Tag Archives: 25 days

Web Services Top Ten of 2010

At the end of the year it’s always nice to look back at some of the things we’ve done and this year we’ll do it by looking back at the top ten blog posts from the year.

  1. Confluence Design Templates
    One of last year’s 25 days posts which has had over 1000 views.
  2. Higher Education homepages in the snow
    This last week isn’t the only snow we’ve had this year and in January I had a look at what various universities were doing.
  3. Chill out at Edge Hill
    Some nice photos from the snow.
  4. ERROR 2013 (HY000): Lost connection to MySQL server during query
  5. Google Street View
  6. Street View trike on campus
  7. The imagery that Google took still isn’t live but hopefully it will be online soon.
  8. How to skin a wiki
  9. Google Apps Mail
  10. data.ac.uk
    As I mentioned earlier this month, 2010 was a big year for open data and we’ll see in the next year how it pans out.
  11. 10 PRINT “Hello World”; 20 GOTO 10

The next 12 months will see some big changes to the website and we’ll be keeping everyone up to date through the Web Services blog, but first a few days’ break!

No number today because as I write the Flickr search engine is down!

Opening the (Flood)Gates

‘Mister’ Roy Bayfield reflects on empowerment of users

Part of the next stage of evolution of the Edge Hill site will be greater distribution of direct content creation across academic departments. This won’t be some clunky CMS that costs a fortune, takes ages to implement, adds layers of semi-automated bureaucracy and then doesn’t work anyway. Instead, we intend to give selected people (whoever their department decides to nominate) access to tools that are as simple as blogging, ie they will be able to write, embed images and video and click publish – job done.

Isn’t this all a bit scary? Will dozens or hundreds of staff suddenly be bestowed with the combined powers of King Midas, Dr Frankenstein and the Sorceror’s Apprentice? Well…maybe. But the alternative – failing to do justice to the rich diversity of research, scholarship, student work and experience across the University – is even scarier. It has become easier to publish to the web (on, say, Facebook) than it is to put a PowerPoint presentation together, so why would people want to have to send stuff to other people to place online?

Well one reason is that an organisation such as ours has to manage its reputation carefully. Another consideration is the quasi-contractual status of published information, particularly relating to courses. An incorrect or outdated claim about, say, professional accreditation could get us sued. All very well for the Cluetrain Manifesto to quote Herman Melville saying “”Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses — for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it…” – how many QAA audits or Ofsted inspections did he have to go through?

There are some serious issues to consider. But for me these aren’t reasons not to enable a broader group to publish directly online – just reminders that we have to do it properly.

There are a number of things we have to get right. Off the top of my head, these include
– The people-management within departments
– Tone of voice – when to be informal and when to be corporate
– Training and standards so that we don’t trip ourselves up with, say, copyright violations
– Links between centrally-produced, corporate content (such as quality-assured prospectus entries, PR features) and locally-produced material
– Non-duplication
– Developing the right system that is easy to use
– Navigation so that routes through the site, for various key user groups, actually lead to the cool new content that will be popping up all over the site.

It will be an exciting New Year.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Number 19I wonder how many of you this year have visited a bookmakers and put on a bet for a ‘White Christmas’, not many I would imagine or maybe I’m completely wrong, one thing I do know however is as its more of a sure thing this year I can’t imagine any of them paying out. Well imagine my surprise when I visited a few betting sites just to see if they were taking bets on a ‘White Christmas’, do you know what, they are but at much lower odds! Pretty much an inevitable conclusion to expect one flake I would say, at least for this year.

Practically anywhere in the UK has roughly a 90% chance of seeing snow in the winter, it very rarely falls at Christmas (generally in January and February). However apparently it does occur approximately every 6 years.

I’m sure we all remember last year’s Christmas, 2009 and the start of 2010. The gritters had been out too early after the councils had not anticipated a big freeze, certainly nothing like we had seen previously since 1986. (I was 12 years old then and remember fondly the skiddy patches that would last for weeks). Britain was covered with thick lying snow which easterly winds had brought over the previous week. Travel over much of Britain was badly affected by ice and snow on the roads, and made more slippery by partial daytime thaw followed by overnight refreezing. It was the first white Christmas anywhere in the United Kingdom since 2004.

