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Aleks Krotoski, Cory Doctorow, Tim O'Shea and more: IT Futures on Disruption

I'm beginning to wind down for the xmas break - just the Student Systems Board tomorrow, a meeting of the Applications Architecture Governance Group, a review of the first phase of development for the new university web site, then a xmas curry with the web site team on Friday, and that will be me off for a couple of weeks.  But before I finish, I want to record some thoughts about our IT Futures conference for 2013, which was held last week.

We started planning this in January, when we were thinking about ideas for a theme and potential speakers.  I had the idea of inviting a science-fiction writer to give an outsider's view of what higher education might look like in the future.  This was tossed around a bit and Jen Ross suggested Cory Doctorow.  Meanwhile, the theme of "disruption" rose to the surface.  We put the two together and a potential agenda began to take shape.

The next step was to add a less technical and more people-oriented take on "disruption"…

An Aha moment: Tests and the importance of computer science education

On Wednesday evening, I had an “Aha!” moment when listening to Steve Freeman talk about Test-Driven Development: That’s not what we meant at the local branch of the BCS.   Apparently there has been a bit of backlash against TDD recently, with people complaining that their test suites are so big and fragile that they take more effort to maintain than the actual code does. Steve was explaining his approach to writing tests and how to avoid these pitfalls.

As part of his presentation, he advocated that tests should be written for interfaces not implementations, and in fact for protocols rather than interfaces.  He contrasted an example of good practice, using a combination of externally visible methods to test behaviour, with a poor example that used a backdoor to twiddle internal state.  He remarked that it was only when he started to write these sort of tests that he finally understood the oft-repeated mantra that logical models should be separated from the implementation.

This was my …

Poker, cake, and an agile survey.

I just passed a group of developers and project managers playing poker in the kitchen, surrounding by plates of cake.  This made me happy.

The "poker" was planning poker - a technique for estimating user stories in agile projects.  The players simultaneously choose values for how much work they think a user story will take.  This approach ensures that everyone gets a say, without one person having to go first and possibly influence the estimate more than they should.

The cake was real cake.  Some of our enterprising project managers are running a home-bake stall to raise money for Children in Need.  Everyone looks well-fed today.

What I was actually going to write about today was the survey that we organised over the summeron the uptake of agile software development and agile techniques in Higher Education across the UK, America and Canada.  We posted the invitation on the UCISA PCMG mailing list and the EDUCAUSE Project mailing list in and were delighted to received fee…

Darwin, finches and poker chips - an agile journey

Bill Lee and Dawn Nicholls gave a very successful presentation about our experience with Agile project methods at this year's EDUCAUSE conference in California.  You can see their slides at the link below.

Darwin... slides

Bill tells me that he knew the session was going well when everyone in the audience closed their laptops and put away their mobile phones.  These days, thereare visible signs that your audience is paying attention!  Dawn and Bill had worked very hard preparing their joint presentation.  It took more effort working together than a one-person presentation would have done, but it produced a better show.

This was the first time we have presented a session at the prestigious EDUCAUSE conference.  Members of IS have attended the conference for several years and we believe that the University of Edinburgh is "up there" with the world's best - ahead in some areas, lagging in others.  So this year we decided to submit some proposals for presentations.  In fa…

Growing and changing

I have reorganised Development Services for the new academic year.  Instead of two large teams, one for software development and one for software configuration, we now have five software teams aligned with the main administrative units of the University.  We have also taken on new staff: six new people joined Development Services this month and we have three more on the way.

This is not change for the sake of it, although I do believe in moving people around occasionally.  For one thing, the old structure was becoming too unwieldy, particularly in the student & academic area where we had one dedicated sub-team sharing a manager with the more general configuration team.  To grow the section, we needed more teams and more team leaders.

Another reason for change was to create teams that work closely with particular partners.  The idea is to simplify the scheduling of projects throughout the year, with the team leader and programme leader working together to schedule a steady stream o…

Patterns for service-oriented IT

Last week we attended a workshop that brought together people from universities across the UK who are working on various forms of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) to underpin their business IT.  The workshop was organised by Nikki Rogers at the University of Bristol.  Bristol have the the foresight to employ Nikki as a full-time enterprise architect, which they should be congratulated on.  Nikki has written an excellent report of the workshop on her blog.  (Her blog is worth subscribing to, by the way).

What struck me about the day was the variety of architectural patterns that people were pursuing under the general heading of SOA.  This echoed our own situation at Edinburgh, where we have got some traction for the basic ideas of service-orientation and now have to articulate our vision for the next steps. 

