2015


Earlier this summer our technology forum surveyed heads of IT in further and higher education to find out more about the state of cloud adoption. It was quite a mixed picture - whilst 45% of respondees were using cloud services for business applications such as payroll processing, 31% had no plans to move to cloud for these applications. It was clear from the survey that many people were discouraged from using public cloud providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure because of a perception that costs would be difficult to anticipate and contain. 61% of respondents said that financial issues were a major concern for them. We thought it was timely to do some further work in this area, and have just released a report exploring the future and potential of cloud computing for our community.

Photo credit: Hardware hacking at Interact Labs, picture courtesy Sean Clark

I’ve been joined by two of the nominees in the Talk Talk Digital Heroes Awards 2015, Sean Clark and Brian Negus. The Digital Heroes Awards recognise inspirational people who are using digital technologies and the Internet to bring about positive social change.
Who are you, and what do you do?
Sean: My name is Sean Clark. I do a number of things - we are currently in my office in Loughborough for a company I run called Cuttlefish. We’re a web design and mobile phone app developer. I also do a lot of work in Leicester, and that’s typically based around my arts and technology interests, where I run a space called Interact Labs which is located at the Phoenix Cinema. That’s an experimental space for people wanting to explore technology from a creative angle. We encourage artists and technologists to come in, work together and explore things - make artworks, have experiments, and that sort of thing. I’ve worked in multimedia, new technology and digital arts for probably over twenty years now.
Brian: I’m Brian Negus, and I’m a retired IT director. I’m registered blind and have been for a long time. I’ve been really fortunate that as I’ve lost my sight, I’ve been able to exploit technology to help me stay in employment and do something useful. Now I’m retired, I’m particularly passionate to help others have that same advantage. I’m working in partnership with Vista, which is the local sight loss charity for Leicestershire and Rutland. Vista have limited funds but can occasionally fund someone on a low income for a piece of technology.
What kinds of tech skills do you work with Vista to help blind people to pick up?
Brian: They provided a totally blind guy with an iPad. I then went in and met him and we are now on a course of training. But what really made me so happy was that this guy has never used any IT before in his life. He’s a retired truck driver - retired because he went blind, of course. By the end of the first session, he had sent his very first email. That is just so good. You really can make huge differences - we were talking about exclusion, and before he was totally excluded from the world of IT. From Facebook, from Twitter, from email. Now he is 100% included. Another of my examples is my totally blind friend with his guide dog, now also using his iPhone as a pedestrian satellite navigation tool. I wouldn’t recommend it to a totally blind person without a guide dog, as it’s not ever so good at finding safe places to cross the road, but you can see that combination working, can’t you. That’s totally brilliant.
How does Interact Labs help to bring technology and the arts together?
Sean: I was running a workshop yesterday at Phoenix, and we were doing simple circuits and LED lighting. A lot of the youngsters who came along were well under ten. They were primary school age. First of all, they’re fascinated by it - they want to make things, and put wires together and make lights light up. I was showing some of the more advanced ones how to control lights using Arduinos. There was a ten year old boy there who after seeing what I had done took my circuit apart, re-assembled it and made a sound to light unit - you tap on a microphone and make lights go on. He was just ten years old. I’m thinking one of the problems with what we teach kids at school is that many of them will go beyond what the teachers can do, and at a much earlier age than you might expect. This ten year old, none of his teachers could really support him in developing his IT skills because they weren’t IT specialists themselves. So Scratch is great, but how do you support people to go beyond that, the more able if you like, who want to do serious programming yet they’re still at primary school. I think there’s a big problem there.
Sean: I’m an artist myself, I create digital artworks. I also believe that artists are amongst the best people to innovate with technology, because they have a thing they want to do, and that thing isn’t constrained by design requirements. Typically design has requirements, and as an artist you set your own requirements when it comes to an artwork. You have boundaries and limitations, but you set them - so an artist can be a great explorer of technology. If we look at the history of technology from photography, cinema, through computing and so on - it’s often been the artists that push it forward. I’ve seen examples of artworks created on 1950s computers, and on the whole the only people who had access to those computers were computer programmers, but the artists snuck in there and started experimenting with it.
What opportunities for a career working in digital technologies do you see emerging for the iPad generation?
Sean: I think a really interesting thing over recent years is that it is now possible to be a bedroom programmer and publish stuff that can be downloaded and looked at by millions.
Brian: And some of the apps that I am using were written precisely by such people.
Sean: I remember as a child there were bedroom programmers who released their software on cassette tape, and they could do everything - they wrote the program, did the graphics, put it onto tape and sold it. They did the lot. And we lost that for a while. There was a period of maybe twenty years where any programming job seemed to require a huge team, and you were always like a little cog in a big machine. And then with apps, and things you can exchange over the Internet, you can now do that again. You can become a complete programmer, sell a product, sell an app - and maybe even make some money out of it.
What one key message would you draw from your work on digital skills and digital inclusion?
Brian: The only way that these skills can be passed on is by creating a network of, I hope, mainly blind and partially sighted trainers but with obviously some sighted helpers in there as well. The notion of blind and partially sighted people helping themselves is so good and so rewarding for the people who go out there and do the training. I have to say I’ve had an enormous amount of fun out of it, and I’m sure you have too Sean. It’s enormously rewarding, and I just want to help more and more people to get that same reward.
Sean: Another really important thing is to remind people that whatever their skills are, they’re valuable - it’s not just because you know the latest piece of technology inside out and therefore you have a particularly valuable skill. At the hackspace it’s not just about the latest technology. There are people with knitting machines, there are people who turn up knowing about a piece of kit that hasn’t been sold for thirty years but is still interesting. It’s reminding people that these skills, whatever they are, are valuable skills and you can share them. You don’t have to just be a technologist.
Thanks!
Many thanks to Brian Negus and Sean Clark for all their fascinating and thought provoking contributions. You can find out more about their work by visiting digitalheroes.talktalk.co.uk (don't forget to vote!), or follow #digitalheroes on social media.
Back in February 2013 I wrote Hacking the Chromebook for Fun and Profit, little realising that this would become my all time most popular post in five years of blogging, with over 30,000 page views. Two years later and it's time to come back to this and see what has changed.

