Shadowbox zero

February 10, 2014

The other day a friend asked whether the amount of email she was getting was “normal”, and I realised I didn’t even know how it compared to my own inbox; so I had a look at how much email my work account had received over the longish weekend, from the end of Thursday (I don’t work on Fridays) to Sunday night. There were 130 emails, as follows:

  • 28 spam and bounce messages caused by spam
  • 46 automated alerts, reminders etc.
  • 37 mailing-list emails (of which 27 could be deleted with barely a glance)
  • 8 work-related emails not relevant to me
  • 6 work-related emails relevant to me (sent to the team/group, not requiring action from me)
  • 4 work-admin-related emails relevant to me (e.g. about fire alarms, wet paint, fridges etc)
  • 1 solitary email actually sent to me by another human being about the work I’m actually doing at the moment

It took me about 20 minutes to go through these and delete or file stuff (considerably longer than it usually would because I was also trying to categorise them for this blog post).

Let’s have a look at those categories in more detail:

  1. Spam. My University email address doesn’t actually get much spam (though it’s been increasing recently); most of the spam I get is actually sent to role addresses which go to RT queues which I’m watching. So I get a notification of the ticket created by the spam; RT then sends an automated holding reply to the sender; and if this bounces (as it often does) then I also get a notification of the bounce from RT. These are easy to delete in email (much slower to delete in RT, but I’ve more or less given up doing that because we’re phasing it out and won’t be migrating).
  2. Automated reminders. This includes: the output of cron jobs (some also via RT); notifications along the lines of ‘someone edited this page on the wiki/added this file on Sharepoint/etc'; how many views a web page got this week; people who followed my work twitter account; and so on. Most can be deleted with barely a glance.
  3. Mailing lists, irrelevant. I’m on lots of work-related mailing lists, and because ‘IT’ and ‘web development’ are fairly broad churches there are loads of threads which are irrelevant to me; I know without reading the email that threads with subjects like ‘Socket 1155 parts’, ‘Windows Server 2012 – Terminal server’, ‘Dell COA stickers’ etc are not of use or interest to me or my work. Also, most of these mailing lists have regular ‘social’ posts reminding me about regular meetups in the evenings and on Fridays, neither of which I can go to (though I’m sort of vaguely cheered by the fact that they keep on happening without me, as it helps to reassure me that I might be able to pick up ‘adult social life’ again where I left off when my daughter’s old enough to put up with a babysitter or be left alone).
  4. Mailing lists, sort-of-relevant. Then there’s the mailing list emails which are sort of relevant, sort of interesting. The posts about new technologies that it’s useful to stay vaguely aware of; the job vacancies (always interesting to see what’s going, what skills are being asked for, how they’re being advertised); the ‘do you have 5 minutes to test our new site on your iPhone’ requests; the ‘if you do web dev in HE we’d like you to fill in our survey’ requests… a million and one things on the periphery of my job, things I would want to do if I had the time, and none of them take very long, so it’s hard to delete them without a thought. (This zone of sort-of-relevance has broadened enormously since I started working in the area of Research Data Management, because it’s a vast sprawling field which seems to be proliferating technologies and verbiage and indescribable processes as if someone had crossed Professor Branestawm with H. P. Lovecraft. On speed.)
  5. Mailing lists, relevant. I do actually sometimes get useful and interesting stuff from the mailing lists I’m on (honest!): updates and information about software and services that I actually use; discussions about technologies and policies and workarounds; and the occasional bit of nerdy fun and humour.
  6. Work-related emails, irrelevant and relevant. Because our team shares an RT queue (actually 2 and a half RT queues for historical reasons, but let’s not go there) I get lots of emails about projects which members of my team (& closely related teams) are working on. It’s really useful to see this stuff out of the corner of my eye so I don’t miss those important “wait, we’re both working on the same thing here, can we join forces on this” connections, but I don’t need to read it all (especially since the way we use RT — ‘badly’, you might say — means that I also get copied on the emails where people are arranging dates/times for meetings about these projects). Also, because everybody knows I’m a watcher on these queues, occasionally there is a comment that’s addressed to me, or that I can help out with (e.g. on projects I have worked on in the past), so I keep half an eye out for that sort of thing.
  7. Work admin emails. These go to mailing lists so the irrelevant ones (about buildings I don’t work in, fridges I don’t use, mugs which are not mine, car lights left on, etc) already got deleted in category 2. The relevant ones tend to be things like changes to policies for sickness/holiday, information about fire drills in buildings I do work in, etc. (I should mention that I’m on a one-year secondment from a department which has two main locations into a job where I have two desks I can work at, so theoretically I could get relevant information about two different sets of HR policies and four different buildings. That’s a lot of fridges and fire drills and forms.)
  8. Actual email to me. Sent to me as a human being by another human being. This one actually turned out not to be very relevant or useful.