Cardiff University, for example, are basically implementing a real-time data warehouse, with web services making the data available to downstream systems.  The data warehouse i…

Small fire, no-one dead

As we attempt to provide round-the-clock IT services without employing out-of-hours staff, our worst nightmare for an "incident" is one that would affect the whole machine room, starting after everyone has left work on a Friday evening, with the whole weekend until normal work resumes on Monday morning.  It would be even worse if this were to occur just before the start of a new academic year.

So guess what happened last weekend?

One of the power supplies in our main machine room caught fire as a result of an electrical fault.  Although the fire was quickly contained, the emergency services shut off all power to the machine room as a precaution.  Several of our major services became unavailable and staff had to be called in over the weekend to fix everything.

The good news was that those  services that are designed to automatically fail-over to the backup machine room did so. Also, the support team had all our top priority services back up by six o'clock on the Saturday.…

The UoE Research Data Initiative

I've been asked about the University's Research Data Initiative and what effect it will have on the work of Applications Division. I'm not actually involved with the initiative but I do know some of the background, so in this post I will attempt to explain briefly what research data is about in general and why it is important, then give a few links about the University's initiative.

The root of all this is the computers and networking are introducing new ways for to academics to undertake and share their research.Sensors, microscopes, telescopes, particle accelerators, satellites, social media, audio and video can all produce vast amounts of data that can be of interest to researchers. We can store, search and analyse petabytes of data, and make data available for others to share.

For example, astronomers are collecting "sky surveys" - images of the entire sky, in various wavelengths (radio, Xray, visual, infra-red, ...), matching the objects between these …

Our Unidesk shared service

I'm pleased to see that UCISA's Executive Secretary has written a blog post about the Unidesk shared service for service management.  This was set up by the universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Abertay, who were joined last year by Sheffield Hallam.  Unidesk currently provides facilities for incident reporting and handling (i.e. service calls), enhancement request, and for managing change & release.  The next development of the service will add a configuration management database.

I am impressed that Peter managed to write his blog post without once mentioning the ITIL framework for service management.  From our point of view, the entire aim of the Unidesk project was to provide a comprehensive service for the ITIL set of practices.  Peter is more interested in how the shared service was set up and managed.

Unidesk has been a great success for us.  It hasn't always been plain sailing behind the scenes, as you would expect with any complex IT installation.  Back a…

Artistic and computational thinking

On the rare occasions when we computer folk get to collaborate with artists, I'm always fascinated by the different ways we approach design.  I first noticed this back when I was working for the National e-Science Centre and an art project used our video conferencing system for a live performance project.   During the performance the video system started to glitch.  Instead of stopping and fixing the problem, the musicians and dancers started to incorporate the glitch into the work.  That was neat.

More recently, some of my colleagues have worked with artists on a couple of web applications.  These collaborations have exposed wide differences in the ways people think.  For one project, we did our usual approach of producing wire-frame outlines of the user interface, with the aim of letting sample users step through a draft design.  To our surprise, the users couldn't handle this sort of abstraction.   They needed to see a completed graphic design - to see the full picture in t…

EDUCAUSE presentations

I am delighted that Applications Division will be giving two presentations at this year's EDUCAUSE conference in California.  Traditionally we have found it hard to get proposals accepted, so it is good to have this opportunity to be recognised internationally for the quality of our work.


The two talks will be:

"Darwin, Finches and poker chips - an Agile journey", by Dawn Nicholls and Bill Lee"From Black Hole to Gold Mine - Adding Analytics to the University Portal", by Martin Morrey I've been closely involved with our adoption of Agile methods.  Dawn and Bill will be presenting what we have learned, especially regarding techniques for engaging users in the project prioritisation procedures.  They are aiming to use Agile techniques in the session itself, giving delegates the chance to vote on which topics to discuss most.

Martin has done great work on making information available about which tools our students and staff actually use.  As this is service …

On Technical Debt

I first came across the notion of "technical debt" in a web article about Agile development methods. The phrase instantly struck me as a pithy summary of all the problems that IT people experience with poor quality code that is rushed out to meet deadlines, code that will cause problems down the line.  We know the problems are there, waiting to hurt us, while our business partners tend to be oblivious to them.

So I was attracted by a local BCS Event on the topic.  I went along this evening to hear Ali Law lead an interesting and wide-ranging discussion.  Ali gave me a lot to consider.  I've always thought of technical debt in terms of maintainability, i.e. of code becoming harder to adapt as it becomes twisted out of shape.  Tonight's discussion suggested that technical debt could include defects, redundant functionality, mismatch with a changing environment, and complexity (of requirements, of design, of code...), as well as maintainability and supportability.  It d…

Summer of student innovation

JISC have announced a programme to fund student projects over the summer.  They're calling it the Summer of Student Innovation and they are looking for projects that will use technology to improve student life  Students can pitch their ideas on the web site and the selected projects will get £5,000 to transfer the ideas into prototypes.

