Monthly Archives: August 2009

Copyright Liberation

Throughout the recent redesign of our departmental sites, we’ve used an array of images from Flickr, under Creative Commons licenses. This meant making additions to our copyright page that complied with the conditions.

We aimed to:

  • Display a thumbnail of the image and a link back to its original Flickr page
  • Credit the authour under the Attribution condition, and link to their profile page
  • Display all the CC conditions connected to the particular photograph

We decided to extract the data using the Flickr API, so that the information is accurate, and we can check if any of the conditions have been changed over time.

What is Creative Commons?

According to Wikipedia CC is a “non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share.”

It enables authors to relinquish the default “All Rights Reserved” copyright status of their work, but retain some rights; for example whether an image is used for commercial purposes; or is further adapted using Photoshop. People are motivated by a sense of creative community and openness.

Why use them on our site

We do use stock images when we need to communicate something visually, using absolute clarity. However, there are issues of cost and limitations of use, which make them impractical; also we know that our clients are media savvy, and turned off by some of the hackneyed symbolism used in stock photography.

By using images from Flickr, we have access to authentic pictures taken from personal experience.

A Good Example

On the History Department homepage there is an image of President Obama: we could have bought a small web-ready image from an established agency for around £50; but we wouldn’t have been allowed to adapt the image to fit our layout, and we’d have to remove it after an allotted time period. Furthermore the image is likely to have been formal and static.

By using an image by Flickr user Matt Wright, taken from the crowd at a Democrats rally, we have a dramatic image that we can adapt to our layout under the conditions of the license.

About Flickr API

Flickr offer one of the most comprehensive application programming interfaces (API) of any web service allowing anyone with a bit of knowledge to develop on top of their services to offer extra functionality or integrate with your own systems.  We’re not however using the main API.  Instead we’re making use of a new service offered by Flickr parent company Yahoo! – YQL or Yahoo! Query Language.  This service offers an SQL-like syntax to query the web.  For example to find out information about a photo, you could use the query:

select * from flickr.photos.info where photo_id='471634239'

That gets requested from a web service along with the return format – either XML or JSON – and they send back the resultset. No API keys are required making implementation a piece of cake. We’re doing it server side allowing us to cache the response to improve performance but YQL can also be implemented on the client using just JavaScript.

YQL isn’t just limited to extracting data from Flickr – many other Yahoo! properties are available and it can even be used to extract microformats and other data from any web page. Along with Yahoo! Pipes and Google Spreadsheets, it’s become a vital tool for anyone creating mashups of data.

ehche.ac.uk in 1999

ehche.ac.uk 1999-10In catching up on my feeds over the last week I came across an interesting diversion from Sitepoint looking at ten websites from ten years ago.

So using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine I pulled up previous copies of the Edge Hill website. Of course in 1999 the site was hosted at ehche.ac.uk but far more than the name has changed in the last ten years. If you look at homepages for 1999 it barely changed all year – we now change the main feature on the homepage a couple of times a week and news and events change almost daily. In certainly was simpler back then!

Belated IWMW 2009 wrap up

Once again I’ve broken my golden rule of blogging – “never leave a post in draft for more than 48 hours” – and so I’ve had to prune a few bits that I’d intended to write about.  Some of these may – or more likely may not – be covered at a later date.

I’m writing this sat on a plane to Chicago at the start of my holiday – driving across America from San Francisco to New York.  But I’m not here to gloat this time!  For the last week I’ve been at the University of Essex in Colchester for the Institutional Web Management Workshop – an annual conference for people involved in the web in Higher Education.  This was my third IWMW, following on from great events in Aberdeen and York.

This year I’d been asked by the conference chairs – Marieke Guy and Brian Kelly – to be part of the “organising team”.  I’m still not entirely sure what this involved but I basically gave my opinions on various aspects of how the workshop runs.  I was also asked to chair the Thursday morning session which seemed easy enough!

A few changes were made this year to the structure of the sessions.  Following the introduction of “BarCamps” last year, these were expanded to three 30 minute sessions, replacing the discussion group (which never really worked for me).  The Wednesday afternoon was split into front- and back-end “tracks”.  While one track had a parallel workshop, the other was running a couple of plenary talks.  The idea of this structure was to broaden the event to provide more technical and marketing/governance content to those that are interested.  Additionally, there was an attempt to “amplify” the event through use of video streaming, a blog and live Twitter updates – I’ll discuss that some more later.

Parallel Session: Mashups Round the Edges – Tony Hirst and Mike Ellis

Mike Ellis from Eduserv and Tony Hirst from the Open University presented an introduction to mashups session.  Anyone who follows Tony’s blog, OUseful will know that his work on mashing up various data sources can only be described as prolific.  He’s been doing stuff in the HE sector for a while including a page showing how autodiscoverable RSS feeds on HEI websites.  Released at last year’s IWMW, the number of sites with at least one feed has now increased to an underwhelming 33%.