Now, there are clearly places where I could (should) be filtering incoming mail better/differently (NB I’m not asking for help with this), and maybe I should unsubscribe from some of the mailing lists, and I often don’t get round to cancelling automated notifications, and so on. But for me the biggest problem is not filtering out the obviously-irrelevant stuff, but dealing with the stuff in that grey zone that’s not quite relevant and not quite irrelevant, sifting through all the bulletins and the bacn and the bumf. And that’s still going to be difficult to deal with whether I filter it into a separate folder or not, block out time to handle it or do it as I go along, or whatever method you think is the One True Way. Some of the difficulty is caused by fear of missing out, but it’s also the case that lots of the really useful networking connections I’ve made — personal connections, opportunities for development or collaboration — have come from this information penumbra. It’s probably the strength of weak ties effect, and the strong effects are great, but those weak ties sometimes feel like a sort of weak broth of unproductivity, mostly a murky and formless thing that seeps into every crack of time, but with occasional nuggets of tasty usefulness bobbing to the surface.

For me, though, this isn’t primarily about ‘productivity’ or strategies for ‘taming your inbox'; it’s about the feeling that all my communication — and therefore most of my life — is like a garden which is slowly being reclaimed by bindweed. I’m sure I remember a time when getting email was exciting, when every email was from a human being who wanted to talk to me — not just friends but interesting strangers, e.g. people who had found my ‘home page’ (remember them?) and wanted to talk to me about the things on it; but I don’t think any communications medium is like that for me any more. OK, so my work email has never been quite so ‘exciting’, but I’m sure it used to be more focused. Email is awash in automated nonsense, all social media networks are drowning in adverts, paper mail likewise. Where did it all go wrong? Part of it is that I’ve got older — I remember how as a child getting post addressed to me was incredibly exciting, because it was always either a letter or postcard from friends and family, a thing I’d sent off for, or a letter telling me that I’d won a competition (a real prize in a real competition, not something from Tom Champagne); I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t more excited by all the post they got, but of course later realised that this was because it was mostly bills, bank statements, requests to renew insurance, and all the boring life-admin that now fill up my own letterbox and inbox. And junk mail. I do think there’s more junk now than there used to be, but it’s not even just that: I think there’s more things pretending to be human. Spam or phishing emails pretending to come from friends or organisations that I trust; marketing and charity mailshots pretending to be handwritten, personalised; shops pretending to send me birthday cards… I feel as though I spend a lot of my life trying to distinguish the real human beings from the replicants, straining to see into the shadows. Perhaps the reluctance to filter everything automatically isn’t so much a fear of missing out as it is, at some level, a fear that if I devolve the task of determining who’s really human to something that itself isn’t human, I will become one of the shadows myself.


Hexagony

November 11, 2013

I’ve talked before about how good I am at getting addicted to computer games. My current addiction is Super Hexagon, and it’s exactly the sort of game that’s designed to get people like me hooked: a free, quick, and simple puzzle/arcade game with retro graphics that I can play on the phone inbetween doing other things. The basic premise is, well, pretty basic: you’re a tiny triangular cursor and you have to turn clockwise or anticlockwise to evade the solid bars which are closing in on you. That’s it. (If there is actually some ridiculous scenario where the triangle is a spaceship and you’re trying to navigate your way through Death Valley while aliens put forcefields in your your way or something, then I haven’t read it and I don’t want to. Blocks and lines, that’s what does it for me.) The encroaching hexagonal walls themselves rotate (and sometimes switch direction) independently of your own movements, and they just keep coming, faster and faster, and you have to keep dodging them until you fail. (The addictive games for me tend to be the ones where, like Tetris, you can’t win, you can only stave off failure for longer and longer.)

