, and many other social book marking services, also clearly demonstrate that the model of networked access to bookmarking services, which I suggested in my diagram, can be deployed on a global scale.

On reflection I think the vision for the JISC Information Environment, which was devised and developed by UKOLN and JISC colleagues including Andy Powell (who now works for the Eduserv Foundation) and Liz Lyon (UKOLN) and Rachel Bruce (JISC), can be seen as an architecture which has strong connections with Web 2.0. The JISC IE vision, however, probably missed out on the importance of social networking and user generated content and, indeed, generating interest which will encourage users to adopt new technologies (indeed, as Andy Powell commented recentlyOne of the … problems with the JISC IE diagram is that it was largely technology driven“). But the initial technical architecture that was devised (especially syndication using lightweight technologies such as RSS) seems to have been validated by the success of Web 2.0.

Posted in General, jisc, Web2.0 | 3 Comments »