Category Archives: sustainability

Observing the Web

Like a lot of people, when I think about it, or when I’m reminded about it, I understand that the Web is a place where someone is always watching what you do. I understand that … but then I think, well … the Web is such a huge beast; such a vast ocean; such a giant metropolis where the comings and goings of individuals are insignificant. How and why would anyone notice what I’m looking at and which links I’m clicking on?

Then up pops Tom Barnett from Switch Concepts Ltd. at a meeting yesterday to tell us that ‘Google has a file the size of an encyclopedia on everyone in this room.’

Hmmm … that’s not a particularly comfortable idea for someone to put in your head. I start to feel a vague sense of paranoia creeping through my mind.

And then I think, c’mon Neil, pull yourself together! Google really doesn’t care who you are. They just want to put things in your line of sight that are more rather than less likely to get you to open your wallet and part with your wages!!

Such were the thoughts that were buzzing around my head yesterday at an event organised by the Web Science Trust (

The meeting was entitled ‘Observing the Web’ and the purpose was to highlight some of the work that the Web Science Trust and their partners and collaborators are doing to build a global network of Web Observatories providing an open analytics environment to drive new forms of Web research. We went round the room doing introductions and Dame Wendy Hall ended up branding us a ‘motley crew’. Academics, industry players, not-for-profits, technologists, funders, charities, a lawyer. (Quite a respectable looking motley crew in the very smart surroundings of the Royal Society I might add). But ‘motley crew’ felt about right for a topic and a collaborative, academic, open activity that is still exploring the territory and testing new ground. Presumably in contrast to the well-resourced, sophisticated and highly developed (but opaque) methods employed by the corporate observers of the Web (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo etc.).

The point of all of this ‘observing’ is not to try and take account of every little bit of data and content on the web, but rather to understand what the aggregated use of the Web can tell us; how trends and fashions and changes of behaviour in relation to the Web might illuminate aspects of our society and culture, both now and for future students and researchers.

This was all of great interest to Jisc. We are currently working with the British Library, the Oxford Internet Institute and the Institute of Historical Research on an initiative that aligns very well with the notion of the Web Observatory.

The Big Data project (


the AADDA project (

are both using a copy of the Internet Archive’s collection of UK domain websites collected over the period 1996-2010, to examine new ways to engage with the web at domain level, and develop new forms of research that leverage the scale of the web. As the name of the Oxford project says … it’s all about using ‘Big Data’.

This was work that emerged from influential JISC-funded reports commissioned in 2010 –

Researcher Engagement with Web Archives

As we heard at the meeting, the academic observatory is a very different proposition to the corporate observatory and comes with enormous challenges including: interoperability (how do we link observatories?); access (asides from Twitter which of the big corporates will let us use their data?); privacy (will people feel spied upon?); and sustainability (what is the business model?).

A fascinating meeting and big topic. There will be more discussion in Early May at the ACM Web Science Meeting in Paris.



Berlin 9 conference

I am just back from the Berlin 9 conference. The “Berlin” series of conference are named after the Berlin Declaration on Open Access, and this was the first time the annual conference has been held in North America. It’s very hard to summarise my reactions from the conference, there were so many stories showing how opening up scholarship can lead to real benefits, in health, development, innovation and our quality of life. For example, Cyril Muller from the World Bank described how that organisation has adopted an open approach to the work it funds, and to its own operations, and is encouraging the governments with whom it works to do the same. Laura Czerniewicz from the University of Cape Town showed how open education resource, configured for SIM-enabled mobile devices, can make a real difference to some quite seriously disadvantaged students. And Elliot Maxwell highlighted some wonderfully elegant research studies, showing clearly how, when scientific findings and resources are made open, it leads to a greater diversity, quality and application of knowledge. Of course, there are implications. Michael Crow of Arizona State University argued that all this requires us to re-think the university as a social technology, and Philip Bourne highlighted some of the challenges we have in moving to a research practice that is native to the digital environment, genuinely reproducible, and that rewards researchers who move in that direction. The overwhelming impression, though, was of a scholarly community now adopting more open approaches, and beginning to see tangible benefits from that. Berlin 10 is on the African continent for the first time. I hope it will bring new voices to be heard in this community.

The OER Turn

At ALT- C I participated in several discussions around open content, and then this week we ran the closing programme meeting for Phase Two of the HEA/JISC OER programme.  I feel that a new perspective on academic-created open content is emerging.

I think it’s sometimes useful to think in terms of foreground and background: most of the elements are there and have been there all along, but some take centre stage. It’s a question of weight and attention given to the different activities, a question of where the discussions happen.