In a screenshot it looks fairly unassuming:

Though the video (as shown on the game website) gives a better idea of what’s going on. The colours and the patterns change from level to level (the levels are: Hard, Harder, Hardest, Hardester, Hardestest, Hardestestest), and the starting speed ramps up a bit more every time.

The trancey music helps to make it a more immersive experience (though in that line nothing will ever beat the full-on synaesthesic brain-saturation of Rez, for me), but I’ve mostly been playing it on silent, and it’s quite hypnotic enough like that: the shapes inexorably closing in draw your eyes into the centre of the screen over and over again, sucking your eyes down the plughole of the time sink.

Part of the attraction is that it’s so fast that at the beginning a game may be only a few seconds long; you have to keep going for 60 seconds to complete a level, and in the early stages of each new level that seems frankly impossible. (The trick, I’ve found, is to play a level higher than the level you want to beat, and then when you go back down a level it seems beautifully slow by comparison; but some of the higher levels are only unlocked once you’ve completed the lower levels.) So how can it be a time sink? It’s so quick it seems totally harmless. But if a game only takes 10 seconds, why then surely there’s time to play again… and again, and again, and again. And even when a game takes 60 seconds, a minute is really only a tiny amount of time… and in this way hours are lost.

I’ve now finished every level except Hardestestest (current record on that level: 26:08) and I’m half looking forward to and half wanting to put off that moment when I know I’ve actually finished: on the one hand, it feels (briefly) like an achievement; but on the other hand, after that point I always lose interest in the game. There’s only so much enthusiasm I can work up for improving my best time, because I know nothing new happens once the level’s completed and all the areas are unlocked: — it just carries on and on and on, killing time. For me, that’s when it’s time to move on and find another addiction.


It only takes a minute

September 12, 2013

I like to do things that are useful. I feel like I spend a lot of time doing things that are useless. I want to find a way to fix this.

There are lots of things I’d like to do more of, but I find I never have a big enough block of time to ‘get into’ them. Writing is one: I can’t do it in fits and starts, I need to sit down and concentrate/relax for a good patch of time before anything useful or interesting emerges. So, unable to find enough time the things I want to do, I find myself trying to ‘use’ the scraps of time between other things — the 10-minute bus journey to nursery, the 5-minute Peppa Pig episode which I’ve seen approximately 1000 times and could actually recite from memory (“You’ve just grazed your knee, Peppa”) — to at least do something. In practice this means I end up either a) reloading Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, Feedly or whatever, skim-reading more things that will probably just make me angry, or just clicking like a monkey on an empty inbox in the hope that it will cough up a peanut of content, or b) playing some kind of stupid game.

I’m good at certain types of game (mostly word games and platform games). I’m also good at getting addicted to them. Look, here are my stats (record times and average times taken to complete the puzzle at the different grid sizes) for the iPhone version of Word Jigsaw:

Average Record
Tiny (5×4) 00:06 00:03
Small (6×5) 00:10 00:06
Medium (7×6) 00:35 00:09
Big (8×7) 00:38 00:17
Bigger (9×8) 1:15 00:28
Giant (10×9) 1:56 00:36

That scoreboard is a testimony to thousands of tiny scraps of time poured into an activity that’s basically useless (though I suspect it may be improving my Scrabble, which is at least a slightly more social way to waste time).

Now, if this was a career-oriented blog, I might suggest using that time to make one networking ‘connection’, or to practise my elevator pitch; if it was a productivity blog, I’d probably actually say that I should stop trying to “do things” with those bits of time at all, because the attempt to use those spare minutes is probably false productivity, an illusion of getting-things-done which is actually making me less productive. I’d delete all the games and social media apps on my phone, or install something that prevented me using them too much (is there an iPhone equivalent of Leechblock?). What I should probably really be doing with those tiny shards of ‘resource’ is either thinking about the next real thing I have to do, or doing some kind of mindfulness exercise. Perhaps I should use those stray seconds to breathe deeply, recite poetry, think about a friend, or something else nice and non-technological.

Any of those things might work. They might help me to relax better, to sleep better. They might (though I doubt it) make me a nicer person. They might make me more confident, more successful. It’s possible. But when I started looking at how many oddments of time I spent doing useless brain-wiping games and pseudo-social clicktrancing, the first thing that occurred to me wasn’t “how can I stop behaving like this?” but “how can I use exactly the same behaviour to do something useful?” How can I use the combination of an addictive tendency and some fragments of interstitial time to do something worthwhile?

