Archive for March, 2007

A modelling assignment in Birmingham

March 27, 2007

I spent an interesting day last week in Birmingham (or Brum as it is affectionately known) at a workshop on Business Process Modelling given by Balbir Barn of Thames Valley University. Birmingham has certainly changed since my youth there and the workshop was held in the completely redeveloped Brindley Place area of the city. This used to be a decaying network of stinking canals, collapsing Victorian warehouses and rat-infested walkways. It is now home to flash hotels, bars, offices and a series of conference venues including Austin Court, where the workshop took place. Lunch included chocolate covered strawberries which were extremely tasty, although probably ethically dubious given that this is March.

The workshop itself covered Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN) a diagrammatic notation for representing workflows in the business environment. This probably sounds fairly dull, but it is quite interesting in that it was aimed at higher education and is a sign that universities are becoming more aware of the methods used in the commercial sector. Towards the end of the day, one subject of debate was the likely uptake and impact of using such workflow tools in higher education settings. It can certainly be argued that there are parts of the university system that are akin to the bureaucratic functions of a business (HR, payroll, student registration, course validation). But what of more non-traditional areas like library repositories or e-learning systems? Delegates were certainly interested in debating the potential return-on-investment for groups of developers within the education community who have spent time learning and mastering these kinds of workflow tools.

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Will Freeview be able to provide High Definition TV to the public?

March 23, 2007

Wednesday was budget day. Thankfully lunch was not taxed, but one little-noticed item could cause serious debate amongst technology types.

Digital TV delivered by the FreeView system makes use of a portion of the radio spectrum. With the switchover from analogue to digital TV there is an opportunity to re-jig the way the radio spectrum is used and, in the process, release some spare capacity. This spare spectrum is known in technology circles as the ‘digital dividend’.

So why is this important? Well, buried on page 151 of the Budget Report, the Government notes that, through its agency Ofcom, it is consulting on a proposal that the “spectrum released by switchover should be auctioned on an open basis during 2008-9”.

Herein lies the rub. Note the word ‘open’ in the Budget report. The Government is suggesting that this ‘digital dividend’ could be auctioned off in a process similar to the radio spectrum auction that took place a few years ago, when the Government made billions auctioning spectrum to phone companies for 3G mobile phone capacity. Yet it is this ‘spare’ capacity that is partly needed if Freeview is going to be able to deliver High Definition TV as a free-to-view service.

Such an auction might end up with prices that no public sector broadcaster could compete with and therefore effectively freeze out Freeview from the next generation of spectrum capacity. This could be a problem for the millions of people, who, anticipating the great switchover, have invested in a nice, shiny, new HD-ready TV. If an open sell-off happens, there’s a good chance that they won’t be able to get HD TV pictures over free-to-view services.

Second Life and the 3-D Web

March 21, 2007

I spent yesterday afternoon at the eBusiness Expo 2007 which was held on my home turf of Nottingham. Lunch was a buy-your-own sandwiches affair which I’m afraid doesn’t win any prizes for originality. The main talk of the afternoon was from Danny Meadows-Klue, from the Digital Training Academy, on how to use Web 2.0 technologies for marketing purposes. On the whole, the talk was a fairly reasonable trot through the different areas (social networking, RSS, podcasting, mash-ups etc).

There was one point, though, where Danny and I parted company. He doesn’t think Second Life is worth much attention and I’m afraid I have to disagree. If you look at what is likely to be the next step in the development of the Web it is in advanced, 3-D graphics. IBM are investing money in a project to take the visual ideas behind Second Life and transplant them to the Web and Tim Berners-Lee, speaking at last year’s WWW2006 conference, indicated that he thought advanced graphics were the next stage in the Web’s development. Second Life may only be a ‘dry-run’ for a more visually arresting Web, but if you’re interested in where the Web is going, then Second Life is currently the easiest way to explore the implications of 3-D at an early stage.

Sloodle

March 19, 2007

Apparently, Sloodle is not an interesting variant of a Chinese noodle dish, which is rather disappointing from the lunch perspective. It is actually an online learning environment within the Second Life virtual reality environment. This is the latest example of how people from different walks of life are looking at what they can do within Second Life now that the site has more than 4 million residents.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Reuters have a full-time virtual reporter in SL and that various companies, retailers and universities have been busy setting up virtual offices and shops. Now, these education types want to combine SL with their existing campus learning management systems (LMS) and in particular with the popular and open source Moodle system (hence SLoodle).

The project’s proponents, Jeremy Kemp and Daniel Livingstone, argue in a white paper that traditional LMSs are rarely used to their full potential, especially with regard to the use of multimedia. SL offers a rich graphical 3D environment and can provide students with a sense of “being ‘there’ in a classroom” with other participants. At the same time LMSs could fill in some of the perceived weaknesses of using SL for teaching and learning. For example, SL is a very poor document repository and offers limited facilities for transferring teaching materials into the virtual environment. The authors propose a combination and are formally launching their ‘mash-up’ solution on 22nd March in Paisley, Scotland.

