June 6, 2013
by Christopher Gutteridge
Last year we built a system which aggregates event RSS feeds and makes a nice events calendar for the university. I was recently quite surprised to discover a way which the information was being used.
“Change Management within iSolutions uses the Events Calendar open data in conjunction with other confidential data sources to build a rich understanding of critical University activities throughout the year. This enables iSolutions to schedule maintenance work to minimises service disruption to our users, and it also assists in understanding impacts to users when unplanned service outage occurs. ” – D.J. Hampton, IT Service Management & QA Team Manager
May 22, 2013
by Christopher Gutteridge
When: June 26th, 10am-5pm
Where: Access Grid room, Level 3, Building 32 (and probably also the Level 4 coffee room for less formal stuff)
The data.southampton team will be hosting a hackaround day where we’ll give demos, take ideas, help you use the data and build neat things. The exact format of the day will be very loose, but anybody interested is welcome to drop in and have a chat, watch a demo or meet other interested people to start developing ideas and new uses.
If you’re definitely/possibly coming, you can indicate it on the facebook page for the event.
Got some requests or ideas already? Leave them in the comments.
April 11, 2013
by Ash Smith
Just recently I’ve been looking for data we can publish as RDF with minimal effort, and without requiring any access to restricted services or taking up peoples’ time. I came across the University’s jobs site, jobs.soton.ac.uk. It uses a pretty cool system which exports all the vacancies as easily parsable RSS feeds, grouped into sensible categories. We have a feed for each campus, and a feed for each organisational unit of the University, so if a job appears in, for example, the feed for Highfield Campus as well as the feed for Finance, the job is a finance-based job on the Highfield Campus. Because of this, it’s trivial to write a script that parses all the RSS feeds on the jobs site and produces RDF. So that’s what I did, and you can see the results in our new Vacancies dataset.
Normally when I produce a new dataset I like to provide a clever web tool or search engine to make use of the data, but this time I haven’t, because the jobs site already does this very well. So why republish the data at all? There are two reasons. Firstly, our colleague at Oxford University, Alexander Dutton, has already done this with Oxford’s vacancies. If we do the same, using the same data format, we’ve effectively got a standard. If other organisations begin to do the same thing, suddenly the magic of linked open data can happen. The second reason is because now SPARQL queries are possible. They’re a bit advanced for the layman, but if you were looking, for example, for a job at Southampton General Hospital paying £25K or higher, you can write a SPARQL query that does all the hard work for you, and the same query will work with Oxford’s data, although obviously you’ll need to replace the location URI with one of theirs.
Feel free to have a poke around at the data and, as always, if you manage to come up with a cool use for this data – even just an idea – then please let me know.
March 20, 2013
by Christopher Gutteridge
data.ac.uk launched today. It will provide a hub for linked data in .ac.uk open data services, and aggregate open data from UK academia. It’s been set up by the data.southampton team, but it’s owned by the community of .ac.uk open data services.
Our equipment dataset is now aggregated by equipment.data.ac.uk and there is a nifty search.
March 19, 2013
by Ash Smith
We now have a tool that allows anyone in the University to find a suitable room for their event. We call it the Room Finder and I for one am rather proud of it. The tool pulls data from the places dataset, the room features dataset and the new room bookings dataset, and is a really simple way of finding a room at the University of Southampton. Let’s say, for example, that you need a room for a lunchtime meeting on Friday somewhere on Highfield Campus – and by the way, the room must contain a data projector and a piano. Using the Room Finder, you can check to see if such a room is available at the time you need and, if so, click through to the room description pages to find out more. The tool doesn’t currently allow you to actually book the room, but it’s hoped that many phone calls to Estates and/or the central booking service can now be avoided as we continue our ongoing mission to get all the University’s useful data onto the web.
The Room Finder is still under development, so things will change in the coming days. Specifically, I’m not completely happy with the way it displays the features list, it’s still a little bit more technical than it needs to be. We’re also hoping to get a mobile version out soon, it’s a bit fiddly trying to use it on a small screen. But as with everything on this site, I hope it shows just how useful open data can be. If you do find a problem with it, have a request for an additional feature or just find it useful and want to let me know, then feel free to drop me an email at email@example.com.