My husband and I had recently been adding data to Theatricalia, slowly typing in details of performances from my huge boxful of theatre programmes from the last 20 years. I love doing things like that: being the crowd in a crowdsourcing project, contributing odds and ends of data and helping to make a thing that’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve done bits of wikipedia-editing, all kinds of odd data-entry and data-checking tasks on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the occasional bit of transcribing, proofreading. Basically, I’m a data-Womble. So I started looking for datawombling apps on the iPhone, apps which would let me do tiny bits of useful stuff with that time. And I found…

… very little, to be honest. There doesn’t seem to be a GalaxyZoo app (I’m sure there used to be?); a search in the App Store for ‘Zooniverse’ finds nothing. As far as I can tell there is no Mechanical Turk app. Searching for ‘crowdsourcing’ doesn’t find anything useful. Searching for ‘citizen science’ finds several of the University of Bristol’s NatureLocator apps, which look great in terms of contributing to interesting stuff, but would rely on me being actually near nature rather than stuck on a bus, or in the living room, or sitting up in bed in the middle of the night. I mean, I can imagine collecting data for these projects, but they’re not quite what I’m looking for here.

So what am I looking for? Well, what I’m good with is words. I like transcribing, proofreading, tagging, classifying, describing, checking lists of things. I liked Google Image Labeler. If you give me things to tag and make it easy for me to tag them, I will tag them. Transcribing video/audio is likely to be too awkward to do a) on an iPhone, or b) in such tiny units of time (though feel free to prove me wrong), but transcribing handwriting or correcting bad OCR is something I could imagine doing despite both those constraints. If you gave me an app that did the kind of thing that ReCAPTCHA does, I would type in words for you. And if you assigned points for words transcribed, I would quite probably be spending every spare moment trying to scramble up the hi-score board.

So what’s out there? What can you recommend? Are there some built-in barriers to making this kind of thing work on an iPhone that I’ve failed to spot, or is it just (“just”) difficult to get the UI right? Are there sites for this kind of microtasking which don’t have apps but do have really good mobile sites? Are you thinking of developing something along these lines and wishing you had a willing beta-tester? Take me to your leaderboard!


Conflict resolution

August 19, 2013

I recently got an email from campaigning organisation Avaaz (it’s OK, I agreed to be on their mailing list) as follows:

Gmail has made a change to its system which experts say could hide Avaaz emails in your inbox — you might now miss out on some awesome upcoming Avaaz campaigns.

To make sure you can participate in campaigns to stop the war on women, climate change, corruption and more all you need to do is REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE. Simply click “Reply” right now and press “Send.” If you’re lost for words — you can say: “Hi Avaaz.”

By replying, you are telling Gmail that you want to receive Avaaz emails and they’ll make sure you do. And once you’ve sent the message, you are done.

In the footer of the email, it says:

To contact Avaaz, please do not reply to this email. Instead, write to us at [contact form] or call us at [phone number] (US).

To reply or not to reply? I decided that the email body overrode what was obviously a default template, so I did what they asked: clicked reply, added “Hi Avaaz, I am happy to keep receiving your emails” and pressed “Send”. Obviously, I didn’t expect to get a reply from them, so I was surprised when I got one the next day:

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification

THIS IS A WARNING MESSAGE ONLY.

YOU DO NOT NEED TO RESEND YOUR MESSAGE.

Delivery to the following recipient has been delayed:

avaaz@avaaz.org

Message will be retried for 2 more day(s)

Oh. My first thought was “Ha, how ironic, their email falls over just when they ask people to email them!” followed by “Maybe they overshot their email quota because of all those people replying to their email”.

3 days later, after one more “delayed” message, I got the (by now expected) “Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently” message.

I think what has happened here is that avaaz@avaaz.org is a no-reply email address (there are good reasons to avoid these in marketing emails), and Avaaz know this, but also know that if you try to reply to it then the address will be added to your Gmail contacts (even if the reply doesn’t get through). So they’re saying “just reply to this email” instead of saying “please add us to your contacts”, which on the face of it seems like a reasonable plan: people are probably more likely to hit reply than add a marketing address to their ‘contacts'; many people wouldn’t know how to add an address to their contacts, and wouldn’t bother to read/follow instructions if they were given; those instructions would have to account for all the different email clients people use, anyway; and even if you said “use the Gmail web interface” (or explained that in a way that non-technical users would understand) and only gave instructions for that case, Gmail would have probably changed their user interface again by the time the email arrived in people’s inboxes so your instructions would be out of date.

