I intended to post this a long time ago. Its been sitting around in my blog’s draft file, waiting to be tidied up.
This is the third and final part of a series of posts about Intute, which was a gateway to subject catalogues with links to high quality Internet sites, selected and described by specialists from within British academia. In part 1 I briefly mentioned some big ideas that I was prevented from presenting to Intute at a critical time in its history. I mentioned them again in passing in part 2.
To briefly recap, I was prevented by my boss at the time from presenting my ‘big ideas’ to the other members of Intute and was threatened with disciplinary action by him if I contacted anyone in Intute about this or anything else. When this happened, I started an official grievance against my boss, as I was effectively being prevented from doing my job, or rather that 25% part of my job as a Hub Manager paid for by Intute.
Why my boss said I was not to contact anyone in Intute was never explained to me. Someone, who was not involved with Intute at the time, has said that it was because I was being disruptive. Well, I was certainly trying to ensure that Intute became more than just a catalogue of quality Internet resources, because that course obviously had no long term future, as has been shown since then by the demise of Intute. I saw the large amounts (£1m+ per year) of money going into Intute as a great opportunity for creating something vastly more useful than a catalogue of Internet sites. And I wanted to present to the others at Intute how this could happen. I don’t agree that that amounts to being disruptive, but there you are.
I suspect that my boss, who was approaching retirement at the time, had only a short term perspective on Intute. He probably thought that the easiest course was to keep Intute very simple, retain a few people employed cataloguing Internet sites for a while, and then retire. Those people who were being employed by Intute to manually catalogue Internet resources probably agreed with that course, as it meant they kept their jobs for a bit longer. They may have hoped that it was possible for Intute to continue longer than it did, but I thought at the time, and still think, that this was not a good way to spend £millions of public funding.
So – What were the big ideas?
I seem to have thrown out the original ‘A Big Idea for The Big Idea’ document that I put quite a lot of effort into at the time, so the following is based on memory. Also, you must please keep in mind, when you read the following, that these ideas were drafted in the first half of 2005.
I was quite excited with some of the concepts involved in my ‘big idea’. They have to be judged as alternative possibilities to the proposal for a service concentrating only on manually cataloguing the best parts of the Internet, which, as we now know, eventually failed.
You also have to realise that the ideas were not fully baked, and that what I was hoping for was that the excellent minds and good management within Intute (the salaried management was excellent, but the advisory committee was not) would look at the ideas, say what was possible/not possible, and add to them, and help bake them much further.
And why is any of this important, today? You’ll have to read to the end to find out.
What I’ve written below may sound dated, and if you want some more up to date ideas from someone not involved with Intute, then check out Aaron Tay, a very talented thinking librarian, here.
Anyway, I’d been in Barcelona in April 2005, presenting a paper at a ProQuest (or CSA, as it was then) meeting, and after the meeting I’d bought a handbag for my lovely wife in one of the stores. The bag came with a little label saying YourName@[name of store].com and the instructions indicated that you could get your own free email address if you registered with them. This was a novel idea to come with a bag, but nothing too out of the ordinary in other ways, as AOL etc were offering similar services, though usually in such cases this came at a cost.
But – I thought – what if the same sort of thing was applied to websites? A personalised website, and one connected with RDN/Intute.
Nowadays, we all have Facebook addresses such as http://www.facebook.com/macleod.roddy and other personalised addresses of various kinds, but in those days we didn’t (apart from email). Some people would have heard of Facebook, but most were not using it. We didn’t have access to Facebook at the time. If you logged into some service or other, there might be a little personalisation, and none in the address part.
But I didn’t at all think of, or realise that, personalised website addresses with our names on would become the norm, so the first part of my idea was to use other individual words for the personalised bit of the website. The way I thought this might work was to use every possible combination of Latin words.
So – the idea was for one Intute user to have, for example, the website address intute.ac.uk/dominus and another one to have intute.ac.uk/dominum and so on, and so on.
I warned you that some of this was a bit half baked!
Except that the website would not be intute.ac.uk because I don’t think that name had actually been agreed upon at that time. The website I suggested would instead have been pog.ac.uk with ‘pog’ actually standing for Personal Online Gateway.
So, an example would be pog.ac.uk/mensarum and another one would be pog.ac.uk/amamus etc, etc.
I reckoned that there were tens of thousands of Latin declensions, enough to keep us going until someone had a better idea, and that these could be pre-loaded onto the Pog server, waiting for people to log in and claim their own one.
So – and here’s where one of the direct marketing ideas came in – a student would be given a bit of paper, or receive an email, saying:
“Your Personal Online Gateway website is: http://www.pog.ac.uk/pueri
Go to that website right now, and claim it!”
