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Off with the training wheels – Week 9

Last week, I spent the majority of my time refactoring and restructuring KnowledgeNow with Martin’s help, either pair programming or checking in with him for what I should be changing and how, then going away and coming back when it’s done. Martin left for two weeks holiday at the beginning of this week, but I was under the impression last Friday that there really wasn’t much left to be done, and that I’d be able to polish it off nice and quickly all by myself. It turns out I was wrong, and one week later if feels like I’ve hardly dented my “polishing off” checklist. The missing tests turned out to be trickier to write than expected, and the extra features that needed adding were a lot more involved than I gave them credit for. The team were really supportive, and were happy to help me crack any particularly tough problems, but not having anybody else working full time on this project with me was a bigger shock than I was expecting. Suddenly I was captain of my own ship, and it was a lot more work than I realised. It’s been a really fun experience though, and the satisfaction of having my web application now report feedback back into service now, seeing those results in the ServiceNow web app itself, was fantastic after all those hours of work to make that happen.

Adding the “Was this helpful?” functionality involved adding methods to the ServiceNow api wrapper (originally written for Fast Track Tickets) that allow new items to be posted to the Knowledge Base Feedback table. This now means that users can report whether or not they found an article helpful and are then presented with a comment box to add extra information if they wish to.


The rest of my week was spent cleaning this code up and adding tests, something that I always seem to underestimate in terms of the time and effort required. Crossing the 50% line for test code coverage shouldn’t have been a huge achievement but it felt like it. My plan for the coming week is to keep the momentum going with writing tests and to try to cover the entirety of the project as thoroughly as possible before refactoring again and requesting a code review from the team.

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KnowledgeNow and the major clean up operation – Week 8

As the buzz of having such a successful meeting last Friday wore off, the reality of turning a mock-up into a fully functional project started to set in. Almost the very first thing I did on Monday was create a code map from Visual Studio for the project. Trying to explain the connections between classes and functions to other members of the team showed me just how little I understood my own work. This was a jumble of lines from tutorials and stack overflow articles that were somehow leaning against each other in such a way that they didn’t crumble to the ground, and in the relatively safe and stable environment of short presentations that was fine, but the real world wouldn’t go so easy on my code so something had to change.

Original code map for KnowledgeNow

Original code map for KnowledgeNow

The code map that was generated is pictured here, not for anyone to analyse and understand but more to illustrate what a large amount of code needed changing. Attempting to write tests for this mess before digging in and moving things around, I found that badly structured code is naturally harder to test than clean code. The terrible irony in this is the fact that the code in most need to thorough tests is the hardest to write them for. A lot of my classes got restructured and refactored without any underlying tests, we just relied on the fact that we could revert to an older version if anything went terribly wrong, and then we wrote tests for the cleaner code afterwards.

The seemingly insurmountable hill has certainly been an uphill battle, but it’s actually been quite fun at times. The satisfaction of taking something messy and working at it like clay until it’s something clean and logical can’t be underestimated. We’re at the point now where the structure is actually making sense, some tests have been written and a bunch of empty test cases have been set up ready to be filled in. Soon, I can turn my attention to the requested changes to the system and features I hadn’t included in the original mock-up.

KnowledgeNow Newer Code Map

KnowledgeNow Newer Code Map

Profiles.soton has also been going along in the background. I attended TAG on Monday, a relatively frustrating experience at first, being told we hadn’t planned this well enough of done a vigorous enough requirements capture. The meeting soon got back to the original purpose though, and architecture options were talked about. Seeing documents I’d created on the TV at the front of the meeting room and having people analysing them there in front of me was a little nerve wracking, but it was really interesting to hear what people thought of the options. My favourite option, of adding everything into the Active Directory database and encouraging people to use that as their go to for information on users, was immediately discarded. My understanding of the purpose of Active Directory was clearly a little off – it seems it’s designed to be a very slim database only used for information such as roles and permissions. The committee seemed to quite like my second favourite option of the three, adding this information on top of IDM and reading it straight out of that system, rather than sending it downstream to Active Directory.

We decided to go away, do some more research into existing profiles systems, and will return next week to present our ideas again. I spent a little bit of time investigating existing profiles systems at the university such as efolio, pure, sharepoint, and even blackboard. None of them quite meet the requirements we’ve gathered, but the idea of building another profiles system on top of the large number the university are using without offering some kind of consolidation across the various platforms didn’t seem right. The plan now is to provide information to these systems and have a central system for updating the information, disabling any editing in the other systems being used. This allows current users of these systems to still display their information there, but centralises the process of updating it, ruling out any chance of discrepancies between systems.