So, taken out of context, asking people to reply to a no-reply email address might seem like a sensible strategy in this case. But the context is this: Avaaz send me an email which a) looks a bit phishy, so I have to look at it a bit more closely to check it’s genuine, and b) asks me to reply but also not to reply (a bit confusing). Then in return I get three automated emails telling me that the email isn’t being delivered. If I hadn’t figured out what was going on, at this point I’d have probably thought that a) the email might have actually been some kind of spam/scam/virus/thing, or b) I’d done something wrong and the thing I was trying to do (stop Avaaz’s emails ending up in the spam folder) hadn’t worked. In other words, this process has depleted my daily store of decision-making ability and left me with some vague worries and uncertainty about whether it’s worked.

How could this have been better? Avaaz could have

a) told the user to add the address to their contacts (including or linking to instructions for popular email clients, or just leaving users to figure out the details). Disadvantages: lots of people probably won’t know how, or won’t bother.

b) told the user to reply, but explained the situation: “Replying to this email is the simplest and quickest way to add our address to your Gmail contacts. However, you will get a couple of automated replies saying that the email wasn’t delivered – don’t worry about this, it won’t affect your ability to keep up with our awesome world-changing campaigns!” (For bonus points, they could have taken “do not reply to this email” out of the footer for this one email, too, though I know CMSs and templating systems can make this kind of one-off customisation hard.)

c) used an email address that allows replies. Disadvantages: Avaaz might actually have to be willing to read and respond to replies.

I should say that I’m generally positive about Avaaz: they’re a campaigning organisation that doesn’t pester me with endless emails asking me to watch videos, forward emails to my friends, engage with their brand on social media, or donate money; they seem to have had lots of successful campaigns; their website lets me sign petitions simply and easily (and it’s usable enough on a smartphone). In the context of their actual core functions, this email contacts issue is a tiny, tiny thing; but it’s a sad truth that the small things can have a big effect on our impressions of the organisations we interact with. Fortunately, they’re also — hopefully — the easy things to fix!


IWMW summary posts

July 8, 2013

For ease of linking, here are my summaries of IWMW 2013 plenary sessions:


IWMW 2013 (4)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the plenary sessions from day 3 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from the summary of day 2’s last three plenaries.

Day 3 Plenary Sessions


P11: Richard Prowse: IWMW and the birth of a content strategist

Richard Prowse talked about the need to put content at the heart of the website, and to get the three sides of the content story (Communications, Design and Developers) talking to each other.

If we can’t solve the problem of managing content, we’re not going to be able to engage with people in meaningful ways. However if we make our content findable, engaging, and useful, we can not only engage with our audiences but also reduce the workload of our support staff. Both of these things are part of the value of our content: it can make us money (by getting more students in) and save us money (by saving staff time). And structured content (and breaking content up into smaller reusable chunks) allows us to “create once, publish everywhere” (another time/money saving).

We also need to understand how target groups actually use the internet. Prowse gave us some useful statistics to bear in mind:

  • 22% of Brits only use the internet on mobile devices
  • 36% of Brits have no internet at home

Mobile is important; but so is paper. We know that our mobile strategy can help from a ‘widening participation’ perspective, but we may have to return to paper to reach certain groups (particularly low-income groups) who might not be online.

Why is fixing content so hard? Because it doesn’t stand still while we try to fix it. “Fixing content is like trying to perform heart surgery while the patient is running a marathon.” However we can articulate the problem, have a conversation with the people responsible for the content and things will start changing. Content strategy does offer us a solution, by giving us a toolkit for better communication — it’s all about communication. We also need to enthuse our users and content creators about content — and remember that everyone has experiences to bring to the table to enhance our understanding and improve practice.

Further reading (books):


P12: Dai Griffiths: The University in a bind

Like many of the plenary speakers, Dai Griffiths reminded us that the operating environment of universities is changing, and universities have to work out how to tell a coherent story about how they’re responding to the change — and the institutional web is at the centre of that hurricane, it’s a key player in the telling of that story. He went on to identify some of the conflicts and ‘double binds’ faced by universities.