This seems a neat idea and we have an example at Edinburgh of how this can work.  Last summer, two students from the School of Maths built a web application to help students choose the course modules most appropriate to them, taking into account their results in the previous year as well as their interests.  We are funding them for a year to develop this into a fully supported university system.

It will be interesting to see what results are produced by the new JISC initiative.

http://elevator.jisc.ac.uk/

Reforming government technology: resources for CTOs

A post by Jerry Fishenden has pointed me to the blog of the UK Government's Chief Technology Officer, Liam Maxwell, in which he describes the latest stage in the government's rebalancing or reform of its IT.  They have taken a significant shift away from incompatible vendor-dominated services, instead adopting cloud-based infrastructure, shared back-office services, common platforms, and open standards.  They intend to allow small, nimble vendors to fill particular niches, in a culture that is open to change.  This is a massive change and very welcome.

In this latest iteration, they have released a set of guidance documents for CTO's.   This is worth reading - I particularly like the section on technology architecture

Also this week, Chris Sexton of Sheffield Uni blogged about the Eduserv conference, which had an opening keynote about the same topic.

It occurs to me that these documents are also useful for CTOs to share with their non-technical colleagues, to help expla…

Rounders in the park

Yesterday evening a group of us assembled on the Meadows and proceeded to play rounders for 90 minutes.  We were a mixture of people from Applications Division and from the University Web Site team, all involved to some extent in our investigation of the Drupal CMS.  As we work in different buildings, some 15 minutes walk apart, we rarely all congregate and our project manager decided that a social event was in order.  As we all turned down his offer of golf, rounders was the preferred option.

I've been to many team social events in my life but I don't think I've played rounders since I was at school.  It was fun.  After 90 minutes, several of us were beginning to ache and we gladly retired to a nearby restaurant.  My legs still ache today.

What does this achieve, from a work point of view?  Well, at the most basic, it help to puts faces to names.  More than that, it helps us to work together, because we've played together.  We learnt a bit about each other, which mak…

Away Day: Service Management

Every four months, our Division's management team have an Away Day, a chance to concentrate on particular aspects of our work without the distractions of our day-to-day responsibilities.  We don't go very far, just to a meeting room in the University's Salisbury Green hotel, right next to Arthur's Seat, but it is away from our respective desks.

Yesterday we focused on the three year strategy for our own services, the ones run by our Service Management section.  These include the university portal, the web hosting service, the lecture capture service, the VLEs and other technology-enhanced learning tools, the ID management system, the electronic voting system, and others.  The three team leaders from the section presented their plans clearly and their presentations triggered lots of discussion.  We reviewed their plans for making services even easier to use from smartphones and tablets, adding functionality without duplicating effort, and integrating services so that us…

"Just enough" Enterprise Architecture

I spent an informative and enjoyable day with a proto-community of people pursuing Enterprise Architecture in UK Higher Education.  Many of the participants had been previously involved in JISC projects and have enjoyed similar events in the past, so I began the day as a bit of an outsider.  In the University of Edinburgh, our progress in adopting "architectures" is mainly on the IT side, via our Applications Architecture and our use of Service-Oriented Architecture.  Enterprise Architecture would integrate all this IT activity with the business processes and goals of the University (or what I sometimes call the administrative processes, for those readers who are unhappy with calling a university a "business").

I've tended to be a little sceptical of fully-fledged enterprise architecture (EA) because it sounds like a mammoth undertaking and the organisations doing it have often been very large corporations.  The two main outcomes of the JISC experiences are tha…

Can April Fool jokes be a predictor of technology adoption?

Brian Kelly has written a clever post about a couple of April Fool jokes that were published by the mainstream media this year.  Apparently the Times Higher Education supplement suggested that social media use will be included in the determination of university rankings.  Like Brian, I wonder whether this might come to pass sooner than the THES writer seems to think.  I'm pretty sure a Facebook presence is an important recruitment tool.  We use Twitter for emergency alerts.  Our graduation ceremonies are streamed live and on Second Life so that our distance education students can take part.  And my perception is that some universities are doing more than us.

Who's the fool now?


Blogging, interrupted

I regret that I haven't been able to blog this month.  This isn't for a lack of suitable topics.  It's because I've taken on some extra work to cover for someone who is in turn covering for someone who is leaving. while at the same time negotiating with several people to plan for how to replace that person.  All this has been both complicated and time-consuming, and this blog is one of the things that I've had to drop for a while.

Right now, I'm about to head for somewhere warm for a week with the family.  I plan to be incommunicado and forget about work for a few days!

