July 2010

My talk from JIF2010, in pictures
This is just to amplify a few of the points I made in my talk today in the "Thunderbolts and Lightning" session at the JISC Joint Innovation Forum conference at Royal Holloway.  The graphic at the head of this posting was kindly produced by the good folk at Meeting Magic as a summary of the session.

The concept of the sessions was to look at the emerging threats and challenges facing institutions.  I chose to think more in terms of new opportunities and how we might take advantage of them.

Let's begin by following on from my recent posting about the iPad.  The conceit here is that the iPad has taken off because it meets most people's needs, most of the time. Whether or not you agree with this, it turned out that lots of people did want a big iPhone :-)

It may be worth reflecting on whether this owes more to an improved user experience through multitouch, or a reduction in the number of frustrating failure modes associated with a more complex device.

So, will Steve Jobs be on stage this time next year announcing a 27" iMac running iOS?

OK, so that's a provocative title for this post, and let's face it - much of the hyperbole surrounding the iPad is cringeworthy.  But spend a bit of time looking at what people are doing with the technology, and an interesting picture emerges.

First off, here's Penguin Books CEO John Makinson demonstrating the work that his team has been doing to reimagine their back catalogue for the iPad, and create new "books" that fully exploit its capabilities: (note that these are Apps, not "conventional e-books" in EPUB format)

Next up, Flipboard, an App that creates an interactive newspaper for you based on public newsfeeds and a mash up of your friends' Facebook and Twitter posts: (no paywalls here ;-)

At Loughborough we're currently gearing up to roll out the Terminal Four Site Manager CMS. We're looking at quite a nice hosting environment, with multiple front end web server VMs at separate locations with Linux Virtual Server for load balancing and failover.

This setup is great for handling problems like localised hardware failures and operating system bugs, but what happens in the event of a catastrophic failure such as the fire that destroyed the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton University?  (Ballardian picture above from Dr John Bullas)

I'll blog about our wider institutional emergency planning separately.  For this post let's consider what we could do to maintain a Web presence if circumstances conspire to cut off our Internet connection, or there's a major IT systems failure.  We live in straitened times, so I'll frame this in monetary terms!

One of my current projects is to pull together a student portal for Loughborough.  For a variety of reasons we missed the boat and failed to develop such a system back in the Noughties, but I think this is something we can turn to our advantage by learning from other people's experiences.

My view is that our portal (see left for portal concept poster from Ben Spencer in our Web design team) will be mostly about giving people a handy preview of information that's relevant to them, and linking through to systems and services that we already run - rather than imposing a whole new IT system on everyone.  One convenient side-effect of this not being a direct replacement for an existing system is that we will be able to introduce it as and when it's ready, thereby avoiding the traditional mad rush to get everything ready for the start of the academic year.

The initial system will be very tightly scoped, and is mostly about us identifying a sensible underlying architecture that we can continue to build on.  On launch day we are aiming for something along like this:

I was just discussing with colleagues the respective merits of mobile apps, mobile optimised websites (sometimes disguised as apps) and frameworks for building them.  It's interesting to take a look around and see what people have done in this space.

A number of institutions have partnered with oMbiel to offer services based on their campusM product.  Chris Sexton from Sheffield has a good description of what's offered by campusM.  campusM runs as a dedicated iPhone app or a Java midlet for other devices.  I expect an Android app to appear soon too.

In parallel, several institutions have developed their own open source mobile projects, notably Mobile Campus Assistant (from the ILRT at Bristol), Mobile Oxford (from the Erewhon project at OUCS), and MIT's Mobile Web.  A sample screen from Mobile Campus Assistant is shown to the left.

These systems are much more than mobile optimised versions of the institution's website.  They provide key information targeted at the needs of the peripatetic IT user - including staff, students and visitors.  Examples of services offered include: