#lncneu meets #jiscLinkU

JISC recently announced a funding call for projects that wish to apply the Linking You Toolkit. The intention is that up to ten institutions are funded to build on and implement the Toolkit, with support from the original Linking You project at the University of Lincoln. As the support project, we too have to propose to JISC a plan of what we will do and how we will contribute to the programme of funded projects. I thought that other people writing bids for this call might be interested to know what they can expect from us, should they be funded.

Below is the relevant bit of our submission to JISC. What it means in practice is that we identify ways we can support you; that we respond to your feedback on the Toolkit itself, in effect developing it as a collaborative effort; that we extend our own research in this area to the benefit of the programme (and the sector); and that we build the necessary tools to allow you to implement an agreed data model that is common across all funded projects.


Phase Two of the Linking You project will build on our initial efforts to examine the use and role of identifiers on HEI’s websites. We will respond to recent peer-review of our project ‘toolkit’, expand our initial comparison of university websites and develop tools to help institutions undertake the recommendations we made. Furthermore, we will support other institutions that wish to undertake an assessment of their own use of identifiers and work with them to develop and implement the toolkit. The ultimate objective is to work with other HEIs in implementing an agreed data model for HEI websites that is easy to implement and widely used across the sector, adding value to university websites and improving access to information for website users.

Use Cases

The Linking You project produced a toolkit for HEI Web Managers to encourage them to re-consider their use of identifiers as well as offer an abstracted data model that could improve the SEO and user experience of their site, as well as working towards a basic, common data model for the UK HE sector. The web is now fundamental to the activity and idea the university. The Toolkit provides a standard way for users to think about their institutional URI structure, making it easier for people (and their browsers) to both remember HEI web addresses and locate where they are in the web site. It also helps prepare institutions for the world of linked data by proposing a clear and concise model for university website data, making smooth integration with other systems easier and faster. A good URI structure can be easily understood by both humans and machines.

Although URIs are increasingly being obfuscated by developments in browser design, they are also increasingly being integrated into browser search functionality such that the benefits of providing clear, plain language URIs has never been greater. As well as providing subtle benefits to website visitors (and your SEO), technical staff working in universities should benefit from a consistent approach to URIs so that it is significantly easier for them to manage the relationships between resources, as well as making it simpler to produce documentation which refers to URIs that make sense. Alongside this, universities will be able to implement an efficient method of redirecting users to their intended destination when a resource has moved.

By developing our Toolkit further in collaboration with a number of HEIs, and responding to their feedback, we expect to further refine and expand upon our initial project outputs and demonstrate the value of our approach to the sector by developing a critical mass of users.

Overall Aims and Objectives

Institutions will benefit from thinking about a logical and human readable URI addressing system for online services. By working with the toolkit and the proposed extensions to our original work, they should experience:

  • Better IT systems integration.
  • Improved navigation of virtual spaces.
  • Appropriate conventions for differing technology platforms i.e. mobile/desktop devices.
  • Future proofing against non-sustainable URI management practices.
  • Ability to ‘design with data’
  • Improve discoverability of resources (and SEO)

Final Project Products

  • An improved toolkit including an agreed data model and complete comparison of HEI websites
  • Mapping tools for Web Masters to apply the toolkit model to their websites
  • A demonstrator aggregation application
  • A peer-reviewed journal paper on the use of identifiers in the HEI sector

Aims, Objectives and Final Outputs of the project

Ready! Steady! Go!! Linking You is now up and running. This and the next few posts constitute our project plan and is meant to be an updated, easy to read version of our original project bid. Here, I’d like to introduce you to our objectives for this project and make clear what we intend to do over the next four months.

Like most other HEIs, Lincoln’s web presence has grown ‘organically’ over the years, using a range of authoring and content management technologies to satisfy long-term business requirements while meeting the short-term demands of staff and students. We recognise the value of our .ac.uk domain as an integral part of our ‘Learning Landscape’ and, building on recent innovations in our Online Services Team, intend to re-evaluate the overall underlying architecture of our websites with a range of stakeholders and engage with others in the sector around the structure, persistence and use of the open data we publish on the web. Some preliminary work has already been undertaken in this area and we intend to use this opportunity to consolidate what we’ve learned as well as inform our own work through a series of wider consultations and engagement with the JISC community.

The context

The University of Lincoln recently led the HEFCE-funded Learning Landscapes project which looked closely at the design and use of space for research, teaching and learning across several universities, including our own. An outcome of that project was the design of a tool to help investigate the spatial criteria that are encompassed in three fundamental qualities of good design. These are efficiency, effectiveness and expression. The project clearly recognised the role of technology in creating an ‘edgeless university‘ and the use of the web as integral to the learning landscape of the university. Just as the physical space can benefit from a re-evaluation of its efficiency, effectiveness and expression, so can the virtual space and in doing so, we think that the structure, persistence and openness of our online domain should be valued in a similar way to our physical assets.