January 24, 2013
by Ash Smith
Over the last few weeks, Patrick has been exploring the university’s central data store looking for information on rooms and the features they contain. We’ve always had room features on data.southampton.ac.uk, but they were all generated from a single XML file given to Chris some years ago, and things change over time. So thanks to Pat’s fearless efforts investigating the central Oracle database, we now have a couple of scripts to pull not only room features, but booking information as well. A quick RDF generation script from me later, and we now have a method of ensuring the open data is as up to date as the university’s central database.
This is quite a big deal in my opinion – anyone planning a lecture or event can now view room information from the web and work out which rooms are suitable and available at the required time without having to phone Estates or walk across campus in the rain. Also, updating our data after such a long time is interesting for noting how things change over time; if nothing else, audio/visual technology is improving while chalk blackboards are definitely getting rarer!
January 18, 2013
by Christopher Gutteridge
Last week we had a visit from Paul Gibbons aka “FOI Man”. He works at SOAS and came down to Southampton to see what we’ve been up to with open data.
At Southampton the FOI-handling stuff and open data have only a nod-in-the-corridor relationship, but there’s some obvious wins in working together.
In other news, we’ve got more data in the pipes, and are writing importers for it in the next few days, we’ve had a meeting about moving some core critial parts of the open data service into “BAU” – business as usual, so that there’s people who know how to maintain it outside our team, and the core is (change) managed more formally. This is essential if we want open data to be part of the long term IT strategy and not a glued-on-bit on the edge.
I’m also thinking about the fact we have very spotty data on research group building occupation, and so forth. By rights this data probably belongs to the “Faculty Operatiing Office”, but they are busy and don’t answer my questions very often. A cunning plan has entered my mind… Make a ‘report’ URL for each faculty which provides a spreadsheet with what we know about their faculty and let them download it and send it back to us. I think they could ‘colour in’ the missing information in a few minutes, and it will better express the problem to the management/administrator mindset if I show them a spreadsheet with blank cells in. To me, it’s a just data, but then I’m a data nerd, and we’re learning you have to have the data owner work with data in a way that makes sense to them.
December 18, 2012
by Christopher Gutteridge
Up until now the open data service has been run on a pretty much seat-of-our-pants approach. We’re actually at the point where one of our services, the events calendar, really needs to graduate into a normal university service. It requires a little regular TLC to deal with broken feeds. There’s 74 feeds so some break now and then. They were always breaking, but now at least someone notices. I (Chris) recently attended a course on the University “Change management” process (which is basically getting sign-off to modify live services to reduce the impact and manage risk). I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the change management team actually use the events calendar to check if a change to live IT services might cause extra issues (eg. don’t mess with the wifi the weekend we’re hosting an international conference.
I always said that the success criteria for data.soton.ac.uk was that it becomes too important to trust me with (tongue in cheek, but not actually a joke). And, lo and behold, management has asked me to start looking at how to start the (long) journey to having it be a normal university service.
I feel some fear, but not panic.
I’ve been trying to think about how to divide the service into logical sections and consider them separately.
I’ve discussed the workflow for the system before, but here’s a quick overview again.
Publishing System: This downloads source data from various sources and turns it into RDF, publishes it to a web enabled directory then tells the SPARQL database to re-import it. This has just been entirely re-written by Ash Smith in command line PHP. An odd choice you might think, but it’s a language which many people in the university web systems team can deal with, so beats perl/python/ruby on those grounds. We’ve put it on github. The working title is Hedgehog (I forget why) but we’ve decided that each dataset workflow is a quill, which sounds nice.
SPARQL Database: This is 4 store. It effectively just runs as a cache of the RDF documents the publishing system spits out, it contains nothing that can’t be recreated from those files.
SPARQL Front End: This is a hacked version of ARC2’s SPARQL interface but it dispatches the reqests to the 4store. It’s much friendlier than the blunt minimal 4store interface. It also lets us provide some formats that 4store doesn’t, such as CSV.