In that original post I made the point that while Google's best selling Chromebook family of laptops appears to be a cheap machine that only runs the Chrome browser, it is built on top of Linux, and this means that you are only minutes away from having a fully functional Linux distribution running on your Chromebook using the Crouton tool from Google's David Schneider.

Xiwi - X11 in a window

One of the most impressive things that you can do now with Crouton is run native Linux apps, either in a window of their own, or as a browser tab, using Xiwi. See below for an example - running the GIMP image editor as a browser tab. This is literally as simple as typing "xiwi -t gimp" at the Linux command line, once you have installed the GIMP package:

(precise)martin@localhost:~$ xiwi -t gimp

GIMP in a browser tab, courtesy of Crouton and Xiwi
And if Google's own offline document editing (yes, they do that now!) isn't quite cutting it for you, why not run LibreOffice in a browser tab?

LibreOffice in a browser tab, courtesy of Crouton and Xiwi
So far, so good - but we all know that Linux lags behind Windows and OS X in terms of applications. Wouldn't it be good if there was some other source of apps that we could tap into?

Enter ARC Welder - Android apps on your Chromebook

In March 2013 I wrote about merging ChromeOS and Android, and got as far as hacking Android to start up (very, very slowly!) under the QEMU emulator. But this is far from ideal. Wouldn't it be better if we could just run Android apps alongside Chrome browser windows?

Google's ARC (App Runtime for Chrome) does just this - and not just for Chromebooks, either. It's compatible with OS X, Windows and Linux. To use ARC you need to have the ARC Welder extension installed in Chrome.

Right now it's bit fiddly to install Android apps, as you can see from the screenshots below - and they don't always work. However, it's not hard to picture a time in the near future where Chrome just "magically" runs all the Android apps your Google accounts has access to.

Running the ARC Welder Chrome extension

Choosing an APK to load into ARC Welder

The ARC Welder main screen

Ta-da! Now we have the Android Twitter app running in a window

If you're not familiar with the term "APK", this is an Android package - the actual file that your phone or tablet downloads when you install or update an app. I would recommend sideloading APKs from your existing devices using adb rather than downloading them from the web. There are quite a few APK search engines out there, but not all of them are trustworthy. If you don't have the adb command, you'll need to install the android-tools-adb and possibly android-tools-fastboot packages, as described in this guide to doing Android app development on ChromeOS.

Having run ARC Welder against your APK, it should now be available to Chrome as an extension that you can launch by going to Settings -> More Tools -> Extensions.

Closing thoughts

Installing Crouton and running native "Linux apps" on your Chromebook is probably always going to be one for the geeks and nerds. The sad truth is that even now with Linux's massive success in Internet infrastructure and embedded systems (including the billions of phones and tablets running Android, which is Linux under the hood), desktop applications are still largely languishing. Also, many Chromebooks don't have enough storage for full strength desktop applications that pull in lots of libraries and frameworks - although SD card expansion is often available.

ARC on the other hand I can see just being a standard feature of Chrome. Perhaps the question here is whether to expect ARC (and hence anytime anyplace access to all your Android apps) on all platforms, or perhaps just on ChromeOS, as a unique selling point for Chromebooks? Only time will tell...


