PIPaL: JISC BCE at Loughborough

3.7 Technology Choices

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In simplistic terms there are a number of off-the-shelf Customer Relationship Management systems that might be employed by an educational institution, with more or less customization for local requirements.  The annual UCISA CIS Survey[1] now includes a column requesting feedback on institutional Relationship Management systems, and a breakdown of the most recent figures is shown below:

These figures have typically been provided by central IT departments rather than the units tasked with Business and Community Engagement, and should consequently be taken under advisement.  For example, we hear anecdotally that the Raiser’s Edge software has a much larger market share in Higher Education than that shown above.

There is also the issue that some of these packages have a particular focus, e.g. Raiser’s Edge on Alumni and Advancement, and Hobsons on the Student Lifecycle.  Others are relatively unvarnished commercial systems that might not be appropriate to deploy in an educational context.  Again anecdotally we are aware of institutions that have made significant capital commitments to systems that are fundamentally incompatible with their own ways of working, seemingly through insufficient requirements analysis.

Another issue of particular interest to JISC is the use of so-called “Linked Data”.  The graph below, by Christian Bizer, illustrates some of the links and relationships between well known sets of data.  You can read more about this work at the WWW2009 Linked Data on the Web[2] workshop site.

Linked Data schematic, per Christian Bizer

The principle underlying Linked Data is that common identifiers can be used to “mash up” datasets in interesting new ways.  This point has particular relevance to Relationship Management as an area, because much of what we have discussed in this report involves interfaces between databases and the correlation of disparate data.

The reader may have heard recently about data.gov.uk[3], the UK Government’s new clearinghouse for public sector data.  The concept underlying this is that people will find useful things to do by correlating data that had been collected for a specific purpose and might otherwise be unused.  Examples of this are PlanningAlerts.com[4], which searches Local Authority data for planning applications near a given location; and FillThatHole[5], which allows citizens to report problems (such as potholes) without needing to know who is responsible for a given section of road.  This is part of a larger initiative across the world to free government data which The Guardian has been cataloguing in its World Government Data[6] site.

In the context of our work on Relationship Management for JISC, it is particularly interesting that the data for the sites above was collected by very different bodies and for different purposes, and also to consider how it can be made possible to link from one set of data to another.  When a piece of data is tagged with a particular identifier we also need for that identifier to come from a common shared vocabulary or at least to have an agreed set of mappings from the vocabulary used in one database to that used in another.  Examples that have some relevance in our context are HESA JACS codes[7] and Companies House Company Numbers[8]. When used in combination with structured data in a format such as XML, many doors are opened.  For example JACS course codes and XCRI course advertising[9] in combination potentially allow a prospective student to “shop around” to see which institutions offer a particular course.  Further linked data sets could make this an extremely powerful tool by linking directly into the institutions’ course materials on their Virtual Learning Environments, iTunesU, YouTube, and so on – allowing students to effectively create their own bespoke courses from multiple institutions’ Open Educational Resources.

As part of the project we have been looking into the feasibility of taking the Linked Data approach for tracking some of our research and business partnerships, and found quite a few pitfalls.  Higher Education institutions tend not to go out of business and only infrequently merge or change their name. However, in the commercial world this is a matter of routine, and further complicated by the likes of holding companies and wholly owned subsidiaries.

Even settling on a name for a common vocabulary can be a fraught process.  For example, Loughborough’s Systems Engineering[10] partner BAe Systems is also often referred to as BAe and British Aerospace.  Additionally, in some key areas we will need to collect further information to link existing datasets.  For example, our publications database is not presently aware of co-authors’ institutional affiliations.

Similarly, whilst research proposals have to be processed on a standard University form before they can be submitted to the funding councils, information about project partners is not presently collected in a structured way on these forms at Loughborough.  At present we adopt a human assisted approach to populating the Institutional Repository[11], and in our interviews for the project a commonly expressed view was that something similar would be desirable to ensure consistency when exploring the possibilities opened up by a Linked Data approach.

Another area of interest is the visualization of data sets, which in the world of Web 2.0 has become something that no longer requires expert skills to achieve.  The figure below illustrates this with a “word cloud” showing the journals that Loughborough academics publish in.  This is based on information extracted from the University’s publications database, and fed to the Wordle[12] website.  The larger the text, the more papers were published in that journal.

It is clearly attractive to use techniques such as this to represent partnerships in Relationship Management terms graphically – picture company names in the cloud rather than journal names.

Another word cloud shows common words from the staff members’ home pages in the Engineering Faculty at Loughborough:

Whilst the data itself is fairly unstructured, a decision had been made across the Faculty to use consistent section headings.  This facilitated the extraction of the text from the “Broad Interests and Expertise” section of each staff member’s home page.  It is not surprising given Loughborough’s background that Systems Engineering looms large in this.  It is, however, very interesting to see that renewables and in particular renewable energy do not feature particularly highly as yet.  We can expect that this will change quite drastically over the next few years, particularly with the formation of the Sustainability Research School[13] and the phenomenal success of University spin-off companies working in this area, such as Intelligent Energy[14].


[1] http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/members/surveys/cis_2009.aspx

[2] http://events.linkeddata.org/ldow2009/

[3] http://www.data.gov.uk/

[4] http://www.planningalerts.com/

[5] http://www.fillthathole.org.uk/

[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world-government-data

[7] http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=158&Itemid=233

[8] http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/

[9] http://www.meanboyfriend.com/overdue_ideas/2009/10/ucas-course-code-lookup/

[10] http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/el/programmes/systems/

[11] http://blog.lboro.ac.uk/blog/news/5000th-item-added-to-loughborough-university’s-institutional-repository

[12] http://wordle.net

[13] http://www.lboro.ac.uk/schools/sustainability/

[14] http://www.intelligent-energy.com/

Written by Martin Hamilton

September 4, 2010 at 8:56 am

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