In For a Penny, In For a Pound… My Promotion “Case for Support”

JUst before going away on holiday, I popped up a questionnaire asking for a little help working out what sort of impact – if any – I had on folk that could weave in to my promotion case for support… Thanks to all who took the time out to reply (it was very humbling:-)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a draft of the Case for Support, which I need to submit tomorrow. Whilst I haven’t been able to add direct quotes from the questionnaire responses – the word limit is set at 1500 words – your responses did inform what I wrote: some of the words are very heavily loaded and more densely packed, on occasion summarising whole responses…

Tony Hirst – Case for promotion to Senior Lecturer
My case for promotion is based around excellence in teaching and scholarship, with a strong theme of digital scholarship and community engagement.

Teaching & contributions to the teaching system
I have chaired three courses (production and presentation), and authored on four others, pushing the elearning agenda through technology and design innovation with a view to reuse.
In 2000, I developed two units for T396 delivered via a novel electronic study guide, providing a unified browser-based interface to online, offline and CD-ROM content, and a mobile website for course alerts. This work identified issues relating to authoring content specifically for browser based delivery on desktop and mobile devices that have informed my work ever since.
A major feature of my approach to the production of teaching materials relates to supporting reuse in other contexts. Whilst writing online material for the T184 robotics course, I commissioned several interactive browser-based activities that have been reused on courses such as TXR174, as well as for outreach. Using T184 software, I developed a range of activities for schools and OU regional Aim Higher/Widening Participation initiatives. These were delivered at over 50 events by the OU Robotics Outreach Group (which I co-founded 1 and whose members produced over 20 formal publications during the period 2000-2007, as well as press coverage). In turn, the activities informed the course material design for the TXR174 residential school robotics activity as a series of worksheets, some of which were consequently reused verbatim on T885. Interactives I developed for TU120 have also been used in wider reaching Library training activities.
As chair of T184, contributor to TU120, I used Google Analytics for discovering how students used online course and Library materials. This led, in part, to the OU Library website adopting and using Google Analytics for tracking Key Performance Indicators.
In both T184 and TU120, I lobbied for the used of embedded third party content from Youtube and flickr within course materials, working with the OU Rights Department to clarify issues around the use of such content, making it easier for other course teams to draw on similar resources in the future.
For T151 Digital Worlds, I created a flexible and adaptable curriculum of the sort that IET are now exploring using a structure that also informed the development of T123. An innovative custom search engine capable of searching over all and only the public web-based resources linked to from the T151 course materials led to a similar service being adopted in TT381; T151 also used an interactive mindmap (now being explored by LTS) to provide at-a-glance views over the whole course on one screen.

1 As member of the OU-ROG I helped organise a Blue Peter “Design a Robot’ Competition (>20, 000 entries); a national junk modeling event (sponsored by 20th Century Fox, funding I secured); the launch of an OU badged hobbiest robotics range sold via high street retailers; convened three conference workshops on artificial intelligence and robotics at UK based international conferences, as well as RoboFesta-UK, a series of five annual meetings attended by between 50 and 100 members of the UK robotics education community each year; I was PI for the EPSRC funded Creative Robotics Research Network (rated tending to outstanding).

Scholarly work
Throughout my career I have explored new methods of digital scholarship and ways of using technology to transform research, dissemination and knowledge construction, developing an international reputation as an advocate of emerging web technologies through community engagement.

Google Suggest (results based in part on frequency of searches around particular search terms) shows my name is strongly associated with The Open University. The line chart shows page views (excluding RSS subscription views) on the blog.

The heart of my scholarly activity is the blog, started in 2005. Since July 2007, it has grown to attract >2000 regular subscribers, c. 1000 views per day, contains over 500 posts (the most notable attracting over 20,000 views each), and has received over 1500 comments; over the last 12 months, there have been c 20,000 clicks through to external sites, including over 4,000 to a single site (Adobe Flash Privacy settings). Nominated for the 2008 Edublog awards, it is regularly listed in the top 30 UK technology blogs (wikio) and currently has Technorati rating of 426. Research conducted for Online Services ranked it as the 10th most influential site for ‘distance learning’ (above the BBC) and 2nd as a hub for connections around this term 2.

2 See

I have an active Twitter presence (>2400 curated followers, >5000 click-throughs on shared links per month (, >100 unique retweeters (klout)).
With an archive of presentations on Slideshare dating back to 2006, my top three presentations have drawn over 20,000 views between them and the twenty presentations posted so far this year have attracted >9000 views.
I am established as a prominent member of the global edu-blogger community, receiving a large number of online citations and credits, and many speaker invitations. As a prominent OU blogger, my work is used as a model for the development of digital scholarship within the University.
Reflecting evolving notions of digital scholarship, my reputation spans several disciplines, as evidenced by a public call I put out for feedback on the impact and influence I have had on others 3.