We can either use the REF to boost the status of the university, or use open access journals to boost visibility. We need to publish to attract research funding, to attract students, to be useful… and because that’s what academics do. OA ticks these boxes, and can transform impact; but the institution controls the ‘target journals’, the accepted places to publish. Griffiths asked us “What’s your institution’s policy?” — but many of us in the audience weren’t sure.

Next, the question of MOOCs and the “disaggregation of HE”. Griffiths quoted Jimmy Wales on MOOCs: “…unless universities respond to the rising tide of online courses new major players will emerge to displace them. … it’s also been slower than anyone would have anticipated.” Online courses are a threat but also an opportunity. Again, Griffiths asked us what our institutions’ policies on MOOCs were, and whether they have a coherent story about how those developments fit into the institution’s identity — again, nobody in the audience seemed very sure of the answer!

Another contradiction was between “supporting students” and “balancing the books” — “how do we keep supporting the whole potential student body when university budgets are under pressure and costs to students are increasing?” Trying to widen participation but also save money.

Griffiths asked if these were just contradictions or “double binds” (a pathological situation — discussed in the study of schizophrenia — in which you are given repeated contradictory instructions, the instructions are reinforced by an explicit or implicit threat of punishment, and you’re not allowed to discuss the contradiction or leave the situation).

The next ‘double bind’ he identified concerned performance indicators — key performance indicators (KPIs), key information sets (KIS), etc. These cascade through the system, managers create targets for those below them, employees can’t question them or avoid them, and the institution can’t bypass them without putting funding at risk. Indicators and targets create a de facto representation of the system they intended to measure. Factors which are not measured are not candidates for consideration; and this may get out of step with the view that marketing or teachers have of the institution. It’s a pessimistic view… but an accurate one?

We need to insist on using data to ask questions about the institution’s identity, not just to report compliance.” Questions we need to ask are:

  • How can we do what we do better?
  • How can we do what we do differently?
  • Given these changes, what now is the University?

Griffiths asked: is your institution capable of asking that last question? Is the question prohibited by a double bind? Is that why our jobs are so hard?

Further reading:


P13: Neil Denny: The delicious discomfort of not knowing: how to lead effectively through uncertainty

Neil Denny told us that it’s OK — it’s exciting! — not to know what the future has in store. He exhorted us to do more stuff we don’t know how to do (to get outside our comfort zones); to “get artisan” (adopt a mentality of deliberate design); and to “envision success and and temporarily suspend the need for a successful outcome” (we’ve never succeeded because we’ve never finished!).

I’m not going to attempt to summarise his talk in detail, just share a couple of his thought-provoking soundbites:

People say they are looking for answers when in reality they are looking for someone to tell them just how little they have to change.

People don’t resist change itself, only the loss within it.

Further reading:


Conclusions: Brian Kelly: What next?

I’m not going to try to summarise Brian’s summary of the event, but I will note that he also talked about possible directions for the future of IWMW, and ended on a note of cautious optimism for IWMW and for the staff of UKOLN (follow their progress at the UKOLN Diaspora site: http://ukoln-diaspora.org.uk/). It feels a bit glib to say “hope to see everyone at IWMW 2014″, but I think there’s still a place for the event and I know there’s still a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm in the IWMW community, so… keeping fingers crossed!


IWMW 2013 (3)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the last three plenary sessions from day 2 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from the summary of day 2’s first three plenaries.

Day 2 Plenary Sessions (part 2)


P8: Paul Walk: Working with developers

Paul Walk talked about how learning to work well with developers can help institutional web managers get the most out of their software/systems. He said that managers need to get good at estimating the time projects will take, and learn some of the developers’ jargon (though they shouldn’t pretend to know more than they do), specifically understanding what key concepts like ‘the cloud’ and ‘software as a service’ really mean.

Over the years we’ve had lots of different words for developers: developer, programmer, engineer, analyst, data-wrangler… even “software authors”. Different words have different connotations; the words we choose can tell us a lot about how we think about the work of development. We also have different words for the process: we talk about “writing” software, software “engineering”, software as a “craft”, as an “art”, and so on. “The last time people constructed a vocabulary for software development was in the 1960s, when they coined the phrase software engineering, both as a wish and a direction for the future.” The different words reflect different development paradigms.