If you could change anything in the education system, what would your 'moonshot' be? This was the question asked of 40 educators, edtech innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world who were invited to Google's Moonshot for Education Summit in Amsterdam last week, which I was delighted to be able to attend representing Jisc.

For those unfamiliar with the term 'moonshot', when President Kennedy announced the Apollo programme in 1961 space exploration was just beginning, but by 1969 the first people walked on the surface of the moon - a seemingly unthinkable achievement less than a decade before. Examples of modern day moonshots include driverless cars, personal genomics and personalised medicine, and new materials like graphene. Some of the most innovative of these new technologies are being developed by Google, such as Project Loon, which uses high altitude balloons to provide internet service to rural and hard to reach areas (we've just heard that Google will be connecting the whole of Sri Lanka to the internet using Loon). The video below explains Google's own approach to moonshot thinking:



 As Google chief executive Larry Page stated in a 2013 interview with Wired: "It's not easy coming up with moonshots. Where would I go to school to learn what kind of technological programs I should work on? You'd probably need a pretty broad technical education and some knowledge about organisation and entrepreneurship. There's no degree for that." To which we could add one word: yet.

Moonshots in education

So what do we mean by a moonshot in education? In an era when all of human knowledge is freely available online, and the nature of work is fundamentally changing, we have to ask ourselves how the education system needs to evolve to reflect our new realities. This is particularly important when we look at the tech skills required for the digital economy.

A recent study by Deloitte and the University of Oxford found that "35% of existing jobs in the UK are at high risk from automation over the next two decades, with jobs paying less than £30,000 a year nearly five times more likely to be replaced by automation than jobs paying over £100,000." Meanwhile, the European Commission projects there will be almost a million unfilled tech vacancies across Europe by 2020.

Which brings us to the Moonshot Summit. Our hosts for the summit were Esther Wojcicki and the EdTechTeam. Esther is an award-winning teacher from Palo Alto High School in California, vice chair of Creative Commons, and consultant to Google's Education team. Esther has embraced technology in education as a way of liberating and empowering teachers and pupils, as described in her book Moonshots in Education. Esther's approach to moonshot thinking in education is nicely summed up in this video interview, Educating for the Unforeseen Jobs of the New Economy:

 

What if...?

In a 2013 interview on the TED blog, Jisc Digital Festival keynote speaker Sugata Mitra says: "It's quite fashionable to say the education system is broken. It's not. It's wonderfully constructed - it's just that we don't need it anymore. It's outdated." This was a commonly held view amongst the teachers who attended the Moonshot Summit, and we began the event by exploring the delegates' big ideas for transformative change in education.

Here are just a few of the 'what ifs' to come out of those discussions:
  • What will the iPad generation need and expect from college or university?
  • What if children were grouped by ability rather than their date of birth?
  • What if learning was as addictive as Candy Crush or Flappy Bird?
  • What if we eliminated the constant cycle of assessment?
  • What if my (other?) teacher was a robot, or an algorithm?
And the big one...
  • What if there were no schools?
It was telling for me that educators attending the Moonshot Summit largely felt that whilst a quantum leap was required in education, this was not principally about technology - in many ways the technology we already have is 'good enough', and we are not fully exploiting it. However, there were some examples cited of new technologies that could have a genuinely transformative effect.

While we might not see the anthropomorphic robots of 1950s science fiction gliding around the corridors of our schools and colleges any time soon, apps like MathBingo and DuoLingo's free language learning platform - which now has over 100 million users worldwide, with examples of how it can be used for gamification of learning - show how technology can be used to augment and enhance contact hours in the classroom and lecture theatre.

Four key trends emerged from our initial discussions:
  • Resources and teacher support
  • Innovative assessment
  • Equity and agency
  • Engagement and agency
The first two themes in particular struck a chord (and correlate well with the recommendations of the UK's Education Technology Action Group). Delegates overwhelmingly felt that teachers needed support and encouragement to transform their approach from 'sage on the stage' to more of a mentoring and coaching role.

They also felt that education as a whole should move away from a culture of high stakes summative assessment and 'teaching to the test' to a more incremental approach that recognises and credits students' mastery of their study topics. As things stand, learners are often branded as failures simply because they learn at a different pace to their peers or have different aptitudes.

Ideation

Our facilitators from EdTechTeam then formed groups of like-minded individuals to ideate towards projects around these themes that the participants could take away to work after the Moonshot Summit. We used a 'design sprint' approach for this that would be very familiar to anyone who has participated in Jisc's co-design initiative for new R&D projects.