More recently, we have attempted to address our virtual learning landscape through investigations into more effective and efficient use of space-time data. In the JISC-funded Total ReCal project, we are exposing space-time data in an open, standardised format that can then be queried and aggregated by a student-centred calendaring service. In Total ReCal, each event is given a unique, arbitrary, non-repeatable identifier which serves to identify the event in the future regardless of any changes to the underlying data architecture. In the Jerome project, we are also assigning similar identifiers to every unique work and copy of a work, allowing those resources to be reliably referenced.

We recognise that identifiers and URI structure play a role in expressing a well-designed, efficient and effective learning landscape. Well constructed, they can act as navigational and spatial signs to users, as can be seen from the syntax used on our WordPress CMS: e.g. http://totalrecal.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2010/10/18/how-we-make-things-faster/ Through the use of well-constructed URIs, a mental image of the virtual space can be easily built, allowing students and staff (and developers!) to understand and use their learning landscape more easily and effectively.

The problem(s)

However, not all of our existing web pages use such ‘cool URIs‘ and we are now having to cope with around 600 sub-domains using a variety of URI syntaxes. There is currently no policy on the management of domains, only an ad hoc agreement between departments. Many sub-domains are misnamed or occupy valuable name spaces. Clearly, resources at the sub-domain and domain level need to be administered at an institutional level under a recognised system of governance. As technology advances, platforms and addressing systems are becoming ever more numerous and complex. Operational management of URIs, identifiers and associated addressing systems has proved very difficult without an authorised institutional mapping system. Ideally, this mapping system should conform to agreed rules which will benefit core practices and users.

Currently, we have a number of publishing systems. For example, our corporate pages are still managed ad-hoc using FrontPage, we use Sharepoint for our Portal, we have an EPrints research repository, a Multi-Site installation of WordPress (with over 300 sites), a Mahara e-Portfolio system and our HIP Library catalogue. We also have our own URI shortening service at http://lncn.eu. Each of these systems uses its own URI syntax, which while generally consistent within the service, are very dissimilar when taking the institution as a whole.

When a department changes its name or moves to another faculty, traffic from the root of the old site is redirected to the new root on the server. When pages move or change they are redirected using META tags. However, this is only where it is deemed essential. Otherwise there would be too many to manage. A redirect system is in place, so that clicking a course on the UCAS site, or typing the UCAS code after our main URI, will send the visitor to the course page. i.e. http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/B343 goes to BSc (Hons) Acupuncture. Furthermore, we own a number of unique domains, such as http://undergraduatelincoln.com and http://studyatlincoln.com

Such is the extent of the problem. Clearly this ad hoc approach is neither desirable nor sustainable and is increasingly at odds with more recent work to provide personalised access to our online services through open APIs (Total ReCal & Jerome) and the benefits we have seen from our work on JISCPress. (The JISCPress project allowed us to evaluate WordPress as a source of structured open data and its integration with third-party services such as Talis platform and Open Calais). We are currently preparing to undertake a full review of our institutional web sites and the work for Linking You will help us raise awareness about the value of our identifiers and developing a persistent data model.

We feel strongly that by considering this project on identifiers within the context of the university’s leadership and experience of learning landscapes in higher education, we are able to offer an innovative and broadly informed approach to thinking about spatiality and the role of identifiers in the research, teaching and learning culture of higher education. We are aware of the existing work done in this area within the university sector, as well as discussions elsewhere ((i.e. http://patterns.dataincubator.org/book/shared-keys.html & http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radiolabs/2008/06/the_simple_joys_of_webscale_id.shtml & http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radiolabs/2009/01/how_we_make_websites.shtml)) and will ensure that our work is informed by current best practice.

What will we actually deliver over the next four months?

  1. A ‘blue sky’ technical consultation on the use of virtual space and the role of identifiers, based on what we now know.
  2. A data model based on the outcome of this consultation. This is a technical representation of our ideal, future virtual learning landscape.
  3. A poster-sized visual representation of this data model for use in consultations with a wider range of stakeholders. ‘The role of identifiers in the Learning Landscape.’ This should make sense of identifiers to non-technical staff and students.
  4. A prototype of the agreed data model, including an explicit URI syntax and persistent structured data outputs, with use case examples. We’re not sure if this is going to be a real prototype website or a series of diagrams/models.
  5. Use case scenarios, including comparative studies of two other HEIs and documentation on the use and re-use of Lincoln’s data. For us, this is the business case for why we move forward after the project.
  6. Participation in a relevant workshop/conference so that we can talk face-to-face with other institutions about what we’ve learned.

That’s it for our introduction. Now on to a post about the benefits of undertaking this project.