2009 Foreground 2011 Foreground
Focus on provision Focus on use
Focus on educator as provider and user Focus on non-educators as users
Open courseware, the course online Rich media, beyond text
Embedding in courses or free searching online Tutor or peer or social recommendation
CC BY NC ND  for editing by educators CC BY for remixing by anyone
Focus on licensing is key Focus on licensing might be distracting
Institutional workflows Institutional support for open practice
Storage and presentation services Brokerage services
OERs Open content

Just to stress, all of these views are evident in part in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and even before that. My interest is just in what is shifting in the foreground. This is just my first take and I hope it will stimulate discussion. It would be really interesting for others to write their own lists.

I think that enough of the focus has shifted that the space has changed.  I christen this The OER Turn. The OER Turn is characterised by the working through of the following topics:

  • visible and invisible use
  • the importance of licensing
  • the role of the university

Visible and Invisible Use

The Value of Reuse Report by Marion Manton and Dave White of Oxford, produced for the OER programme, uses an iceberg analogy of visible and invisible use. It helpfully guided our discussions at the end of phase two programme meeting. Previous to this, David Wiley’s “toothbrush” post was the example cited of this conundrum. The fact that it was so divisive amongst OER people shows that it hit a nerve (excuse the pun). I think the iceberg diagram draws on this and illustrates the problem of visibility.

The general consensus amongst people involved in UK OER Programme is that reuse of web-based resources does happen, all the time, but it is usually private, mostly invisible to the providers and often not strictly legal. So there is above waterline use and below the waterline use.

The visible use of open content tends to be institutional-level use that is itself more visible because it is openly shared again: it is being relicensed out again. Where institutions want to reuse content in aggregate open resources, it may influence the types of content they reuse, and they way in which they do it.


  • Visible use has characteristics that may not be shared by invisible use: we should not extrapolate too far from the visible uses to the invisible uses
  • Institutional content might make more use of resources that are clearly pedagogically described and fit with their structures course provision. So the most visible reuse we see might be that. But that might not be the main use case for open content.

On reflection, perhaps the top of the iceberg fits most closely with 2009 foregrounded conception of OER, the majority of the iceberg is what is being given more attention in the 2011 conception.

The importance of licensing?

Naomi Korn’s video introduction to licensing and IPR issues illustrates the concept of rights in > rights out. The more rights you want to give out to users, the more you have to restrict yourself to content you have obtained broad rights in for. As the risk management calculator illustrates, if you use content licensed as CC BY NC ND, you cannot licence it out as CC BY NC, because that doesn’t not include the ND clause. And CC BY SA can only be licensed out as CC BY SA, so cannot be remixed with anything less than CC BY or more CC BY SA. Share-Alike is quite restrictive. This is counter-intuitive but true. Play with the calculator and find out for yourself.

It may be only when reuse is more visible, such as formal institutional adoption of third party resources (above the waterline) that the risk of reusing un-cleared content is high enough to make the open license a key aspect of OER.Institutions as providers of content may wish to choose different licences to what institutions as  users of content want. They may want to publish content as (c) all rights reserved. If it is a choice between that or nothing, what should they choose?  Note that they could publish something as (c) all rights reserved unless otherwise stated, and have clearly marked CC elements. Polarising a simple open or not open isn’t helpful. As Naomi Korn put it, “what is the opposite of open”? Paid-for? Authenticated? Not editable? Open content needs to be viewed as part of the wider ecosystem of content. What it “affords” will be specific to the use case. Interestingly this is a good parallel with accessibility: “accessible to who to do what?”

Reflecting with Naomi Korn we shifted our recommendation from “whichever CC licence suits” (1) in phase one to “ideally CC BY” in phase two. John Robertson has summarised licensing choices made by the projects.  This is an example of how the programme has pushed forward our understanding of this area, including that of the legal experts. If we knew the answers at the start, it wouldn’t be an innovation programme!

Thinking above to the points about visibility: if the open content is not shared out again under an open licence then it might be being used but not so visibly. It might show up as web stats, but even then, once the content has been copied to another place, as any CC licence lets you do, then the content proliferates, as does the usage. Usage becomes even harder to see.

Another implication of described use as above below the waterline is that the risk is significantly less. The feeling was that this is an appropriate risk evaluation.  So, open licensing does matter for formal institutional use, less so for practice that is “under the waterline”.