You can read a detailed description of the Moonshot Summit design sprint in Yoni Dayan's post for LinkedIn Pulse, but I will pull out the main ideas here:
  • Gamifying the curriculum - real problems are generated by institutions or companies, then transformed into playful learning milestones that once attained grant relevant rewards.
  • Dissolving the wall between schools and community by including young people and outsiders such as artists and companies in curriculum design.
  • Creating a platform where students could develop their own learning content and share it, perhaps like a junior edX.
  • Crowdsourcing potential problems and solutions in conjunction with teachers and schools.
  • A new holistic approach to education and assessment, based on knowledge co-construction by peers working together.
  • Creating a global learning community for teachers, blending aspects of the likes of LinkedIn, and the Khan Academy.
  • Extending Google's 20% time concept into the classroom, in particular with curriculum co-creation including students, teachers and the community.
You can also view each of our teams' pitches in the Moonshot Summit 'Space Walk' slide deck.

What's next?

The Moonshot Summit is now over, but as participants we are keen to follow up these discussions and explore which of these ideas can usefully be taken forward. While they were largely conceived of with school age learners and school teachers in mind, there are clear parallels with further and higher education and skills - which I am interested in exploring from a Jisc perspective. You can follow #MoonshotEDU on social media to participate in the global dialogue.

I'd also love to hear your own moonshot ideas - do you agree that education needs a reboot, and do the ideas I've outlined above resonate with you? Will your college or university be ready for the iPad generation? To discuss further, please do get in touch with me or leave a comment below.



At Google's I/O conference developers got a sneak preview of some projects they're working on. For me the most interesting was Project Jacquard, which is all about sewing circuitry into clothing and accessories. Just think, instead of interacting with a tiny touch screen on a phone or a watch, you could your whole jacket sleeve into a control surface or even buy a touch panel 'legwarmer'? And what fascinates me is the use of this type of technology in education.

[This piece originally appeared in Education Technology, June 2015 edition]



Wearable tech for teaching

If you had mentioned wearable computers a couple of years ago, the buzz would have been about Google Glass. If you believed the hype, Glass was all set to become the dominant computing paradigm for the early 21st century. However, it was clear from beta testers' feedback and society's reaction that Glass was not quite ready for prime time. But, Google didn't give up on the idea, Tony Fadell's Team, who famously produced the iPod for Apple, are now continuing development.

There are interesting examples of Google Glass being used in teaching for example, doctors recording surgical procedures for med school training. Originally Glass had built-in support for Hangouts, so your students could not only see what you were doing - through your own eyes, or near enough, but you could also interact with them. It turned out that this was hard to do well given the limited hardware and battery life of the Glass Explorer units, but we will probably see this reappear in Glass 3.0.

I think Glass has promise in a range of industrial scenarios where it is necessary or preferable to keep your hands free. Many of the potential scenarios for Glass at Work are quite relevant to vocational and skills based training, e.g. the mechanic who can call up diagrams and documentation for the car they are working on (hands free) whilst actually carrying out the work.

Similarly it seems to me that Glass could be very helpful for the researcher working in the field - picture a digital archaeologist, like the University of York's Sara Perry, taking pictures on her finds in situ as centuries of dust and dirt is brushed away. In an increasingly connected world wouldn't you like to hang out in real time with archaeologists?

What's next?

However, only a few items of wearable technology have made it out of the labs and into anything like mass circulation. You might be expecting me to mention smartwatches, but actually I would go much further back in time to the invention of glasses and hearing aids. These technologies took a long time to emerge from the labs to reach the ubiquity they now enjoy.

We might look at today's largely disappointing smartwatches and fitness trackers, and think that this is as good as it gets - but the lesson from those early 'wearables' is that it might be decades before they reach their full potential. What we can see, however, is a direction of travel - the guts of a smartphone can now be reduced to something that will fit on your wrist, and other more specialised devices can be shrunk even further. For example Proteus Digital Health's ingestible scanner pill, which allows us to take pictures of the intestine without exploratory surgery.

What is clear is that we can now assume that small connected devices studded with sensors are a given and start to ask ourselves where they might be useful. What objects around the home, office or public spaces could usefully be given an IP address and hooked up to the global internet? How could student use these in the classroom or could they be used to improved international collaboration?

My name is Martin Hamilton, and I work for Jisc in London as its resident futurist, a position I've held for just over a year. EDUCAUSE Review kindly invited me to explain my work and what it entails. I thought a good way of doing this would be by keeping a diary for a week. Read on for a glimpse of my typical schedule and duties.

[This piece originally appeared in EDUCAUSE Review in June 2015]

Thursday, May 14: London

Figure 1. Bloomberg terminal at London City Airport

Today I was in London for a meeting of our horizon-scan group. Later in 2015 and into 2016 we plan to publish a series of reports covering tech trends and new technologies, looking at what Jisc could do to help accelerate (or ameliorate) their impact. Today's was one of a series of meetings to discuss topics to cover and compare notes on progress. Our first horizon-scan report will explore how we can achieve the potential of cloud computing in research and education. We've already had some useful input from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, and conducted a sector-wide survey to help establish where our sector is with cloud. The early draft looks promising, and we'll soon have a version ready to share with a few critical friends for feedback.