Another student would be given a bit of paper, or receive an email, saying:
“Your Personal Online Gateway website is: http://www.pog.ac.uk/pueros
Go to that website right now, and claim it!”
And so on, and so on (heh, heh – almost ad infinitum), with each bit of paper/email having a different Latin word at the end. I don’t think I’d thought too much about how these bits of paper/emails would have been produced.
Except that one idea was to try some eyecatching and humorous marketing, so that some bits of paper would say:
“Is this a Mog?
No – its your own Pog. Your own Personal Online Gateway!
Go to that website right now, and claim it! It’s yours. It’s free, and you can use it to help your studies and find information”
Or at least – something like that. I also proposed that we should work directly with one or two students at each institution to promote the POG idea, and pay them a little for their time.
So – what would happen when the student typed in the web address: pog.ac.uk/terram or whatever, in his/her browser? They’d get a brief welcome, with a short description of what to expect, a request to add a password of their choice, add their email address (which would have to be an ac.uk email address, because this would be a UK funded service), and a couple of drop-downs to choose from which would identify their subject area, and year of study.
The POG server would then know their institution (from their email address), their subject, and their year. This was important.
Once they’d completed that stage, they could at any time return to that website, enter the password, and see the personalised and personalisable page that resulted.
The personalised page that followed would consist of various ‘Intute’ elements and content, plus a host of other things.
The idea was for the Intute Internet resource catalogue to be drastically reduced in size and consist of only a few thousand good subject-based starting points. These would be well-maintained and checked on a regular basis, would not cost much to maintain, but would not actually be a particularly important element of the POG. One aspect of the personalised page would be to feature the best websites from these starting points, relevant to the subject(s) being studied by the student.
Another part of the personalised page/website would be a cross-search service giving deep access to electronic resources from multiple sources including numerous bibliographic databases and other catalogues, with a subject bias geared to the subject studied by the student (this would be possible because, as I mentioned above, the POG server would know their institution (from their email address), their subject, and their year). For example, an engineeering student would be presented with search results vaugely similar to what happens at TechXtra. This could eventually have been developed further into, essentially, a ‘Summon for all’ type service for UK higher and further education institutions.
The existing Intute Internet Resource Catalogue would be used to create a harvested index, similar to Scirus, which would have been one of the databases in the cross-search. I proposed that it should be possible for students to easily suggest useful websites to add to those being harvested.
Another thing that the student would see on his/her POG would be the Virtual Training Suite tutorial relevant to his/her subject.
Another element of the POG would be space for each student to write their own blog, if they so wished. Warwick University had been offering this sort of facility to their students at the time. The POG blogs would be viewable by anyone, in theory, but would be organised so that they would be most available to other students studying the same subjects. There are obviously elements here similar to what eventually became important parts of Facebook, and also Google+, but I don’t claim to have worked any of it out in detail.
What I was trying to do was create an academic information service which was personalised, and pre-loaded with material based on a student’s subject interests.
Another proposal was that the Internet Resources Newsletter, a popular current awareness service amongst academics at that time with over 30,000 subscribers, would be subsumed into the POG service, and provide a way to alert students to new resources.
The end result would have been a personalised and personalisable service, aimed mostly at students, featuring all sorts of materials relevant to their subject, and one which allowed them to search for further resources including papers in scholarlly journals.
In other words – a Personal Online Gateway.
So – those were some of my ‘big ideas’. There was more, but lets stick here.
What happened next?
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t allowed to present my ideas to Intute. I did send them to The Big Idea, a marketing company that had been employed by RDN/Intute to help with their rebranding exercise (hence the title of my original document: ‘A Big Idea for The Big Idea‘). I found out later that they either didn’t receive it, or ignored it. They were more concerned with the immediate question of rebranding the RDN into Intute.
Intute, as decided by their Advisory Board, concentrated for a few years on producing an Internet Resource Catalogue, created manually at great expense but with good usage, until their funding was withdrawn. Intute also continued to produce some useful Virtual Training Suite tutorials, and a demonstrator now known as Institutional Repository Search. At one stage, the people involved in the IRS proposed some developments not too disimilar to some of my ideas, but these were not followed up.
A non-maintained Intute website was supposed to have been available until 2014, but http://www.intute.ac.uk seems to come and go. Although listed at the Mimas completed work website, the link sometimes fails. So much for an investment of between £10m and £20m.
If you look at the Subject Portals page – the content for the cross-searchable databases mentioned above could have come from the portals – and try to click on any of the eight portal logos at the top, you will see that the only one that goes anywhere is EEVL, which links through to the TechXtra site, which still works. Although it is now dated, it continues to help some people find technical information. The VTS tutorials are still available, but are not maintained. The Institutional Repository Search service still works, but not many people seem to know about it. The Internet Resources Newsletter ceased in 2009 and the website will shortly disappear.