  • Mixed economy of content is the reality for most end use cases.
  • The benefits of licensing to providers and users are different; of courses users would like as many rights as they can have, but which use cases really need those rights? Can the content be made available under a more restrictive licence and still be useful to the majority of use cases?
  • There is an emerging use case of intermediary/brokering services: aggregation, fusion, curation, which perhaps does require CC BY. Not because the end user needs them but because the middleware needs them in order to remix and represent content. Often though I suspect it is the feed or metadata that needs to be licensed rather than the content. Open metadata might turn out to be more important to open academic content than open content licensing.

We are genuinely learning together on this: as open licensing spreads and models of use develop, we will need to be alert to the mechanics of remixing content. And also open to the possibility that the end point of the supply chain need not be open: not all content will be licensed out again.

A great example of the OER Turn is how  OER Commons includes resources described as “read the fine print” licenses. Or Therese Bird’s work on iTunesU.

However … I still want to hear more about the rights that Creative Commons licenses grant to translate and shift formats, for above the waterline activities. Examples please! This could be key.

The role of the university

Alongside the previously dominant narrative of OERs as exchanges between educators and each other, and educators and their learners, there is also the potential for academic open content to connect academics with the public. I explored that a little in a previous post, Tony Hirst further in his post on OERs and public service education, University of Nottingham, Oxford University and other institutions also see their open content as part of their public engagement.

In some scenarios opening up universities through open practice is about OER, in the top of the iceberg sense. But much of the benefits of opening up knowledge to the public can be achieved without open content licensing (unless the brokering services need it). Initiatives like Warwick Knowledge also draw on the notion of the university as a pubic knowledge organisation.

So there is a strong argument for focussing more on the public and global use of open content.

Sidenote: Critics of the toothbrush analogy might say that this is what they meant all along. I’m not sure that is true. If it is, it wasn’t very well articulated. Because we still need to understand the drivers behind provision and how the benefits of public engagement can be articulated.  Academic staff are a university’s most precious resource. The needs of institutions, who pay academic’s wages, need to be factored in to how open practice can be supported.

The pursuit of global knowledge is not owned by universities. Wikipedia, Slideshare, YouTube, Twitter, Delicious have all seen a blossoming of thoughtful quality input from a huge range of sources. The role that academics play in this open content space is as one type of contribution. Learners contribute too. But so do millions who are outside of formal education.

OER is dead. Long live academically-created content appropriately licensed and formatted to support intended users

Not quite as catchy, is it? However I am increasingly hearing suggestions that OER is not a useful term any more, aside from a supply-side term relating to the visible tip of the iceberg. I have recommended for some time that we drop the term and focus instead on open content and open practice.

Having asked a year ago what the “O” in OER means, now I find myself asking what the “Open” in Open Content means. Well, it definitely means free (not paid). And it means easily linkable, which means not authenticated (not closed). However what about near-ubiquitous controlled access through gmail or facebook? Sometimes the format matters, sometimes the licensing matters. Maybe this matters a lot for content to cross language boundaries, maybe it matters a lot for accessibility. In which case do we need to articulate the costs and benefits of open content for those use cases? We don’t want to kill open practice dead by focusing too strictly on definitions of openness any more than we want to kill open content by diluting the promise to users seeking editable re-licensable content. What questions should be asking about open content?

What do you think?

Amber Thomas

Creative Commons Licence
OER Digital Infrastructure Update by Amber Thomas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

Footnote (1) The wording was  “Examples of suitable licences include those with the “Attribution” and “Share-Alike” clauses. We would encourage projects not to use the non-free Creative Commons variants (such as “Non Commercial” and “No Derivatives”), as these negatively affect the reusability of resources. However, we do recognise that in some specific circumstances this may not be possible.” (Thanks to David Kernohan for extracting)

Halfway through the US Blue Ribbon Meeting

Greetings from Blue Ribbon Meeting again.

Some interesting angles emerging from a variety of participants. Heard from Thomas Kalil this morning who works as a policy staffer at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology. (Is he perhaps what they call a ‘policy wonk’ … I don’t know. I should have paid closer attention to the West Wing). Anyway – he talked about how the preservation community might be able to get this whole area of digital sustainability onto the Presidential radar. What we don’t do is to present this as a problem that needs to be tackled in ten different ways, at different levels, by diverse stakeholders. We need to realise that the White House is in the business of saying ‘no’ most of the time, so we need to make it as easy as possible for them to say ‘yes’. We need to be realistic about what we’re asking for and we need to be very directed about who in the Presidential office we approach to champion the cause.