Mike’s also been spreading the word recently, promoting linked data.  Check out the slides from one of his recent talks to get an idea of some of the things he’s barking on about 😉

Mashups are one of those things that I always intend to do more with especially when Tony Hirst makes it look so easy!  I’m not going to write any more now but I’ll try to post some examples of what you can do with the data that we make available.

Making your killer applications… killer! – Paul Boag

Paul Boag - Making your killer applications... killerA few weeks ago, Paul Boag’s slides for this plenary came up in my Google Reader feed of contacts’ presentations.  I had a quick flick through, spotted a screenshot of one of Edge Hill’s course pages, and started to worry!  As is the fashion with presentations these days, Paul’s slides contain very little text leaving me to think about all the possible faults he could be picking in our site.  Fortunately he was quite positive.

I completely agree with him that the stuff we have in the online prospectus doesn’t go far enough in terms of engagement – there is much more we can do.  I hope some of this will happen through the new department and faculty websites.  These will provide pages where we can give a richer experience of what it’s like to study a particular subject, leaving course pages to describe the detail.

The main thrust of Paul’s presentation was that online systems – and course finders in particular – should become more like desktop applications.  Using techniques such as Hijax (a method where a JavaScript Ajax call intercepts a regular link to remove page refresh while maintaining accessibility), web applications can provide detail without complexity.

Parallel Session: Scrum – Andrew Male

Demonstrating Scrum techniques using LEGOAndy Male from University of Bath Web Services ran a workshop in the back-end track about using Scrum techniques in a development team.  I’ve spoken to several people from Bath about scrum before but haven’t had the time to invest in working through how it works.  Andy’s session  gave a very useful introduction to the terminology used and then went hands-on using an accelerated scrum cycle to build a LEGO house.  It took our team a couple of cycles to get good at estimating workloads but after that we were knocking out tractor sheds, flowerbeds and lakes left, right and centre!

Seeing scrum in action has motivated me to try the technique at Edge Hill.  With a smaller development team, it may not work for all our projects, but I can see it working really well for certain things.

How the BBC make websites – Michael Smethurst and Matthew Wood

Everybody knows the BBC makes good websites.  Some may point to the amount of money Auntie receives through the licence fee to explain this but just throwing money at a problem doesn’t make things perfect.  I’m sure that every web developer in the country has at some point cited the BBC as a reason for doing something.  The day they introduced their first pages designed for 1024 pixel screens I rejoiced as it meant we could finally start thinking about developing fixed with sites that looked good at higher resolutions.

There’s lots I’d like to know more about at the BBC – the development of iPlayer, how they do mobile websites, their decision to write their own JavaScript library – but one of the best new developments at the BBC for many years is /programmes and Michael and Matthew were at IWMW to talk about exactly that.  If you’ve not seen it before, go and have a look around.  At first glance it might not look like much – it’s just a schedules website similar to the ones that have been around for years – but closer inspection reveals something much bigger.

In /programmes, the BBC Audio and Music team have created something capable of scaling to record every TV and radio programme ever broadcast by the BBC.  The plenary talk was about “designing and building data driven dynamic web applications the one web, domain driven, RESTful, open, linked data way”.  Bit of a mouthful!  What I took this to mean was a real interest in the data that they wish to publish well before they look at designs.  I suspect a few people in the audience were shocked at their opposition to “PhotoShop mockups” but we’ve sometimes had problems with sites when we’ve designed first, coded second resulting in spaghetti PHP.

I blogged about the BBC’s beautiful URLs last year and since then they’ve implemented the functionality promised and much more.  Hackable URLs mean websites work for their users, not forcing users to to work to the website.

Probably the thing that stuck out most for me was their approach isn’t to build content management systems, but to create systems to manage data.  You’ll hear me talking about this again.

The Mike and Mike Show – Mike Ellis and Mike Nolan

I mentioned earlier that I’d been asked by Brian and Marieke to chair the Thursday pre-coffee session.  I perhaps didn’t fully understand that this also involved co-presenting the 45 minute session following the chaps from the Beeb.  The schedule had “Developers Lounge Show and Tell” pencilled in for the slot but the outputs from the developers lounge were – how can I put it – limited!  A quick chat with Mike Ellis over a beer at the drinks reception led to a rough plan – we’d talk about some stuff and it’d all be fine.

Mike went for the Just In Time approach to preparing slides and delivered a great talk about becoming more than a day coder.  I wholeheartedly agree with this – in the IT industry, and for web professionals in particular, it’s vital to stay current and engaging with the geek community or attending BarCamps or hacking on your own projects in the evening is a great way to do that.  I approached my 10-ish minutes like a teacher at the end of term and played a couple of videos.  We finished up with debate answering important questions such as “are design agencies a waste of money?” (Paul Boag seemed to think so!) and “is Web 2.0 ‘where it’s at’?”