After our meeting finished I flew up to Edinburgh - my first trip from London City Airport. The airport's target demographic was instantly clear from the ubiquitous Bloomberg terminals and giant screens showing stock tickers (figure 1), and I felt a little out of place.

On arrival I took my first trip on the Edinburgh trams (figure 2), which opened for business around a year ago. I generally travel within the UK by train, but London to Edinburgh is a journey of around four and a half hours, against an hour and a quarter by plane. I stayed in a budget hotel just off Princes Street, incongruously right above the Edinburgh Apple Store. It had some quite impressive decor and views for an inexpensive hotel (figure 3).


Figure 2. Aboard the Edinburgh tram

Figure 3. Home away from home

Friday, May 15: Edinburgh

I co-chair something called the Project Directors Group (PDG), which brings together the heads of scientific computing from the UK's national e-infrastructure projects and services. This includes representatives from the Francis Crick Institute, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), GridPP (the UK's Tier 1 and 2 sites for the Large Hadron Collider), STFC DiRAC (high-performance computing for particle physics and cosmology), and other major initiatives. We are trying to establish core common technical standards and procedures so that researchers can more readily collaborate across disciplines, share facilities, and avoid reinventing the wheel wherever possible. This should make it easier for new initiatives, such as the recently announced Alan Turing Institute, to get off the ground.

The PDG is busy right now with a number of activities, including work to explore public and hybrid cloud for research, and our annual inventory of high-performance computing and big data facilities and expertise - the National e-Infrastructure (NeI) Survey. The 2014 NeI Survey report informed the Research Councils UK (RCUK) national e-Infrastructure Roadmap. I'm delighted to be presenting the results of the 2015 NeI Survey at a joint UK/US HPC workshop later this summer, organized by the UK's High Performance Computing Special Internet Group (HPC-SIG) and the US Coalition for Academic Scientific Computing (CASC).

Our workshop today at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) specifically targeted the potential transferability of a piece of software that EPCC had developed to manage accounting, reporting, and usage monitoring for the UK's national supercomputer facilities. In an ideal world this would be a "middleware" service that facilities and projects could simply pick up and reuse. Despite many unanswered questions, we saw promising signs from successful reuse of the EPCC software with STFC's Hartree Centre and DiRAC service.

After the workshop I flew back to my home in Loughborough, Leicestershire for the weekend. It provides a convenient base to work from, practically in the dead center of England and close to major road and rail links. It's also just a short drive from Nottingham East Midlands Airport, which has a good range of national and international flights.

Monday May 18: Working from Home

Today I worked from home, catching up and preparing for an internal presentation on potential applications of wearable technologies the following day. I find it invaluable to work from home a day or two a week, as this gives me the time and space to work through ideas undisturbed. It's also great to spend time with my kids, particularly walking, scooting, and cycling with them to and from school.
Figure 4. My daughter's vision of the (Minecraft-based) school of the future
I find it fascinating to think about the world that children like mine are growing up in - the iPad generation are now at school, as I wrote in a recent piece for the Jisc website (see figure 4 for a teaser). What will post-compulsory education look like for the first generation in history that has had open access to the sum total of human knowledge? Will our traditional campus-based models of education seem increasingly irrelevant to someone used to "binge watching" whole TV series over a weekend?

We need to recognise that we now inhabit a world where you can go off and learn all about a subject from open online educational resources (OERs), including material from world-leading institutions like MIT, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. Missing until recently, though, was the ability to be assessed on this self-paced, self-directed learning. With developments such as the UK's FutureLearn partnering with Pearson to assess tests, I think we will start to see that potential alternative education model.

Tuesday, May 19: London

Today I travelled into London to attend our quarterly Digital Futures (R&D) team meeting. We tend to alternate these meetings between Bristol and London, as most of our staff report to one of these two offices. London works very well for me - it's a short bike ride to the train station, then I can generally catch a fast train and do the 113 mile journey in around 75 minutes. In US terms this is comparable to travelling from San Francisco to Monterey. The journey time will drop as the line is electrified over the next couple of years; sadly, there is no Hyperloop on the cards for the UK as yet.

It's increasingly common to have Wi-Fi in trains, buses, and even the Edinburgh trams, and soon it will be free on most public transport. I remember bringing my laptop on the train years ago and feeling like a total nerd; it's fascinating to see how completely this has reversed - anyone not staring at a screen now stands out. We also generally have power outlets on intercity trains, although never enough for all the gadgets. Figures 5 and 6 show lifelogging of my travel.