Enhancing Student Support

I had a couple of illuminating meetings with Prof Ian Pirie, who is leading a university-wide project to improve how we support students and help them take more control of their learning within the university.  Ian has a bold and wide-ranging plan, of which the Personal Tutors system that we implemented over the summer is just the beginning.  He has been working with sample groups of up to 100 students, of all subjects, years and backgrounds, to find what works for them and where the university falls short.  Key to the project will be improving feedback, while other elements will include giving them a "one-stop shop" for inquiries and giving them better information about their course options.  Existing initiatives such as the Personalised Timetabling project also form part of the vision.

To date, I've been somewhat on the periphery of this, although some of my staff have implemented the IT systems.  So I found it really helpful to learn how the work we have done so far w…

Four Principles to Succeed at SOA (jdubray)

We are still near the beginning of our journey into a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) although the pace is growing.  This is why I find succinct blog posts from others about their SOA experience to be very helpful.   An example is this one from jdubray.

I particularly like his observation about reuse.  He suggests that you won't implement an interface now that accurately guesses what everybody else will want in three years' time.  Instead, people who use the interface now will benefit from the changes and improvements that are made in newer versions over the next three years.

New office plans

We have a date for our move to new offices.  On April 18th, most of Applications Division will be moving from Old College to two refurbished floors above the Moray House Library, between Holyrood House and the Royal Mile.  The new space will be better equipped than our rather dated offices and will even include a staff room where people can eat their lunch, a luxury that we currently lack.

The planning has reached an advanced stage.  Last week we reviewed the specs for the audio-visual kit.  Our new meeting rooms will have wall-mounted display screens, which will make a pleasant change from having to book and set up our portable data projector.  We will also be able to use the displays to join video conferencing calls using Collaborate or Skype.

In addition, we will have wall-mounted displays in some of the team areas.  In Development Services, we will use these to show live database and system monitoring, which will help us visualise the behaviour of our servers.  We will also displa…

Applications Architecture

For a change, I had a week with very few meetings, which allowed me to progress some of the items on my long list of outstanding actions.  One of the things I spent some time on was the reorganisation of our Applications Architecture wiki pages, which have been ably improved over recent weeks by   Richard Good.

This work has had rather a long gestation and remains a work in progress but we have reached the stage where we have circulated the link and asked our colleagues for feedback on the formats.   At the current time we are particularly looking to confirm the format for the Data and Service Registry, and for the list of External Standards.

We have simplified the top level page, which now links to the following sub-pages:
Introduction: What is an “Applications Architecture”, and information about the Governance Group.Principles and Patterns: The core principles of the group and “patterns” of how interfaces should be designed.Data and Service Registry:  In some sense the core of the …

Users telling stories

It seems simple enough.  The project sponsor tells the business analyst what they want; the business analyst structures these requirements and documents them; the systems analyst translates this into a technical design; the developer implements the design; everyone checks it and then it goes into production.  Only everyone knows its not that simple.

The idea of a "User Story" seems simple too.  The project team, which includes someone from the business unit, identify a feature that someone will need in the system.  They write it in a simple format: "As a , I want , so that I get .  They agree how they will know when the feature is implemented satisfactorily.  They give an estimate as to how long it will take, decide its priority, and if the priority is high enough then they implement it.

This idea of user stories originated in Agile project methods and have several advantages over more traditional techniques for gathering requirements.  They are written in the language …

Office 365 for students

On Monday, undergraduate and taught postgraduate students returning for the new semester were greeted with a new e-mail service.  Using Microsoft's cloud-based system, Office 365, this new service gives students a modern web interface and a maximum mailbox size of 25GB each.

The service also provides a new student e-diary. In due course, this will become an important source of information, as further projects will automatically populate students' diaries with personalised timetables and other key appointments. 

In addition, students also have access to web versions of Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Excel and OneNote; and space to create a personal web site. These are currently not explicitly supported by IS; we are simply giving students access to this functionality for them to use if they wish.

A lot of work went into this move.  Last semester we moved research postgraduate students onto the staff e-mail systems, as feedback from the schools showed that this was the option prefe…

Drupal for the Enterprise

For the past few months we have been investigating whether Drupal might be a suitable CMS for our university's web presence.  Several people in the university already use Drupal for smaller sites and we use it ourselves in that way.  It is popular and highly flexible.  It has been used for a number of highly visible sites around the world and so would likely handle the number of page hits that our central web site receives.

The big question for us was whether the large number of modules that are available for Drupal could be managed in a consistent way across our large, devolved, institution.  The university has over 500 people who can edit some part or other of our central web site and we need mechanisms for managing this access.  We want to be able to share information between different parts of this distributed information architecture, a requirement that is very different from running a more centralised operation. 

Meanwhile, Drupal modules are written and maintained by a larg…