Once I’ve finished working on KnowledgeNow, I’ll be helping with the development of profiles.soton, so it’s been good to keep up to date on what decisions are being made about it.

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Open Data Internship – Week 8 – Life Serial

Excluding merges, 1 author has pushed 18 commits to master and 18 commits to all branches. On master, 5 files have changed and there have been 365 additions and 435 deletions.

The last week has flown by and whlist I have been working I cant pin down anything of value to write about, so instead I shall run through the boring stuff. I have continued working on my data maintenance tool, implementing sorting, filtering and saving, as well as a number of validation checks. I have tied, commented and generally made nice the code, keeping it as data-independent as possible. As a result the tool is basically finished now, there exist two issues, both of which arise from outside my code and fixing them looks like it would take more time and effort than is reasonable.

In addition to this there was an open data meeting where the issue of how to encourage greater use of the data and services provided, no real progress was made on that issue yet. However this week there will be a meeting of all the open data people, me and another intern to discuss how to implement some ideas they have been working on for a while. Specifically how to implement these ideas to have the greatest effect on engagement of undergrads with the open data service.

Posted in Open Data.

Presenting my proof of concept – Week 7

Coming back from my week away, This is Malware had moved along and was much closer to being released than when I’d worked on it two weeks ago. There were still a few features that needed adding and I got to help out with some of those, mostly on hiding UI elements depending on user privileges. My next small helpful task was to test out some of the online eprints functionality after changes had been made to the plugin structure, reporting bugs back to Patrick who then fixed them.

I also got to help write up the documentation for the profiles.soton architecture options. Profiles.soton is a profiles system that is in the early stages of development. The documents and diagrams I helped put together are going to be taken to TAG, the Technical Architecture Group, on Monday morning. I’m hoping that my diagrams and analysis of the options will encourage the group to go for the cleanest solution in my opinion, which involves the most changes to existing systems and storing more information in the Active Directory but results in a cleaner more easily maintainable overall system. Moreover it will allow for other systems to easily follow suit once that extra information is easier to access all from one source. Systems currently gather this information from various disparate sources that could easily lead to inconsistency.

Next I carried out a small manual data management task for the eprints system. Since updating to Pure, the eprints “shelf” system broke, and instead articles now need to be added manually to a project. This was a simple task of copying and pasting publication ID numbers into the web application and adding the result to a project.

The most important part of my week, however, was preparing to present my proof of concept web application to Service Management on Friday morning. I’ve worked on this web application on and off for a few weeks, and this meeting originally seemed like the final full stop on the project. The original plan was that if Service Management wanted a system like this to be built that they’d request it from the team and have a project added to the pipeline for development in a few months, long after I’ve left.

Presentation Notes

Presentation Notes

However, the demo was met with a more positive response than I could have ever hoped for, and they asked if we could make this live as soon as possible. Suddenly, the code I’d thrown together in a language I’d not touched in years using technology I hadn’t really thoroughly researched was being added to the team igit, and I began kitting it out with a test suite. In hindsight, I should have designed the system more carefully, and it may be the case that a lot of it gets rewritten to make it suitable for actually going live. I believe by the time I’ve got this project ready for deployment, I’ll have really thoroughly learnt to always keep my code clean and maintainable regardless of it’s purpose and scope. As difficult as it will be to clean this up and get it production ready, I’m thrilled that something I’ve worked on during this internship could be live by the time I leave. My goal is to have it ready in time for Fresher’s Week so that new students adapting to life at the University will be able to take advantage of an open more accessible knowledge base.


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Open Data Internship – Week 7 – In the name of progress

“OK, so the plan is simple, we cut through the vent, squeeze down the air duct, take a left and avoid the IR lasers, before carefully dropping down onto the desk so as to prevent setting the pressure sensors off. Before diving though the door and into the office. So any questions?”

“Yes. Why don’t we just go in through the door behind you, which is wide open?”


The past two weeks have been quiet, and for quite a few days I was the only person in the office and as such have been left somewhat to my own devices. This has meant that I have primarily been working on tools for maintaining the data behind the campus navigation map, which is currently a large JSON file.