Tom Loosemore on JISC

March 15, 2007

Just one more thing on the JISC conference. The closing plenary session was given by Tom Loosemore, Head of Broadband & Emerging Platforms at the BBC. He opened his talk by explaining that back in the late 1980s, when he was supposed to be studying for his degree, he was actually spending most of his time exploring and experimenting with his university’s Internet connection.

I should perhaps explain that ‘back in the old days’ the only people who had access to the Internet were university staff and researchers. This was partly because the universities had had the foresight to install their own high-speed network (called JANET). Tom’s point was that this pioneering spirit had provided people like him with the opportunity to experiment with the latest thing years before it took off and became popular. He gave a big thank you to JISC for having the vision and taking the risks, and said, “this country would be in a worse place, both culturally and economically, if it wasn’t for you.”

What’s interesting about this is that people of my generation owe a huge debt of thanks to the Beeb. Not for their radio or telly broadcasting (although Blake’s Seven was rather good) but for the introduction of the BBC micro computer. I sincerely believe we wouldn’t have such a vibrant and creative software industry in the UK if it wasn’t for the generation of software programmers, e-learning and games designers raised and bottle-fed on the BBC micro in the 1980s.

Lunch 2.0

March 14, 2007

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to be attending the JISC annual conference in Birmingham. This is where delegates from across the UK gather to discuss all things technical for universities and colleges. I mentioned at the time that faggots and peas used to be a local delicacy but there was no sign of it yesterday. Instead, for us veggies there was a mushroom ravioli, and in the interest of research I also helped myself to some of the wild rice with herbs, which was top-hole. For the carnivores there was a Mexican chicken dish, which apparently was very nice, but a straw poll revealed it could have done with being a little bit spicier.

There were about 600 delegates at the conference this year including a strong delegation from Denmark and the Netherlands. For me it was a little bit nerve-wracking as we were launching a new TechWatch report, which I authored. The report is called What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education, and was commissioned by some of the people within JISC who are starting to tackle some of the practical issues affecting repositories and digital libraries. If you have a long train journey ahead of you and feel inclined to plough through over 60 pages of what has been described as ‘adult material’, I would be pleased to hear what you think of it.

Penguins

March 9, 2007

It is often said that given enough time and a couple of typewriters a room full of monkeys would eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. What about a group of penguins? Or more precisely, 1,500-odd Penguin books readers?

Penguin books have been working, in collaboration with De Montfort University in Leicester, on a Million Penguins, a collective, novel-writing project using a wiki. Over 1,500 people have contributed and editing on the book closed on Wednesday.

This is another example the way in which the Internet can be used to harness the power of the crowd to produce collective works. I think it’s interesting as an example of the idea moving into a new domain: novel writing, although I’m not sure how readable it is. I have to confess I didn’t get too far as there are well over fifty characters to keep track of.

The idea, though, of being able to see a list of the characters each with a wiki page of information may well catch on back in the real world of book publishing. How about an online version of a paper book with this kind of additional – dare we say meta – information?

Talking of Scotch

March 8, 2007

On the theme of things beginning with ‘scotch’, I had a very enjoyable vegetarian scotch egg for my lunch today. This was a new experience for me, although some will probably say that a vegetarian scotch egg misses the point completely. Other items that I would put in this tag cloud include veggie haggis, black pudding and kebabs – which all exist.

As far as the haggis goes, there is a well-known variety of this from Scottish firm Macsween, but if you fancy making your own, here is a recipe from the Vegetarian Society (if you do try it, please let me know how it goes).

Scotch Spam

March 8, 2007

Unkind people have been known to make jokes about a Scotsman and his wallet, but what about his email in-box? According to spam activist group, Scotch Spam, Gordon Dick, a marketing specialist from Edinburgh, has successfully sued an email marketing company for sending him unsolicited spam. In a story that was first picked up by Associated Press, Mr Dick won £1,368.66 (plus interest) in the Edinburgh Sheriff Court. To achieve this, Mr Dick made use of the UK’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.

I think this interesting because, according to Scotch Spam, if all the thousands of recipients of the same spam message had also sued, then the total bill would be more than £54 million. Despite many technical innovations spam still remains a huge problem for the Internet – perhaps resorting to the law, and the power of the crowd, is the answer.

Reuters

March 6, 2007

Reuters announced to the Guardian last week that they are making another foray into the world of Web 2.0 with the setting up of a financial version of MySpace. This follows on the heels of last year’s creation of a Reuter’s news office inside the Second Life virtual world with a staff journalist sending virtual shorthand directly from the ‘new frontier’.

What do these announcements tell us about the direction of the business use of Web 2.0-style technology? I think this is interesting because either Reuters is a particularly unique and far-seeing company, happy to embrace the next big thing well before anyone else, or we are about to see a rash of ‘sensible’ and ‘grown up’ uses of what’s to date been mainly seen as a thing the kids are into. Watch this space.

Reuters are spending shareholders’ money, so they are obviously taking it seriously. They are currently in the process of increasing their Second Life team and I like their recent job advert for the Reuters Second Life news centre which begins: “Do you live inside Second Life?” and continues “we are looking for solid Second Life citizens – people whose avatars are at least six months old”. Interestingly, they “strongly prefer candidates based in the New York City area, as that is where the rest of our Second Life team is located.”