URI Resolver: This is pretty minimal. It does little more than look at the URI and redirect you the the same path on data.soton. It currently does some content negotiation (decides if /building/23 should go to /building/23.rdf or /building/23.html) but we’re thinking of making that a separate step. Yeah, it’s a bit more bandwidth, but meh.
Resource Viewers: A bunch of PHP scripts which handle all the different type of resources, like buildings, products, bus-stops etc. These are a bit hacky and the apache configuration under them isn’t something I’m proud of. Each viewer handles all the formats a resource can be presented in (RDF, HTML, KML etc.)
Website: The rest of the data.soton.ac.uk website is just PHP pages, some of which do some SPARQL to get information
So here’s what I’m thinking about getting some of this managed appropriately by business processes.
As a first step, create a clone of the publishing system on a university server and move some of the most stable and core datasets there. Specifically the organisation structure: codes, names, and parent groups in the org-chart, and also the buildings data — just the name, number and what site they are on. These are simple but critical. They also happen to be the two datasets that the events calendar depends on and so would have to be properly managed dependencies before the calendar could follow the same route.
The idea of this 2nds data service, lets call it reliable.data.soton.ac.uk, is that it would only provide documents for each dataset, all the fun stuff would stay (for now) on the dev server, and I really don’t want to get iSolutions monekying around with SPARQL until they’ve got at least a little comfortable with RDF. The hedgehog instance on reliable.data would still trigger the normal “beta” SPARQL endpoint to re-import the data documents when they change.
We could make sure that the schema for these documents was very well documented and that changes were properly managed, and could be tested prior to execution. I’m not sure how, but maybe university members could register an interest so that they could be notified of plans to change these. That would be getting value out of the process. For the buildings dataset, which is updated a few times a year, maybe even the republishing should have a prior warning.
The next step would be to move the event calendar into change management, and ensure that it only depended on the ‘reliable’ documents. This service is pretty static now in terms of functionality, although we’ve got some ideas for enhancements, these could be minor tweaks to the site, with the heavy lifting done on the ‘un-managed’ main data server.
Don’t get my wrong, I don’t love all this bureaucracy, but if open data services are to succeed they need to be embedded in business processes, not quick hacks.
December 13, 2012
by Ash Smith
Southampton’s Open Data is really gathering momentum now, and is being used for many things. Personally, I like the “cool stuff” approach, as it allows people to see what’s really possible with Open Data. Recent additions to our “cool stuff” are the university events page, which gathers event information from all over the university and makes it available in one searchable index, and the workstation locator which allows members of the university to locate an available iSolutions workstation nearby, using a GPS-enabled smartphone if they prefer. I’m currently liaising with the providers of the council’s live bus data in order to make sure that no existing apps break when the system goes live again, which should be in a few weeks time. I’m making it my top priority to not inconvenience application developers, and data integrity is something I take very seriously. After all, if I were to develop a cool app based on external data and a week later the data format changed for no good reason, I probably wouldn’t trust that data not to change again. So if you’ve developed an app that uses our bus data, please feel free to get in contact if you find it’s suddenly started behaving strangely and I’ll do everything I can to help. The system may go up and down in the coming weeks while we iron out some bugs, but the last thing I want is everyone having to re-implement their apps because of something we’ve done.
With cool apps in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to publicise the university’s Open Data Competition, an initiative designed to try and encourage developers to use our data. If you can’t program, don’t worry, you can submit an idea for a cool app without having to actually develop it yourself. The competition also accepts visualisations of our data, so if you’re into statistics or making mash-ups, this may be your chance to impress the judges. There’s a £200 Amazon voucher up for grabs for the winner of each category and £100 vouchers for the runners up. Don’t feel you have to restrict your ideas to the data we provide, data is best when linked. It’d be really nice to see something that provides a useful service by combining our data with that of, say, the government or the police.
December 3, 2012
by Christopher Gutteridge
Personally I feel rather smug about this, as you can imagine, but while I may have worked my socks off, there’s a hell of a lot of people who made it possible.