Whilst developing these tools I have been considering ways to improve the life span of the programs I am developing. The main way I have been working on this is by trying to keep the application as far abstracted from the data as possible. To achieve this I decided to create a schema for the data being used in the map, which is used to create the interface for the data view/editor that I have been building. A frame for the data is created from the schema into which the data is placed, this allows the data structure to change as a user could change the schema and the data would still display, albeit with holes where new unfilled fields exist.

To achieve this I created a text file which was essentially a JSON file with the ‘{‘ and ‘}’ characters replaced with tabs. Unfortunately at the time I did not realise that was what I was doing and went on to write a not insignificant amount of code to read this file into a python dictionary. Mildly impressed with what I had done I showed it to a friend who pointed out that I was essentially reading in a dodgy JSON file and therefore if I changed the format to JSON I could read the file in using about three lines of code. The following morning I spent a good five minutes trying to justify to myself a way to keep the work I had done in my project, as it felt wasteful to delete it. However, in the end it was axed. This did get me wondering about things such as pair programming, which I usually dismiss as a waste of time and resources, as since only one person can type at a time, and people have the annoying habit of having unique(ish) thoughts, which could lead to conflicts over how to achieve tasks. However here it would have saved me half a day’s work. Eventually I reconciled these two views with a compromise, which I think balances efficiency with… well efficiency, that is with regular code reviews. As you still get two people programming at the same time, but also help to prevent programmers from running too far down the wrong path on how to solve a problem as the reviewer can point out such errors, as happened in my case. This would further help with maintainability of code as if you have multiple people regularly reading the code then the comments on such code should be useful.

Posted in Open Data, python.

Cleaning up old code, and learning PHP – Week 6

Following on from last week’s unit testing for eprints, this week I took on the gargantuan 120 line function. It sucked up almost an entire day all by itself, but eventually I had each and every condition and result tested. The next step was, of course, to break it down into readable maintainable chunks of code. I took sections, some of which were originally marked out as separate sections in comments, and put each one it its own function. I also fixed a broken function called is_valid_date that had been returning true without carrying out any checks. Instead of using complicated regex and lots of if statements one after the other, as this function had been before it was given up on and prepended with “return 1;”, I decided to use a Dates library and let that attempt to parse the string being passed in. If it raised any errors I returned false, the string isn’t a valid date, else I returned true. This cut the function down to less than half its original length. It was great being able to put some of the ideas I read about in my first couple of weeks here into practice.

I also got to contribute towards the development of ThisIsMalware, a system I’d been a part of the requirement capture for a few weeks ago. This got me programming in PHP, an entirely new experience for me. After having tried my hand at Perl, it didn’t seem too complicated on a small scale, but I did find that in a larger web application I started to lose track of the overall structure of the system.

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Open Data Internship – Week 5 – The Omnibus Edition

Alas there is no creative writing to go at the top of this blog, mostly because it would end up being very similar to the ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ scene from ‘Life of Brian’, but with ‘What have I done recently?’ being the main question. As whilst I have been busy for the last 3 weeks it did not feel like it at the time and so I had neglected to write blog about the stuff which has happened. I shall now try to rectify this.

Lean 6 Sigma

Recent changes in management in iSolutions have led to a plan to introduce new management practices in the form of Lean 6 Sigma. This included a training afternoon that I was invited on along with the rest of the team. The system is made up of two parallel practices ‘Lean’ and ‘6 Sigma’. Lean was developed by Toyota about 70 years ago and its aim is to reduce waste, or as Lean calls it ‘non-value adding tasks’. Waste includes anything that the customer did not ask for such as testing, transport or waiting. Whilst this is clearly geared towards manufacturing processes, I can see how it could be mostly implemented in a software development environment.

6 Sigma on the other hand focuses on improving the quality of products delivered. It does this by modelling the delivery of the product/service as a normal distribution, and finding what percentage of these tasks are completed in an acceptable time/to an acceptable level. From this data, the process is given a ‘sigma rating’, which is the number of standard deviations above the mean the process is. The process is then improved upon with the aim of making it a ‘6 sigma’ process, meaning that the process is being completed such that 99.99966% of outputs are defect free. Personally, I am less positive about 6 Sigma than Lean as 6 Sigma is aimed towards improving standard procedures, but I find there is little to be standardised about software development than project management, and how would you go about determining a standard metric for “defect” free products.