3 The web based form attracted 26 submissions (24 legitimate) and provides strong anecdotal and personally communicated evidence for the claims that follow. I am happy to provide access to the responses on request.

Since publishing the first MPs’ Travel Expenses Map visualisation in 2009, I have developed a strong reputation in the data journalism area at an international level: my blog posts are used to demonstrate good practice by several industry websites (e.g., my work is being shared in several different UK universities and referenced widely in others’ conference presentations (e.g. regularly by Simon Rogers, Guardian Datastore Editor); I have received several invitations to present at journalism events.
Building on the open source WriteToReply document discussion platform I co-founded in 2009 (as mentioned in the national press (BBC, Guardian)), I helped win JISC Rapid Innovation funding and further exploitation funding for JISCPress. JISCPress has been used to publish JISC Strategy documents and reports, and is currently being discussed as a potential tool for publishing commentable internal OU documents. WriteToReply has been used by several government departments (including DCMS, The Cabinet Office, ONS) to republish consultation and guidance documents in commentable form. WriteToReply has contributed to the development and adoption of “commentable documents” as a consultation strategy type within UK government and, via JISCPress, benefited from an accessibility review commissioned by the Department of Innovation Business and Skills.
In 2007, I brought together an informal team to develop an OU Facebook application, devising and leading the development of the OU Course Profiles application (> 6,000 users soon after it launched), following it up with a peer support application: My OU Story. To date, these remain the OU’s only Facebook applications, although more are now planned with VC support.
My approach towards rapid prototyping has resulted in numerous invitations to run practical workshops, as well as being referenced in several JISC funding calls. The “technology recipes” I publish have been widely adopted and reused by individuals within institutional contexts in the UK and internationally, both for service delivery (e.g. the use of RSS feeds and Yahoo Pipes for content syndication and information processing) as well as teaching (e.g. relating to the use of social technologies in both postgraduate and undergraduate courses).
I have advocated the use of interactive web technologies using lightweight approaches in support of OU/BBC broadcasts: in my role as OU academic supporting the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet, I set precedents in the use of embedded, user generated content from third party services, such as YouTube and flickr within programme support pages, and commissioned the development of an interactive map for listeners that allowed them to show where they were listening to the programme (to date, over 1100 listeners have done so).

open2 embedding
Examples of content embedding on

Following my Arcadia Fellowship with the Cambridge University Library (“the UL”), several of the recommendations I made fed directly into the UL’s latest round of strategic planning. Outcomes from my Fellowship also fed in to two future service delivery workshops I ran for the OU Library.
My approach towards “openness” is based on a deep belief in the idea of community engagement, and the role of the academic in supporting communities around them. My social networking activities provide an element of extended support to a wide ranging community, not dissimilar to the support provided as part of a PhD supervision process.
My willingness to share ideas means others are free to develop them. The iTitle and uTitle social media caption tools developed by JISC Regional Support Centre’s Martin Hawksey, and that have been used to annotate several conference video archives with backchannel commentary, are a direct result of ideas posted to

Word count: 1500

If you can track something back to what you said, and if I have misrepresented it, please let me know. If you think there are any glaring omissions, please also let me know;-)

PS interesting.. Impact Research Fellow, DMU. This post is a unique opportunity to analyse the impact of a group of key social media projects in relation to business innovation and the growing field of transliteracy research. It is ideally suited to a scholar wishing to examine the importance of impact in relation to a substantial example of social media practice" [via @ambrouk/@suethomas]

[UPDATE: the attempt at promotion turned out to be ouseless]

Moving Machines…

I’ve just taken on a new desktop computer – the first desktop machine I’ll have used as daily machine for seven or eight years. As with every new toy, there is the danger of immediately filling it with the same crud that I’ve got on my current laptop, but I’m going to try to limit myself to installing things that I actually use…

My initial download list (the computer is a Mac):