What we probably do is get a message to the President that person x at trusted organisation y, has a low cost/high benefit measure that the President really needs to hear, which fits with his broad agenda, and has the backing of many thought leaders across the expert community.

I’m assuming we can transpose that to Downing Street.

 Right … we’re back in session. More later.


The Economics of Sustaining Digital Information

I’m in Washington to attend the US Symposium of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access.

Symposium programme –

This is the end of a two year process of enquiry and analysis where  14 experts have had a series of meetings to consider what the economic implications are, and what economic frameworks are required, to ensure that all of the expensively acquired knowledge that we commit to digital formats is available for as long as we need it … or in some cases, even longer! – given that there is a great deal of information around that subsequent generations might find useful even though we have no clear idea what we should do with it!

The panel of experts is mostly drawn from the US although the UK has been represented by Paul Ayris (UCL) and Chris Rusbridge (DCC). The final report is now available at:

The report focuses on four types of information: scholarly discourse; research data; commercially owned cultural content; and collectively produced web content, and uses these categories to frame some recommendations for a range of different stakeholders. These are presented as a number of bullet-pointed lists and tables which can (and no doubt will) be extracted from the report by way of summarising some of the detail contained in the main body of the text.

For those of us not au fait with the language of economics, hearing digital materials referred to as ‘non-rival depreciable durable assets’ makes you stop and think for a moment … but as the concepts are explained and the principles become clear, this well written report starts to give you a slightly new take on the long-term management of digital resources.


“… to engage or not engage…” the choice for libraries.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the RLUK conference, their first conference and one that everyone there seemed to enjoy. Unfortunately I only made it for the last day for a slot where a panel of funders, policy bodies and service providers, including JISC, said a few words about priorities and partnership with others.

I did get to hear Lynne Brindley speak. She covered a lot of ground and most of what she said chimed with JISC priorities; albeit coming from a different set of organisational boundaries. Anyway I thought I’d just jot down what Lynne said as I think the issues she raised are well worth recounting here. I might’ve misinterpreted some things, especially since it was a while ago now but on the whole I think I’ve captured the main points.

In general she was referring to the fact that in the complex digital environment offering services that remain relevant and take advantage of what Lynne called “mass creativity” can be difficult. But she said the choice for libraries is “ to engage or not engage”. Unsurprisingly the message was to engage.

A summary of issues she raised:

• Developing digital information services does incur a cost. A lot of innovative projects have been developed but we have not yet fully tackled sustainability.

• Libraries should support innovative scholarship. We’re now in a complex world where the web is a platform of “mass creativity” but offers real opportunities for innovative scholarship. She referred to some examples where digitisation and making digital resources available have led to new knowledge.

• Libraries need to move well beyond the critical role they play in licensing and recognise that things like document supply are not as relevant as they once were.

• “life beyond the document” how should libraries respond to this?

• The research data question and the skills gap – we have data librarians but not enough of them; traditionally libraries are more orientated towards humanities.

• Masses of information of different types – blogs, email etc are all important to scholarship they are the ephemeral information of today; what are we doing about versions of works or notes and annotations? Think of authorship and how notes are kept of authors that enhance research.

• Many people use information in different ways, skim reading etc, therefore should delivery be different, does it matter that people use information differently? Information literacy does that matter? Should libraries be helping to equip people with the skills to make the right judgments?

• The researchers of the future (and quite a few researching now) come from the born digital age and will use information differently, so what is information literacy?

• Web archiving: the web is a huge resource that must be accessible into the future for research; the legal issues are a problem but hopefully legal deposit will make a difference.

• The value of the library can sometimes be summarised as: authenticity, authority and long-term use – what about authority v amateur?

• Digital preservation is very important – this has been seen as important at policy and government levels but now it is getting into the public conscience – this is when libraries start to have real success with these issues. Just tell someone that all those photos will not be accessible and they can relate to it.

• She ended on intellectual property (IP) and referred to the EU Green Paper on Copyright and how IP deserved attention and organisations, such as academic libraries, needed to take action so any risk of locking information down further was mitigated. She emphasised that without reasonable copyright exceptions there is a risk to democratic society.

A lot of these issues are being addressed by libraries and organisations like the British Library and JISC, for example we’re responding to the EU Green Paper on Copyright in the Knowledge Economy. But despite that all of the issues require further debate and change.

JISC is about to launch a collaborative initiative with SCONUL, RLUK, The British Library and RIN that builds on our Libraries of the Future campaign and that will seek to further understand and shape the position of libraries into the future. Watch this space…it should be announced shortly.