Campus Navigation App

I have spent most of my time for the last 3 weeks building and getting data for an internal and external campus navigation app. The app itself is reasonably simple, each room, fork in path and building entrance is a node, which is connected to other nodes in a simple graph. From there it is a simple case of traversing the graph to find a route. I did look into for other existing solutions similar to this one, but found that most of them were paid solutions and the one that was not had some undesirable features. One such feature was that it required floors to have an image to represent them, typically a floor plan which I didn’t have at the time, and even if I had I would not have wanted to place them on a publicly visible service.

Open Data Service Website

I took a few days off from developing my app to look at the development build for the website to find any issues with it, since it was largely procedurally generated from the data the service acts as a from end to it was unsurprisingly low in issues, with the main issue being dead links present in the data. So I chased down these dead links and where possible found new links for the data in question. A not very interesting task but one which will improve the quality of the affected data on the open data service.

A second task which got push back behind app development was to look into how to make the university’s open data more accessible to people, as whist it exists and is quite comprehensive it appears not be regularly used by the university populace, but existing applications such as ‘Room Finder’ and ‘maps.soton’ are regularly used by people at the university even if they do not know that this is part of the open data service. The main conclusions I drew were that example SPARQL queries and easily accessible source code for current services would be a good place to start, but I am open to suggestions (as is the rest of the Open Data service).

Posted in Open Data, Programming, SPARQL.

Testing Eprints – Week 5

This week I finally got to sink my teeth into testing the Southampton specific eprints configuration files. This presented a pretty steep learning curve for me, having to read, understand, and test code written in a language I only picked up last week. I started small, realising that tackling the 120 line sub routine should probably wait until I’ve built up a little more experience. There were a few very short sub routines that I could start with, only a few lines long. For these shortest of short routines, writing tests almost felt like overkill. It seemed as simple as running a routine that set x = True, and then checking afterwards that x=True and patting myself on the back. As soon as I built this up to routines that were 15 lines long, or 20 lines long, I started to see the usefulness. There were changes I wanted to make immediately, nested if statements that could be cleaned up, variables that seemed redundant. Putting these tests in place means that people will have the freedom to do these things, and to improve the code without fear of breaking the overall functionality.

I also had a somewhat unexpected task set for me, to create a teaching workshop to introduce my team to machine learning. I’ve talked about my undergrad course and the PhD that I’ll be starting in a couple of months’ time, and apparently this sparked an interest in some other members of my team. I’m specialising in machine learning and computer vision, specifically for use in classification of species. My individual project for my undergraduate involved classifying bird species in audio files, and my PhD will be focusing on classifying crab and coral species in images of the sea floor. My workshop will start with an overall introduction to machine learning, very quickly focusing on the idea of classification. I’m not sure when I’ll be giving the workshop, but I’m excited to give it a go. I’m a volunteer teacher with Robogals and go into local schools to teach programming with lego mindstorms, but I haven’t had much opportunity to branch out and teach an older audience more technical topics before.

And of course, my week ended on a high with the University of Southampton staff party. It was a great opportunity to spend more time with some of the other interns at iSolutions, the food was wonderful, and I got to learn a little bit of poi from a good friend of mine at the circus society workshop.

Posted in Perl, Programming, testing.

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Institutional Web Managers Workshop, 2017

I recently attended the annual Institutional Web Managers Workshop (IWMW) conference, this year held at the University of Kent. If you are unfamiliar with it, IWMW self-describes as the premier event for the UK’s higher educational web management community. This marks my second IWMW – I attended last year’s conference in Liverpool and was sufficiently impressed that I was keen to attend again this year.

I made rather more of the networking this time around, speaking to people from all manner of different institutions and organisations. It’s fascinating learning what themes are common across the sector and what’s unique to the University of Southampton. Spoiler: surprisingly little is unique — most institutions are going through similar challenges.

Built without a clear vision

Andrew Millar from University of Dundee on how we build websites. With so many stakeholders, is it any surprise we get such complexity?

One early revelation came from talking with some of the delegates from Dundee University. They have a UX specialist whose role includes ethnographic study of people using their ICT services. I’ve always felt that this is an area where we should start heading. This particular viewpoint was solidified on the third day when Paul Boag said that not only should we be studying people as they use our services, we should be video-recording it and compiling a lowlights video. In essence, put together a 2-3 minute video of all the parts where your users are swearing at their computer in frustration! That way you end up distilling the biggest UX problems your sites have. The University of Bath team also talked about product vision and how finding the true north of your products encourages focus on people’s needs and using data to make decisions. Our services should be simple and intuitive and releases should be iterative and frequent.