Figure 5. Lifelogging the cycle ride to Loughborough train station

Figure 6. Lifelogging the train journey to London
Many of our staff travel a lot and hot desk when in the office rather than having a traditional desk or cubicle. It's helpful to gather quarterly for a show and tell session, coupled with briefings on important developments. We recognized a while back that quarterly meetings can't be the only way of sharing knowledge and information, so most weeks we have a stand-up meeting using Blackboard Collaborate. Staff members share their plans for the week and any breaking news that will help others plan their work. The notes from these meetings are e-mailed around as a quick information burst for those people who couldn't attend. We also use collaboration tools like Yammer and Basecamp extensively for internal communication and planning, Jisc's own Vscene conferencing and telepresence tool (based on Vidyo), and social media. I've curated a Twitter list of Digital Futures team members that you might want to follow.

Figure 7. Google wearable tech
At today's meeting I led a session on wearables with my colleague Lawrie Phipps. We talked about research and education applications for the major types of wearable in general circulation (loosely speaking, smart watches and health trackers - e.g. see figure 7), along with emerging technologies such as smart tattoos and implantable or ingestible devices. The Rogers Research Group at the University of Illinois and Proteus Digital Health have some particularly interesting examples in the latter category. It's quite a fascinating exercise to project ahead what jobs will be required in the future, and hence what our institutions should prepare to train people for. Consider that, unless energy harvesting takes off, there might well be significant demand for people to work in areas like "Internet of Things power engineering" - if only to go around replacing batteries in iBeacons and sensor networks. We also spent some time talking about the ethical issues around personal data and where it can end up - Google knows what makes your heart beat faster, as I wrote in a piece for our technology foresight blog.

Wednesday, May 20: London

Figure 8. London St Pancras Station
Today I was back in London for the second of three visits this week. As my meetings didn't start until lunchtime, I was able to take the kids in to school, and then catch a cheaper off-peak train and work en route (on this article, among other things) using the Internet via the train's Wi-Fi service. As soon as I arrived at London St Pancras station (see figure 8), it was time to duck into a coffee shop to talk to one of my colleagues about next steps sharing and processing the results of some of the survey and market research work described above. We often use Skype for these quick chats, but today the technology let us down; luckily we still have mobile phones, for now! At Jisc we increasingly use Tableau software for this sort of stats processing and visualization, and we are working with the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to create a facility whereby institutions can combine public data such as statistical returns with their private institutional data - you could think of this as business intelligence as a service. (Find out more on our Business Intelligence project page.)


Figure 9. Cafe in Covent Garden market
After we finished, I caught the Underground Piccadilly line down to Covent Garden (see figure 9), for the short walk across the Strand to Jisc's London offices at Brettenham House, just next to Waterloo Bridge and Somerset House. This is where most London-based Jisc staff work. We also have an adjoining meeting room suite that is heavily used both for internal meetings and by our stakeholders and partners. My first meeting of the day was a one-to-one session with my boss, Jisc Chief Innovation Officer Phil Richards. Phil and I sit down together or meet online at least once a month to check on progress against my objectives and agree on next steps. This time around we principally discussed the horizon scan and PDG activities I've already described, and followed up on some work that we have done to accelerate equipment sharing between institutions and with industry. This initiative has led to over 10,000 items of publicly funded research equipment worth over £200m being made available for sharing, including some £60m of publicly funded supercomputing facilities and expertise. We have some exciting news in this area that we will share in the coming weeks, but I can't talk about it right now!

Next I met with a venture capitalist and an edtech accelerator based in London. We have been talking to a number of VCs, accelerators, and incubators about how best to take new ideas forward and turn them into products and services. This multifaceted problem includes standards (core Application Programming Interfaces, micro services, and data formats), procedural aspects (e.g. procurement), and also finding ways for institutions to trial new services and solutions that Jisc could potentially underwrite.

Thursday, May 21: London

Figure 10. The Innovate UK "Class of 2015"
Today I was in London for my third visit of the week, attending an Innovate UK event to celebrate the success of its Learning Technologies - Design for Impact program. Innovate UK is a sister organization to Jisc, funded by the UK government to accelerate the translation of R&D into products and services. This is principally done through a competition process, after identifying a gap in the market in a particular area. Last year Innovate UK issued its first call for learning technologies, offering projects seed funding of up to £80K out of a pot of£1.1m. The call was massively oversubscribed, with 297 submissions received and 15 projects selected to receive funding.

All of the successful projects were on hand at a celebratory gathering today to present short explanations of their work (figure 10), with a number of product demos available for visitors to experience (figures 11 and 12). As one might expect with an edtech event, there was a lively conversation both online and offline, of which I captured the highlights using Storify. I also took the opportunity to use Periscope for the first time to stream the product pitches to my followers online - it was interesting to see from Twitter Analytics that my tweets from the event were viewed nearly 9,000 times, which is a lot for a comparatively niche subject area.