There’s the project board; who’ve been very enthusiastic from the start; Malcolm Ace (Chief Operating Officer), Wendy Hall, Nigel Shadbolt, Debra Humphis (now sadly left the Uni to work for some place called “Imperial College”, sounds nice), Simon Peatfield (our head of Communications), Hugh Davis (head of eLearning) and Pete Hancock (our head of IT). The first meeting with this bunch had me really bloody scared but it went well, and they were all keen to see if we could prove this technology/approach in our day to day operations.
Dr Su White deserves special mention, as whenever I talked to any of the heads of services, it seemed she’d been chatting to them only a few days previous, talking up the benefits of open data.
Thanks to Paul Seabrooke in Buildings & Estates for help with navigating the subtleties of our list of buildings, and lots of other people in that department; Jodie Barker and the energy team, and Neil Smith and the sustainability and recycling people, Adam Tewkesbury in the transport office (who was also part of a team shortlisted for a different THE Award).
A special James Leeming and his team in retain catering for being helpful, enthusiastic and patient when we’ve not yet delivered everything we promised.
In my own department, Tim Boardman who has now gone to some place up the road called “Oxford”, but was really helpful helping us learn to navigate the politics of databases in our University, Graham Robinson who did the cool feed which enables us to have workstations-in-use data. Lots of people who’ve given help, or had more work generated as a result of this project.
Nic Burns at the council, and both the previous and new real-time bus information contractors. We’re hoping to have that all up and running soon!
The Equipment sharing project team; Adrian Cox, Louise Payne, (and recently Adam Field has joined that mix), Don Spalinger, Hilary Smith, Pete Hancock (again), some helpful people from Finance who’s names elude me right now but are helping get things hooked up to their data.
The other open data projects around the UK have been a source of inspiration (and occasionally the only other people who understand the weird new challenges these projects bring). Mathieu D’Aquin (data.open.ac.uk) who I’ve not always agreed with but have learned lots in our discussions, Alex Bilbie and Joss Winn at http://data.lincoln.ac.uk/. And a big thank-you for Dave Flanders for creating the UK community of developers that has meant we’ve started sharing ideas and solutions rather than stay buried in our institutional silos.
(I knew this was a long list, but wow! We’re down to the last few now…)
Dave Challis who kept the triplestores up and happy and worried about details I wouldn’t have had time for.
The company Garlik has a number of ex-Southampton staff who’ve been very helpful with advice on good practice. I’ll be gracious and still thank them even though they went and hired Dave Challis away from us. (he seemed happy when we had lunch on Saturday, so maybe the real world isn’t so bad).
Gavin Costigan actually put together our entry, and evidently did a good job– we won!
Charles Elder is the member of Communications who accompanied us to the awards, and was reassuring when we were rather out of our depth.
Naomi & Caroline, My and Dave’s girlfriends, who have been “RDF Widows” on a number of occasions when we were working silly hours to get everything working.
Colin Williams. What can I say about Colin? I think he’s the reason we won the award, without all the stuff he built on top of the open data, plus the events calendar. He’s had an amazing week with both the awards show and then successfully defending his PhD the day after. I’m gutted he’s leaving, but I’m sure we’ll see each other at the occasional hack day.
A wave to my new immediate team mates Patrick McSweeney and Ash Smith who both joined the team this year, Ash as full time Open Data Service development and Patrick as a “replacement” for Dave, although his facial hair is different enough to avoid people getting confused.
I think my biggest thanks goes to Alex Dutton at data.ox.ac.uk for being the sounding board, friend, and rival that we needed to make data.southampton.ac.uk what it is. It’s fair to say that I can see aspects of my designs in data.ox.ac.uk, and of Alex’s in our service.
I’ve not included everyone who’s been a help, but this post is already nearly a thousand words, and past the TL;DR point, so I’m going to call it to a halt. Thanks to everybody, as a child I read science-fiction. Now I implement it.
Christopher Gutteridge, 2012.