The second big freeze of this winter, due to start this week, is likely to last for as long as a month, putting the country on course for a winter which could be even colder than the notoriously treacherous 1962-63. This year however has been the coldest start to a winter for 100 years; bitterly cold winds from the ­Arctic will without doubt bring a blanket of snow to Scotland, the North, London and the South-east on December 25th. Wales, the South-west and central England will probably be a winter mix of sleet with snow on higher ground. So there you have it almost proof that this year will be a really cold, white Christmas. So wrap up, stay safe and warm and have a Merry Christmas.

Infrastructure dreams

16

I’ll admit it, I like to dream too.. though I’m sure it’s not much of a secret, the content of my dreams will surprise some!

I dream about ideal web serving infrastructures.

There, I said it, and this is my dream:

What I’m hoping to get set up in the new year is all sorts of cool stuff that I’ve been trying to find excuses to implement!

I’d first like Internet users to come in and hit our main Zeus Load Balancer this gives us the flexibility of being able to route the web requests anywhere we like instead of moving IP’s and changing DNS.
Then could hit Varnish Cache and have all the static bits and pieces cached in there which should take load off of poor old Apache (maybe we’ll try out nginx..).
From there I’ll be caching frequently built HTML fragments and database calls in memcached.
I’d like to try and factor in MySQL Proxy at some point to take the load off of out MySQL server and get it spread out to some slaves, which should make backing up much quicker too.

What’s your infrastructure like?

Can people see and problems and suggest alternatives?

Ste Daniels

P.S. I totally published this on the 16th at 8am and not on the 17th at 4:30pm! (Maybe the snow delayed the delivery?)

No more kissing under the mistletoe!!

I have heard this warning before in the last few years from conservationists but it appears now to be a more serious issue; the future supply of traditional English mistletoe is under threat. Why I hear you say; mistletoe thrives in established apple orchards and if you follow conservation then you will know that our apple orchards have been in serious decline for the past 60 years, this has great impact on our traditional mistletoe.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub, mainly apple trees but it will also grow within birch, hawthorn, lime and poplar. If left the mistletoe will eventually kill its host so it has to be managed, regular cutting will protect the host tree as well as ensuring a crop of mistletoe each Christmas time. Most mistletoe seeds are spread by birds; they eat the seeds and then spread them throughout the tree branches in their droppings. Mistletoe was often considered a pest that killed trees and devalued natural habitats, but was recently acknowledged as an ecological keystone species, an organism that has an excessively persistent influence over its community. A broad array of animals depend on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants, and dispersing the sticky seeds.

All is not lost however, The National Trust want you to help by buying home-grown mistletoe in the run-up to Christmas, which means asking where the mistletoe is sourced from when you buy it. Allot of our traditions we have lost over the years and it would be a crying shame if mistletoe disappeared as well.

There is so much more to mistletoe than its “romantic role”, buying mistletoe helps traditional British cider apple orchards thrive by removing mistletoe from the trees, so you are doing 2 things, helping a tradition to continue which in turn helps apple trees to flourish and let’s not forget it keeps us kissing!!

Developing using jQuery, Firefox and Firebug

10Its becoming more important to know jQuery. If you haven’t heard of jQuery, its one of the most commonly used javascript libraries used on the web. We use it for the corporate site, Hi, and GO. If your not a frequent developer in javaScript it can be an ordeal either re-learning what you’ve forgotten (I’m at that age) or having to learn something new for the first time.

As Douglas Adams would have said..

There are some really nice tools to get you started. If you don’t already, using Firefox as your development browser means that you can take advantage of a whole bunch of development tools, so if you haven’t already fire up this post in Firefox. One of the most famous developer tools for Firefox is Firebug. If you develop, you should use Firebug, get it and install it.

