September 10, 2013
by Ash Smith
University open days are a great way for prospective students to find out about a university by seeing it for themselves. It gives the students – and their parents – a good idea of the campus, the area and the organisation, as well as giving them the chance to meet some of the staff. From the University’s point of view, open days are our chance to shine, in an attempt to convince our visitors that we’re the best place for them to spend three years of their lives.
Many universities ‘do’ open data, but very few, if any, do it on the same scale as Southampton. We’re also the first university to actually employ someone full-time to work on open data. So we in the Open Data Service were quite keen to get ourselves a stand at the open day, as we genuinely believe that the data and tools we provide are a massive plus for students studying here. Now that the open days are over for the year, I thought I’d blog about my experiences running these stands. I learned a lot, so this blog post is mainly so I don’t forget these lessons, but also my contribution to other people who want to run similar stands at their own institutions.
The main obstacle I needed to overcome was the fact that I’m not a salesperson. Coming from a research background means I’m comfortable talking to a large captive audience, but I had never before tried to grab people ‘off the street’ and talk to them personally about something they’ve probably never heard of, particularly if they have other goals in mind. Our stand was in a room alongside the accommodation service, the financial support service and the careers advice stand, all things that prospective students will actively seek out at open days. These stalls were pulling massive crowds, while myself, Pat and Chris were lucky to get more than a handful of people at any one time. As the few people curious enough to approach us on their own accord all asked us the same question – “What is open data?” – I can only assume that we were always going to be at a disadvantage by simply being something of which most people are completely unaware. Running a stand promoting something so new really does require a very proactive approach.
We tried to choose a good set of demos that really showed off how open data can be used to benefit students, and I made a point of not going too much into the technical details, as in my experience this tends to scare people off. My aim was to always start with a good opening gambit such as “can I show you one of the perks of studying at Southampton?” Once I had an audience, I began by explaining in 20 seconds what the Open Data Service actually do. Then I showed the data in friendly, non-technical form with the help of Colin Williams’ excellent Open Data Map. Depending on who I was talking to I then went on to demo our new bus finder service, which we’ll be launching officially in time for Freshers’ Week, and then my workstation finder. This was particularly good on the Saturday because most of the rooms on campus were closed for the weekend and showing zero machines available. I explained to prospective students that this is a possible stumbling block if you have a deadline on Monday and need access to a computer, but not if you have our tools, as you can find an alternative computer quickly without having to go around looking for one. All this, I felt, was a good way of showing the usefulness of open data without actually getting too technical. Of course, throughout the day I occasionally got to talk to someone hoping to study computer science, meaning I could talk to them more frankly and tell them that all the data is available for them to hack something together themselves if they so wish.
Overall, it went very well. I spoke to lots of people, and even if I personally didn’t convince anyone to choose Southampton, I think a lot of people went home a bit more knowledgeable about the value of open data. I guess getting up early and coming in to work all weekend isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but we’re all about mutual benefits and this was a chance to promote the University and open data at the same time, so we were completely happy to do this. It certainly wasn’t without its rewards, either. My personal highlight was on the Friday afternoon. I managed to get the attention of a prospective student, and I spent a few minutes showing her the tools we provide and explaining situations in which they would be useful. She ran over to her parents and actually dragged them away from one of the other stands before excitedly asking me to start again and show them everything I’d just showed her. I guess I did something right!