Figure 11. Maker Club and Seeper Innovate UK exhibits 

Figure 12. Anarkik3D Innovate UK exhibit
A big thrust of Jisc's work over the last couple of years has been to help institutions understand both what it means to be a digital student in terms of expectations and student experience, and how lecturers can best exploit modern digital technologies in teaching and learning, research, and enterprise. In the UK we are teaching a whole generation coding and computational thinking at school. Today's college students are adept at using the technology, but have only a hazy idea of how it functions. Tomorrow's students will be young digital makers, in the words of a recent Nesta report. I was delighted that Nesta's Oliver Quinlan was able to present at the Innovate UK event - his statistics on young peoples' views and experiences of digital technology were a particular highlight and set the whole day in context for me.

Every year Jisc holds a Summer of Student Innovation competition, which offers further education, higher education (FE and HE), and work-based-learning students the chance to create solutions that could change the education landscape forever. Students submit their ideas for improving the student experience and changing the education landscape. EDUCAUSE Review readers may have come across some of our "graduates" who have achieved international success, such as Call for Participants.

Friday, May 22: Working from Home

Figure 13. Mars holiday poster courtesy of SpaceX (public domain)
After a hectic few days, today I am working from home again and preparing for an invited keynote speech next week at a conference in Warsaw, Poland: Open Research Data - Implications for Science and Society. I'll be looking back from 2030 in an "open science retrospective" on the potential impact of the decisions we are making today around open working practices such as open lab notebooks and sharing research data and software. One of my slightly tongue-in-cheek scenarios is that in 2030 the six sons of Elon Musk become the first humans to set foot on Mars. Musk's SpaceX looks set to transform the sector by making most rocket components reusable, thereby vastly lowering the cost of space travel. Key in this is their current work to successfully land and reuse the first-stage booster rocket. This might ultimately lead to people taking the holiday of a lifetime on Mars, as the fictional travel poster in figure 13 shows.

For me this joining up between public and private is absolutely crucial to our work at Jisc. It is vital that researchers and educators maintain good links to the industries that would employ our students, or build products based on our ideas and inventions. I hope this diary has given you a glimpse of how we are working with these diverse communities to accelerate innovation, and I would be delighted to discuss this further with EDUCAUSE Review readers. Let's go back to Elon Musk for one last observation: It's particularly telling for me that Musk has chosen to freely share a vast bank of patentable ideas and inventions across his activities in the space, energy, and transport sectors. In years to come I think we may come to regard this legitimization of sharing as his greatest legacy. It's time to see what we can do when we all come together around grand challenges like the race for Mars.


The tech everyone wanted to try out at the Jisc Digital Festival this year (digifest15) didn’t cost hundreds of pounds – instead it was an ultra low cost virtual reality headset based on the Google Cardboard design, which you simply slot your Android phone into. Google Cardboard is the successful virtual reality product you might not have heard of – over 500,000 units of Google Cardboard have now been shipped since its launch last year, and there are over 250 Cardboard compatible apps in the Google Play Store.

Google Cardboard came out of a “20% project” by David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, and launched last summer at Google’s IO developer conference. IO attendees are accustomed to receiving gifts of the latest Google hardware like smartphones, tablets or laptops, so you can imagine that being given a piece of cardboard might initially have been something of a disappointment. Here’s how it unfolded, courtesy of TechCrunch’s Greg Kumparak…


Fast forward to early 2015 and Google has quietly turned virtual reality into a paying business by giving away the Cardboard design specs, so anyone can make compatible virtual reality viewers. It also makes software development kits (SDK) freely available for Android and the popular Unity 3D environment. In turn Google makes money from the sale of Cardboard compatible apps through its commission on Play Store sales.

What’s really telling about Cardboard is that it shows you actually already had virtually all the hardware you needed for virtual reality – in your pocket. Perhaps the message here is that the smartphone has already usurped the nascent virtual reality viewer product category, as it absorbed much of the market for digital cameras, music players, maps, books etc. And as the screenshot at the top of the post alludes to, perhaps we are finally approaching the world envisaged by William Gibson in his seminal cyberpunk novels.

Educators and e-learning specialists attending digifest15 told me that they were very excited by Google Cardboard, due to its immediate availability and low cost. What can you see yourself using it for?

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

From anechoic chambers to wind tunnels, mass spectrometers to supercomputers, institutions are increasingly looking to share high value items of research equipment. Martin Hamilton outlines how Jisc is working with a variety of partners to help embed and accelerate asset sharing.

[This piece originally appeared on Efficiency Exchange in February 2015]

In this article I will look at three areas where Jisc, with partners including BIS, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), HEFCE and Innovate UK, is helping to reduce the friction of asset sharing, between institutions and also with industry.