You don’t even need a site with jQuery already installed. BBC famously uses its own javaScript library (Glow), not jQuery, so go to the BBC homepage and fire up FireBug (F12) if you haven’t already done so.

If you’re new to FireBug, you may want a few minutes to explore and play (you’ll feel a little bit like the Scorcerer’s Apprentice). When you’ve finished playing; On the menu bar of Firebug you should see “Console”. Click “Console” to open it. In the bottom left hand corner enter :jQuery at the >>> prompt. As the BBC doesn’t use jQuery you should get an error telling you that jQuery isn’t defined.

John Reisig, the man behind jQuery, has created a bookmarklet called jQuerify. The bookmarklet loads jQuery to sites that don’t have jQuery (but only for your browser session). To use it just drag the jQuerify link into your browser toolbar and whilst on the BBC homepage, click it.

Now when you type jQuery at the Console, you should have access to the jQuery library. Now you can start to play with the jQuery library. For example, at the console type: jQuery(‘h2’) which gets all h2 elements on the page. Clicking the returned Object item takes you into the Document Object Model, giving access to all sorts of information about those page elements.

OK, lets do something freaky. Lets get rid of all the BBC’s h2 elements. Make sure you’re on the BBC home page, jQuerify has been clicked and go back to the console in Firebug and enter: jQuery(‘h2’).hide(2000)

This will hide all of the h2 elements on the page, but will be animated over 2 seconds so you can see them slide away. Don’t panic (you only did it in your browser)! You can re-display the elements by submitting: jQuery(‘h2’).show() You could also just refresh the browser, but you would have to re-click your jQuerify bookmarklet to continue experimenting with jQuery.

Now you can experiment with the entire jQuery library to learn many of the methods, documented on the site, just by entering code in the firebug console.

Dashboards

Colorful house number, two
In my previous post I talked about Wallboards. As an aside, I’ve just started experimenting with using some old O2 Joggler’s as miniature information radiators in my new home. But that’s another blog post for another blog! This time round I’m covering dashboards!

Dashboards are beautiful things that seem to be getting slung haphazardly into all sorts of applications these days.. “view this on your dashboard” “view that on your dashboard” “configure it from your dashboard”.. blah blah blah. Dashboards can be a Good Thing™.

Here at Edge Hill University we run the our GO portal, we’ve written about GO many times so I won’t go into detail here, suffice to say it’s a portal that gives you tabs – your Home tab is effectively your “dashboard”. On my GO Home tab I’ve got some useful information shown to me – it stops me hunting around various places, all of it is Edge Hill specific.

GO home tab

On there I’ve got mail, Edge Hill rss feeds, staff directory, GO news, the forum – all bits of information I regularly check. The dashboard pulls it all together so I can access it at a glance. Saving me a lot of time.

I do the same with JIRA and Fisheye as you can see below:

JIRA dashboard

All my development information needs at my fingertips…

Do you pool information you want on dashboards of some sort of other? I know I’m missing the all important personal non worky dashboard for Facebook, Picassa, Flickr and other news feeds.. but I’m at work – I get distracted easily enough as it is without all that!

How many dashboards do you have? What’s on them?

Next up is home tabs..

Ste Daniels

Go Success

Go was launched roughly three years ago and the overall aim was to make everything more accessible and easier for students. Specifically access to their Mail, File Storage, Discussion, Community, Library and Blackboard.

I would say over all Go has been a fabulous success, we have developed it a great deal over the past three years, improving it in ways more specific to certain groups of students. For example Health, Business School and Performing Arts students can all log into Go and see a taylor made area that allows them to submit assignments, get module updates and notifications about their course. Who’d of thought from this very first version we’d end up with something so dynamic.

The ‘news‘ area is split into four sections: general, support, learning and social. It serves to inform both staff and students of up and coming events; serious and fun alike and health and safety issues. It’s regulary updated to keep interest and to get out as much information as possible, too as many users as possible.