All of the above happened a long time ago, but I believe that there are still things to be learnt from the experience.
One of the most obvious things, to me, is that the whole Intute thing (and I think the same thing can be said about JISC) wasn’t agile enough. The Intute setup, and also JISC, didn’t follow agile management principles enough. Being agile is very important in a fast changing Internet world. At the RDN/Intute, we used to talk a lot (nothing wrong with that), spend a lot of effort coming up with proposals and ideas which would then, eventually, be presented to the Advisory Board. Well, some of the ideas, but as we’ve seen above, not others. Some of these proposals, eventually, and I mean eventually, were turned into development projects. The projects normally had to keep to their remit. Quite naturally, the Advisory Board had the last word and made the final decisions, but the whole process took ages and was not flexible. The Advisory Board, so I believe anyway, sometimes acted in the interests of their own institutions rather than that of the academic community as a whole.
I’m very fortunate, nowadays, to be involved in a service that puts into practise agile management principles, and what a difference it makes! A customer, or one of the people involved in the service, makes a suggestion – that suggestion is briefly analysed, and immediately, if possible, tested. If it works well, it happens, and the service then benefits.
RDN/Intute projects were required to come up with a strategic plan (nothing wrong with that), with aims and objectives (nothing wrong with that, either). Sometimes these plans did not allow for any flexibility. I remember seeing one project plan where just about every single day in the year-long project was accounted for – March 2-5 such and such, March 6-15 such and such, etc. This sort of thing could lead to a certain frame of mind. There was one project I managed, and I decided that we should add a couple of newly discovered resources to the list of things were were going to investigate. A colleague said “But those resources are not mentioned in the plan.” I said “Maybe not, but they are useful, and I would like to add them.” He said “But they are not in the plan. Groan.”
There was a fair bit of self interest involved with some of the people in Intute, though not the management I hasten to add. Well, you can’t blame people for wanting to keep their jobs, but this sort of thing can result in a short-sighted perspective, and should not be allowed to influence the longer term course. That’s another area where the Advisory Board failed, IMHO – in not taking the longer term view.
I would suggest that those people who sometimes come up with ideas should not be muzzled, or be accused of being disruptive because they happen to be suggesting a new possible path. With the Internet, especially, nothing should be written in stone.
I seemed to have many ideas in those days, and this made up for my lack of technical knowledge. As well as working on projects, on a day-to-day basis I came into contact with students and staff who were looking for information of one kind or another. I’d see ways to provide answers to some types of requests via project work. There were others like me in Intute, who spent some of their time doing non-project work, but they gradually dropped out, until Intute was nearly all staffers. I think this was a bad thing because relevant experience was lost and Intute became distant from the end-users.
Although my ‘big ideas’ for Intute never saw the light of day, some of my other ideas were developed and eventually funded. These included ticTOCs and Gold Dust. Both were about current awareness. Both could have been fitted in, or added, to Intute, but by that time there was little communication going on.
As with all JISC funded projects, ticTOCs and Gold Dust were part of a particular JISC Programme. These were usually created as a result of funding calls for proposals. I have a lot of time for the JISC Programme Managers I worked with, who often had brilliant minds and were very hard working. But the system itself was not flexible enough. I remember being at a Programme meeting which included Gold Dust along with all the other projects in that programme. One exercise involved putting all of the programme’s projects onto a large piece of paper, and then drawing lines between projects where there were any sort of connections. Well, when we looked at the paper afterwards, there was only one line going from Gold Dust, and that was to ticTOCs. Gold Dust had nothing in common with any of the other projects in that programme. There were other JISC projects and services with which Gold Dust and ticTOCs would have had things in commmon, but they were funded under different programmes.
The process by which JISC made calls for proposals took a lot of time. We would read through many very long JISC documents, hoping that our ideas might fit into the call and discussing sub-sections and definitions. Sometimes they did, but often they didn’t. eLib was better, in this respect, because it was much more open to innovative ideas.
Finally, here’s a (hopefully) humorous poem I wrote about my personal experience towards the end of my time with Intute.
The boy stood on the freezing deck
For this was the Titanic
He saw the iceberg coming close
And thought “It’s time to panic”
“Just hold your tongue,” his bos’n swore
“And don’t disturb the crew”
“And if you say another word”
“You’ll regret it, through and through”
“Say not a word, don’t scare the crew”
“We don’t need any noises”
“The Board and I are one of mind”
“It’s jobsies for the boysies”
“I have a plan to save my skin”
The bos’n then revealed
“I’ll simply cash my Air Miles in”
“The deal has just been sealed”
So on and on the boat did plough
Until it struck the ‘berg
This is a tale of censorship
And one that you’ve now heard.
As always, if there are factual errors in any of the above post, please let me know.