The plenaries from both Bath and Greenwich both made the very good point that we should be stopping users from owning the design of their sites; they are content creators and we should be removing the distraction of presentation from them as much as possible. Business value comes from delivering content. Greenwich suggested that we should talk about content instead of pages to help distinguish the material from its presentation.

St. Andrews have run with this approach by publishing their Digital Pattern Library (DPL) to codify all aspects of their University’s brand and make the documentation and process accessible to all so that it’s as easy as possible for their staff to produce St. Andrews-branded websites.

Digital native does not mean tech-savvy

An insightful observation from Tom Wright, University of Lincoln: Digital native does not mean tech-savvy. Don’t assume that the younger generation are necessarily technology experts!

On a rather different tack, the University of Lincoln have made some astute observations about the current generation of undergraduates. It’s no secret that social media platforms, rich multimedia experiences and shared memes are a significant aspect of modern youth culture, but seemingly few organisations have sought to exploit that. Lincoln’s approach to marketing, by having current students create YouTube videos, is a nice touch and makes the experience much more engaging. I definitely recommend checking out their videos.

As well as the plenary talks, I also attended a workshop entitled How to Be a Productivity Ninja from Lee Garrett of Think Productive. Most of the IWMW workshops tend more towards the technical hard-skills end, but there are always one or two soft-skill management sessions and those are the ones I look out for. Claire Gibbons ran an excellent workshop at IWMW 2016 called Leadership 101 that I felt was the highlight of that conference. Productivity Ninja was this year’s equivalent for me; I learned a few great tricks to improve my productivity and have leads on some handy apps to help me organise things better. It was also nice to see one or two tricks mentioned that I already use.

In conclusion, I found attending IWMW 2017 a very worthwhile exercise and I am certainly looking forward to next year’s. I’m definitely keen to improve our UX testing with ethnographic studies and I’ll be investigating whether we can run a Productivity Ninja session at Southampton some time soon.

Posted in Best Practice, Community, Management, web management.

Lego, Lean six sigma, and Eprints – Week 4

This week got off to a fantastic start, with a team lego morning. Having been invited to talk about Robogals (a student society I’m currently the president of) on Monday lunchtime, Pat decided we should all go play with the lego robots together that morning. It was a great morning, it gave my team the chance to see a little bit of what I do outside of work, and it gave me a chance to prepare a couple of robots to showcase at the lunchtime event.

On Tuesday morning, I showed my web application to the team in our weekly meeting. This somewhat marked the end of the bulk of the work on that project for now, and this week took me in a new direction, away from making my proof of concept web application and on towards unit testing for eprints. The preparation before reaching that point was a much longer journey than I anticipated. Firstly, I attempted to install eprints onto an Ubuntu 16.04 virtual machine. This didn’t work, as eprints doesn’t have a Release file, so is completely incompatible with modern Ubuntu systems. Next I installed a Fedora virtual machine. The installation of standard eprints worked on this machine, but trying to use the Southampton University specific system brought up a handful of errors, mostly dependency issues. I counted, and noted down, at least 7 individual packages that were dependencies of the system that weren’t installed already. After installing each of these one by one, the installation eventually worked.

Seeing as I was to going to be writing unit tests for Perl code, it made sense to get a little bit of practice with the language. I hadn’t seen much of Perl before, and had never coded in it at all. My first experience with it was writing a script to check for the missing packages that had made installing eprints such a difficult process for me. This script, once added in before installing the rest of the packages, checks for the necessary packages, prints a message about any that are missing, and will abort the process if there are unmet dependencies.

The team also had a trip up to Boldrewood Wesnesday afternoon for our Lean Six Sigma white belt training. This is the first level of training in the course, and is all about improving efficiency in processes and reducing the number of defects per opportunity. I like the overall approach, especially the idea of blaming processes not people for the majority of problems, and the idea of getting management on board with changing processes to make them better for everyone involved. It is quite strongly driven by the idea of value for money, something that doesn’t quite resonate within iSolutions as we don’t have customers in the same respect, and aren’t being paid per product. I think this should be quite easy to get over though, instead of using money as a metric to measure against, using a feedback score or other performance metric to determine what a product or service is worth – striving to improve the day to day lives of students and academics rather than striving to turn a profit. It will be interesting to see how much of this will be implemented during the remainder of my time here on the internship, and if it works possibly the effect it has on the rest of my time at the university.

Posted in Perl, Programming, testing, Training.

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