There are ‘panels‘ that can be moved around the page or removed completley, it’s up to you! In particular the ‘student learning‘ panel and the ‘student support‘ panel, they provide important information such as Term Dates and Exam Timetables.

Learning Services have created a video called ‘Learning Services 2010: Introduction to the Go Portal‘, it takes you through Go step by step: http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/study/accommodation/video/learning-services-2010-introduction-to-the-go-portal. It’s a very useful way to introduce you to Go, so if you are a student or a member of staff and you haven’t used Go, what are you waiting for!

Was 2010 the year of Open Data?

sometimes you throw a sixIn a little-read post published last Christmas Eve as part of our previous 25 days project I suggested 2010 might be the year open data became important:

I don’t like to predict the future – usually because I’m wrong – but I’m going to put my neck out on one point for the coming year. 2010 will be the year that data becomes important.

So let’s look at what’s happened over the last year.

  • Ordnance Survey Code-Point® Open data containing the location of every postcode in the country. With this people have been able to build some nice cool services like a wrapper API to give you XML/CSV/JSON/RDF as well as a hackable URL: http://www.uk-postcodes.com/postcode/L394QP (that’s Edge Hill, by the way)
  • The OS also released a bunch of other data from road atlases in raster format through to vector contour data.  Of particular interest is OS VectorMap in vector and raster format – that’s the same scale as their paper Landranger maps and while it doesn’t have quite as much data, they’re beautifully rendered and suitable for many uses, but sadly not for walking.

OS VectorMap of Ormskirk. Crown copyright and database rights 2010 Ordnance Survey.

  • Manchester has taken a very positive step in releasing transport data (their site is down as I type) – is it too much to hope that Merseytravel will follow suit?
  • London has gone one step further with the London Datastore.
  • data.gov.uk now has over 4600 datasets.  Some of them are probably useful.

In May I gave a talk at Liver and Mash expanding on some ideas about data.ac.uk. Since then lots of other people have been discussing in far more detail than I, including the prolific Tony Hirst from the Open University who have become (I believe) the first data.foo.ac.uk with the release of data.open.ac.uk.

So things are starting to move in the Higher Education open data world. I think things will move further with the HEFCE consultation on providing information to prospective students and maybe XCRI’s time has come!

Maybe 2011 will be the year people start to do data without even thinking about it?

Team Twitter

Twitter

Clock number 5Nearly everyone in Web Services has a Twitter account.
MikeNolanJanetHowarthstedanielstraffordtigerpiddyzedzdead

Many of the team have a Delicious account for storing all our bookmarks there’s even a team one.

We needed  a way to comunicate useful information from the team without it getting lost in the clutter of our personal posts.  We needed a team identity on Twitter.

Delicious

Most people have heard of twitter (its so mainstream, even the BBC now offer a #hashtag at the beginning of some of their programmes if you want to get in on the discussion) but if you haven’t heard of Delicious, it’s a social bookmarking site. It saves your bookmarks to a website, so as long as you have a connection to the web, you’ll have access to your bookmarks no matter what browser or device you’re working from. It’s social, because you can network with other users and push links to those who you might think would be interested them.

We push links to the ehu.webteam account that we think the team might find interesting or useful. Pushing a link is easy (in this case I’m using the Firefox plugin):

FireFox plugin

RSS

The link will be stored in the inbox of the ehu.webteam delicious account. Everything in delicious has an rss feed, including inboxes, so we can pull that feed into anything we like, even a twitter account. Pulling an rss feed into a twitter account is easy too. Just create an account at TwitterFeed.com and add your feeds:

TwitterFeed

Twitter Feed

As we also blog, so it made a lot of sense to add the feed from that too.

Finally we created our twitter account under the rocking title of @EHUWebServices. We’re using a HAL9000 image for our avatar, but we’ll change that if you have a better idea.

Christmas question: Why was the computer in 2001 a Space Odyssey called HAL?  Google Caesar cipher for a clue if you don’t want to go straight to the answer!

So now we have a twitter account for Web Services which automatically displays any worthy links spotted by team members and all of our blog posts. Follow us its good stuff!