I’ll let others be the judge of how the session went, but I was glad when it was over!

Conclusions

During his wrap-up session, Brian Kelly mooted the idea of an Institutional Web Management Community – a way for Higher Education web people to continue the conversations that go on at IWMW.  Like the JISCmail lists, but better.

After last year’s IWMW I asked why so few web teams have a blog.  Twelve months on and what’s the situation now?  It appears a couple more have popped up; I’ve heard there are others but limited to internal viewers but should we do more?  Brian suggested an aggregator similar to the predominantly US-based BlogHighEd.org and while this may provide some focus it’s not the whole answer.  Clearly the US has many more colleges so we’ll never match them in number of active blogs but it could form part of the IWMC.  What needs to be done for this to happen?  Maybe in the spirit of mashups, all we need is a Google Spreadsheet and a bit of Yahoo! Pipes magic?

I saw one comment on the Twitter stream along the lines of “this year seemed very developer-focused – where was all the discussion about governance?”  I was following the backend track so it was likely to be more technical than previous years, but is this a bad thing?  If we get too bogged down in policies and strategies then we run the real risk of failing to innovate.

New Departmental Sites

We have been redesigning and reorganising our faculty and departmental websites over the last two months, and we are pleased to announce that the majority have gone live this morning:

Why Do This?

  1. Firstly we wanted to put the sites into our corporate-site design template; because we felt it was important to have consistent branding, navigation, search facility, and page-layout across all outward facing pages
  2. Secondly we have a system to extract news, events, staff profiles and multimedia from our database; we can now employ this across our new sites.
  3. Thirdly, we wanted to formalise the top level navigation, then utilise tabs on lower level pages to cater for the individual needs of the department. For example, the Performing Arts department has a greater need for visual media, than say Law and Criminology

Homepages

The sites have a main homepage modelled on the established grid, with boxes linking directly to: About the Faculty, Courses, Research, and News and Events. There is space for specific promotional needs if a new courses or publication are launched for example. For departments with a number of internal departments, like The Department of English and History; these are clearly listed on the homepage.

english outlined

Sub-Homepages

The sites have five basic sections About the Faculty, Courses, Research, News and Events, and Contact us; I wanted the About The Faculty and Courses areas to have a befitting sub-homepage with a marketing focus.

About the Faculty

I wanted to use a strong representative image, which either emphasised the attraction of the subject, or highlighted the exceptional facilities that Edge Hill has in that subject area; I also wanted a friendly welcome message from the head of department, along side their portrait and v-card details.
About The Department

Courses

The courses homepages differ according to the volume and complexity of the department’s portfolio: For example the faculties of Education and Health identify the client according to their professional level, whether they are entering study for the first time or pursuing professional development or extra qualifications.
Faculty of Health Courses

Sites within The faculty of Arts and Sciences, the portfolio of courses can be divided into Foundation, Undergraduate, and Postgraduate courses, or into subject areas:

Business School Courses
Courses themselves can have homepages, with tabs for subject specific content. These complement the online prospectus pages – where the focus is on providing information – with the capacity to display more visual content such as videos, photo galleries or other multimedia. They will also serve as landing pages when courses are promoted on social networking sites.

Advertising

Staff Profiles

The profiles are pulled from the database: they can be displayed as a thumbnail grid with contact details in tooltip boxes; or as lists with details displayed vertically, with large or small thumbnails. You can toggle between theses states using buttons.

English Staff

News and Events

Departmental news pages now use the same system as E42 our university magazine

NGAS News

Oracle Magazine

Time Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times… these are just a few of the quality publications you might reasonably expect to find on a transatlantic flight. So imagine my excitement as I boarded the plane to find Oracle Magazine on the rack! On this eight hour flight I’ve spent literally minutes flicking through it reading about topics including:

  • One Console to Rule Them All: New features of Oracle Enterprise Manager improve the management of the entire Oracle stack.
  • See savings with Linux: Oracle Enterprise Linux, Oracle Unbreakable Linux support services and Oracle VM help save money, time, energy – and the planet. [they can cure the common cold too, so I hear]
  • Imunising code against SQL injection attack by using bind arguments.

From the letters page, Felix writes in:

I am a regular reader of your magazine, and indeed appreciate you and your team for your relentless effort in lifting information technology to greater heights. Still, I want to ask you to publish more about the application of HTML, PHP and JavaServer Pages to Web design and development.

1) Is this serious?! 2) I think Felix would be better served by a good book about web development than a corporate magazine!

Listed in the upcoming events section is eduWeb but sadly IWMW is missing… maybe next year we could submit details!