  • A lot of files I work with are on Google docs, so I don’t actually need to install them at all – I just need a browser to access them
  • an alternative browser: Macs come with Safari preinstalled but I tend to use Chrome; I don’t sign in to Chrome, although I do use it on several machines. Being able to synch bookmarks would be handy, but I’m not sure I want to inflict the scores of open tabs I have onto every browser I open…
  • Dropbox desktop: I need to rethink my Dropbox strategy, and indeed the way I organise files, but Dropbox on the desktop is really handy…having downloaded and configured the client, it started synching my Dropbox files by itself (of course…;-). I’ll probably add the Google Drive dektop client at some point too, but in that case I definitely need a better file management strategy…
  • Gephi: for playing with network visualisations, and one of the main reasons for getting the new machine. As Gephi is a Jave app, I also needed to download a Java runtime in order to be able to run it
  • Rstudio: I considered not bothering with this, pondering whether I could move wholesale to the hosted RStudio at, but then went with the desktop version for several reasons: a) I tinker with RStudio all the time, and don’t necessarily want to share everything on Crunch (not because users can see each others’ files even if they aren’t public, rather: there’s the risk Crunch may disappear/become unavailable/I might be cast out of the OU etc etc); b) the desktop version plays nicely with git/github…
  • Git and Git for Mac: I originally downloaded Git for Mac, a rather handy UI client, thinking it would pull down a version of Git for the commandline that RStudio could play with. It didn’t seeem to, so I pulled a git installer down too;
  • Having got Git in place, I cloned one project I’m currently working on from Github using RStudio, and another using Git for Mac; the RStudio project had quite a few package dependencies (ggplot2, twitteR, igraph, googleVis, knitr) so I installed them by hand. I really need to refactor my R code so that it installs any required packages if they haven’t already been installed.
  • One of the things I pulled from Github is a Python project; it has a few dependencies (simplejson (which I need to update away from?), tweepy, networkx, YQL), so I grabbed them too (using easy_install).
  • For my Python scribbles, I needed a text editor. I use TextWrangler on my laptop, and saw no reason to move away from it, so I grabbed that too. (I really need to become a more powerful user of TextWrangler – I don’t really know how to make proper use of it at all…)
  • Another reason for the big screen/bigger machine was to start working with SVG files – so I grabbed a copy of Inkscape and had a quick play with it. It’s been a long time since I used a mouse, and the Mac magic mouse seems to have a mind of its own (I far prefer two-finger click to RSI inducing right-click but haven’t worked out how/if magic mouse supports that?) but I’ve slowly started to find my way round it. Trying to import .eps files, I also found I needed to download and install Ghostscript (which required a little digging around until I found someone who’d built a Mac package/installer…)
  • I am reluctant to install a Twitter client – I think I shall keep the laptop open and running social tools so as not to distract myself by social conversation tools on the other machine…
  • I guess I’ll need to install a VPN client when I need to login to the OU VPN network…
  • I had a brief go at wiring up Mac mail and iCal to the OU’s Outlook client using a Faculty cribsheet, but after a couple of attempts I couldn’t get it to take so guess I’ll just stick with the Outlook Web App.

PS One of the reasons for grabbing this current snapshot of my daily tools is because the OU IT powers that be are currently looking at installing OU standard desktops that are intended to largely limit the installation of software to software from an approved list (and presumably offer downloads from an approved repository). I can see this has advantages for management, (and might also have simplified my migration?) but it is also highly restrictive. One of the problems with instituting too much process is that folk find workarounds (like acquiring admin passwords, rather than being given their own admin/root accounts from the outset) or resetting machines to factory defaults to get around pre-installed admin bottlenecks. I appreciate this may go against the Computing Code of Conduct, but I rarely connect my machines directly to the OU network, instead favouring eduroam when on campus (better port access!) and using VPN if I ever need access to OU network services. Software is the stuff that allows computers to take on the form of an infinite number of tools – the IT stance seems to take the view that it’s a limited purpose tool and they’re the ones who set the limits. Which makes me wonder: maybe this is just another front on the “Coming Civil War over General-purpose Computing”…?

Reclaim ssh

Note to self around working with ssh. If you create your own keys, eg named id_reclaim set originally via ssh-keygen -t rsa -C, and share the key with the site you want to login to (eg.g, you can specify that particular key for use in a login to the site using ssh -i id_reclaim

Six Degrees of Separation May Work in the Real World, But Not Inside a Siloed Organisation?

Trying to track down who knows a particular thing in an organisation can get a bit frustrating at times…

You ask someone who you think may know, and they don’t. Treating it like a six degrees of separation thing, you then ask each person for a name of someone they think might know. But that doesn’t work either.

At some point, messages get cc’d to people who have already asked (and who are presumably getting fed up with seeing the same request keep looping back to them). Which makes me think that a good definition of a silo might be defined in graph theoretic terms as a cycle?

Maybe silos do have ways out of them – a single connection between two subgraphs that are each heavily interconnected within themselves – or maybe they don’t…

For example, if edges are directed in the sense of who folk would think to ask about a topic maybe the person who connects one subgraph (that doesn’t know the answer) to the subgraph where someone does know the answer doesn’t have any incoming edges.

If I ask A_C or A_B, and B_C is the person who knows what I need to know, we’re stuck… Whereas if I’d asked A_A, B_A, or B_B, I’d have got there… If B_A is the person I need to find, then, erm… If it’s A_A, all hope is lost!

PS This makes me remember a weak optimisation trick: if you get stuck in a local minimum, start again by seeding with a new random starting point. Hmm… maybe sending random emails instead?