Walk gave an overview of the ‘waterfall’ methodology and then moved on to ‘agile’ development and how it differs. The ‘agile’ attitude can be summed up as “rough consensus, running code” and its articles of faith are that innovation happens in a local context and local developers empower the organisation to innovate. ‘Local’ in this sense means ‘close to the users’ — we have to recognise that the users are part of the process, and that building software is about building on existing relationships. There are lots of advantages to having local developers, e.g. better understanding of local context, and better availability/responsiveness during projects.

It’s not just about developers doing development work, though; Walk argued that Universities need more technical people in their higher echelons: “bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top” (as Eric Schmidt puts it). He also identified a gap in the career path for developers, the difficulty of letting developers keep developing but also contribute to management, strategy, and governance, and claimed that universities can learn from industry in this area.

Further reading:


P9: Ranjit Sidhu: 9am, 16th August, 2012: What the fcuk just happened then?

‘What happened then’ was that the A-level results came out, and universities got a shock as they realised that the game had changed. 17 of the Russell Group universities went into clearing in 2012: applications were down by 7% across the board. But we don’t need to wait for A-level results to find out how bad things are: we can get the data and work out who we need to target and how.

Sidhu talked about how ‘data science’ was becoming more prevalent (in fact, apparently, “the sexiest job in the 21st century“) and how we need to work out what we should be analysing: the web is uniquely placed to analyse statistics and help universities to target the area it needs to. And this targeting is big business: Sidhu estimated an £8,500,000 spend by universities in the week after clearing; a keyword ad in the top spot on Google during clearing costs £22.12 for just one click. Online marketing is perfect for targeting our spending more effectively, and we need to get more students in — Sidhu claims that tuition fees are the only way that HEIs can make money now.

However Sidhu warned of the dangers of thinking ‘big data’ will solve everything (“If you didn’t do anything meaningful with the small data you had, why will you do anything with the big data?“) and reminded us that databases are easy, but you can’t outsource thinking. He was particularly sceptical about the value of UniStats (apparently fewer than 1 visitor per day actually clicks the UniStats widget).

After lots of hard figures Sidhu finished with some more philosophical questions: whether free content is destroying diversity; whether the free pricing model unfairly benefits the rich (should people pay more if they can afford it?); and whether early adopters of tracking/analytics technology (what we used to call ‘spyware’) have a responsibility to make sure it’s used ethically.

Further reading:


P10: Paul Boag: Institutional culture is crippling your web strategy!

Paul Boag didn’t pull any punches in his talk; highlights included telling us that we were a bunch of whingers and that when it came to our organisational structures we were all, not to put too fine a point on it, completely screwed. It’s just his way of showing how much he cares…

He identified the problem as our “pre-web organisations” being mired in bureaucracy, with slow, committee-based decision-making, lots of internal politics, a “project mentality” and lots of departmental silos, and a misunderstanding of what the web is (a marketing tool, an IT service). The “project mentality” is unhelpful because the web requires cross-departmental working: organisational structures are a barrier to this. Departmental silos occur for the same reason: websites and services are organised around organisational structure, departments, faculties etc. This slow-moving bureaucracy results in “big bang redesigns” (rather than incremental change) leading to yo-yoing expenditure and long periods of ineffectiveness.

Boag argued that fundamental changes are needed – we need to:

  • Become user-focused
  • Have a strong centralised web team
  • Create policies and procedures
  • Create a consistent user experience (including establishing a tone of voice)
  • Work incrementally (be agile)
  • Create a way to talk to each other

Policies can help us say “no”, e.g. if we can’t remove redundant content simply because it’s irrelevant, we can establish policies to help facilitate this, such as saying that if a page isn’t updated within a certain amount of time, or falls below a threshold of visits based on analytics, then it gets marked as archived, removed from search, and so on.

Boag suggested some other techniques to help us improve our sites in the face of organisational obstructions: “user cards” (and insisting on them before introducing new content/functionality) can help us build a user-focused experience; testing and monitoring everything can help us justify our decisions. We also need to communicate: we need to share best practice, blog our experiences, find ways to talk to each other. We also need to talk to senior management, tell them what we think, market ourselves within the organisation.

His diatribe against institutional culture ended with telling us that if we want to enjoy our jobs, we need to fix our organisations or look for another job. I’m not sure the audience were entirely convinced by his insistence that losing/leaving your job is nothing to be afraid of, but I think most of us recognised the relevance of at least some of the ranting!

Further reading:


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