We are doing this by:

  • Working with EPSRC to make the details of more than £200m worth of high value equipment available for sharing between institutions and with industry.
  • Piloting standard terms and conditions for access to £60m of publicly funded supercomputing facilities and expertise.
  • Providing support for industrial connectivity to the Janet network at speeds of up to 10 Gigabits/second for collaborative R&D projects.

Kit-Catalogue - your "one stop shop" for equipment data

Kit-Catalogue is a piece of free software that lets an institution quickly and easily set up its own equipment database, and also provides a data feed of shared items into the EPSRC funded national portal equipment.data.ac.uk.



An example of a typical Kit-Catalogue page from University College London - here showing the one-of-a-kind Lighting Simulator at The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty for the Built Environment.

Jisc and EPSRC originally funded the development of the Kit-Catalogue software, and I am delighted that we are once again working with the Kit-Catalogue team to explore its potential as a Jisc service, including gathering data on running costs and institutional benefits that will help to inform the business case.

With support from HEFCE, we are piloting Kit-Catalogue with ten institutions over a two-year period and also supporting the continued development of the software as part of this initiative.

One particular new development that I am very pleased with is our Kit-Catalogue app, available from the Google Play Store for Android devices.

Two screenshots from the Kit-Catalogue Android app

The output from Kit-Catalogue contributes (along with other data sources) to the national equipment sharing portal, equipment.data, which makes the details of some 10,000 items of high value research equipment available for sharing. With an conservative average value of £20K-£25K per item, then the total value of equipment being shared is at least £200m. Newcastle University alone is sharing more than 814 items of equipment valued at £20K or above, with a combined value of more than £16m.

Frictionless supercomputing - £60m of public investment in HPC

Before joining Jisc, I set up and then ran EPSRC's HPC Midlands regional supercomputing centre of excellence, a collaboration between Loughborough University and the University of Leicester.

During the course of this work it became increasingly apparent that businesses - and also many higher education institutions - were keen to explore a pay-as-you-go model for access to high performance computing and big data facilities, but required formal contractual assurances around service provision. Information security and protection of intellectual property was a key concern. For example, HPC Midlands industrial users required that we destroy any failed disk drives rather than returning to the vendor for replacement.


To address these requirements, we worked with Rolls Royce to develop a standardised contract and pro forma covering data security and information assurance, aligned with ISO 27001 standards. I brought this with me to Jisc and with support from HEFCE we subsequently reached agreement with HPC Midlands, HPC Wales, N8 HPC and STFC DiRAC that they would offer their services under this basis. This landmark agreement opens up £60m of publicly funding supercomputing facilities for institutions and industry to access as shared services. I hope that we will be able to extend this approach to other classes of equipment, building on both this work and the Brunswick Agreements.

Here is a powerful example from HPC Midlands customers E.ON of the potential that industry access to academic facilities and expertise can have:

"We ran the gas turbine simulation with a number of different parameter sets and observed speed-ups of between 30 and 145 times the performance of the in-house system based on workstation class PC" - Lionel Mazzella, E.ON New Build & Technology


Gas turbine simulation, CC BY-NC-SA E.ON UK Plc

Janet Reach - ultrafast connectivity to the Janet network for industry

Most of today's research equipment is data intensive, none more so than supercomputing and big data applications. Back in my days of running a supercomputer centre it was not unusual for customers to bring their data over on a hard drive, because connectivity was poor or non-existent between industry and the research and education sector. Whilst this worked well for local firms, and provided a useful opportunity to catch up over a coffee, there was clearly no way that this approach could scale.

In parallel, Jisc has received £4m as part of a package of e-Infrastructure funding from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to support greater interaction between businesses and academia in the e-Infrastructure environment. One component of this is a scheme, Janet Reach, to support high-capacity business connections to the Janet Network in the context of innovative R&D collaboration with academic partners to exploit the e-Infrastructure resources they host and manage.

This is another area where I believe that we can act together to give today's data-driven businesses a significant leap forward in capability. Just think what a high-capacity connection at up to 10 Gigabits/second to Janet could do to accelerate your R&D collaborations.

Details of the first awards under Janet reach will be made available shortly, but from what I am hearing, I think we will see a good spread of connections from startups and micro-SMEs to major UK firms.

The Janet Reach scheme runs until August 2015 as a series of calls modelled on the Innovate UK competition process. The latest call for proposals deadline is 28th February 2015 - we'd love to hear from you.

Find out more

Jisc's Kit-Catalogue pilot and frictionless supercomputing initiative are part of our R&D programme. Martin Hamilton will also be appearing at University UK's annual Efficiency Conference on 25 March in a workshop on equipment sharing.

To learn more about the Reach scheme and industrial connectivity to Janet more broadly, please see the Janet Reach homepage.