W3C Opens UK & Ireland Office

Yesterday I attended the launch event of the new W3C UK & Ireland office in Oxford, hosted by Nominet (who are hosting the office, not just the launch event).

It was a relatively short event (half a day) but packed full with some interesting talks, showcasing the work that is being done with the web by various parties in collaboration with the W3C. The talks did a nice job of giving us a look at how central the web is in fields like mobile delivery (MobileAware & Vodafone), future media (from the BBC), Internet & television (BBC R&D) and, underpinning much of this, was the importance and role of the web in sociological terms, with Prof. Bill Dutton, Director of the Oxford Internet Institution, rounding off things with a look at Freedom of Connection & Freedom of Expression. Prof. Dutton highlighted elements of a forthcoming UNESCO report that provides a new perspective on the social and political dynamics behind threats to freedom of expression using the Internet and the web through digital rights issues and how technical, legal and regulatory measures might be constraining the freedom that many of us see the Internet allowing us today. A line that stood out for me in particular was:

Freedom of expression is not an inevitable outcome of technological innovation

Sir Tim Berners Lee kicked off proceedings with a bit of history behind his invention of the web and the subsequent creation of the W3C, whose goal, Sir Tim told us, is to “lead the web to its full potential”. Around 20-25% of the globe now uses the web but now we have reached a point where we need to look at why the other 75-80% don’t. The W3C Web Foundation (http://www.w3.org/2009/Talks/0318_bratt_WebFoundation/WebFoundation.pdf) is there to tackle this issue and figure out ways to accelerate the take up of the web in the parts of the world that still don’t have it.

Sir Tim Berners Lee

Sir Tim Berners Lee

Sir Tim talked about the role of the web in supporting justice and democracy too (something that the UNESCO report investigates as I wrote previously) and asked the question of how we can optimise the web to support wider and more efficient democracy. Science too. How do we design the web to more easily bring together part formed ideas across people and countries to help these ideas feed off each other and evolve. And how can the web – in this new age of social networking – help us work more effectively and communicate wider than simply “friends of friends”, breaking through traditional social barriers and forming new relationships that may not normally occur?

An interesting question from the audience was the one around temporal bubble and how to ensure we can still view the web as we have now in decades to come – after all, so much content from 10 years ago cannot now be viewed (without a painstaking process of content conversion). It was a timely revisit to that question as on the train down I was reading about the hundreds of thousands of photographs shared on the fotopic.net have recently simply vanished due to fotopic going into liquidation. Then the day after I read that Google is now telling users of their Google Video service that they need to move them off there as, while it hasn’t supported new uploads for quite some time, Google will actually be folding the whole thing and putting up the closed sign.

So that was all just in the opening talk!

HTML5 Logo

HTML5 Logo

We went on to hear about the W3C’s Open Web Platform and how HTML5 and related web standards are extending and evolving the power of the web, making it central to areas like mobile, gaming, government and social networking. On the topic of mobile, J Alan Bird of the W3C stated that,

The open web platform is the new mobile operating system

and the W3C’s work is ongoing to make it as robust as possible.

Dr. Adrian Woolard of BBC R&D talked about their work in Internet TV and how they are looking to free this from the set-top box, while focusing on the accessibility of New Broadcasting products and services. We’ve had the web on our televisions for a few years now, well, those of us with a Wii or Playstation 3 that is. But the Internet will be moving into the TV itself. On this topic the W3C recently formed the Web & Television Interest Group (January 2011) to start looking at requirements that will then form recommendations and a Working Group that will approach the standards issue in this space – see http://www.w3.org/2010/09/webTVIGcharter.html. This is something that I want to take a bit further in a future article, around the web in a Post-PC world. We’ve had the web on PCs for over a decade now, we have it, increasingly, in powerful mobile devices in our pockets, tablets, and now…that bastion of the living room…the TV!

Dan Appelquist of Vodafone outlined the company’s commitment to working with the W3C in the mobile space and nicely highlighted some of the reasons why Vodafone look to work with the W3C, contributing to web standards. Something Dan mentioned (kind of in passing) that I didn’t know about was around the social networking space. One was OneSocialWeb project (http://onesocialweb.org/), a free decentralised approach to the social network (in fact I’ve just this minute found they have an iPhone app that I’ll be duly installing after writing this) and something more grounded in the CETIS Standards space – oStatus, an open standard for distributed status updates, across networks. See http://ostatus.org/about

Ralph Rivera, Director of BBC Future Media talked to us about how the BBC is looking at the digital public space it inhabits as much as the programmes and services it creates and outlined what digital public space means to the BBC, and how the W3C and BBC can work in partnership. Ralph said a couple of things that really stood out for me. One was that the BBC is looking at the 2012 Olympics and planning their digital products & services around it to do for online broadcasting what the Coronation did for television. I thought that was pretty cool. He also said this, and I’ll round off the article with this…

There is no more important digital space than the web itself

I like that.

XCRI Support Project wraps up

March sees the end of the JISC funded XCRI Support Project as it signs off leaving the development of the XCRI (eXchanging Course Related Information) specification for sharing (and advertising) course information looking very healthy indeed.

The support project picked up where the original XCRI Reference Model project left off. Having identified the marketing and syndication of course descriptions as a significant opportunity for innovation – due to the general practice in this area being one of huge efforts around re-typing of information to accommodate various different systems, sites and services…then to have that information maintained separately in various places – the XCRI Reference Model project mapped out the spaces of course management, curriculum development and course marketing and provided the community with a common standard for exchanging course related information. This would streamline approaches to the syndication of such information and give us the benefits of cost savings when it comes to collecting and managing the data and opens up the opportunities for a more sustainable approach to lifelong learning services that rely on course information from learning providers.

Over the course of the next three years the XCRI Support project developed the XCRI Course Advertising Profile (XCRI-CAP), an XML specification designed to enable course offerings to be shared by providers (rather like an RSS feed) and by other services such as lifelong learning sites, course search sites and other services that support learners in trying to find the right courses for them. Through the supervision and support of several institutional implementation projects the support project – a partnership between JISC CETIS at the University of Bolton (http://bit.ly/PZdKw), Mark Stubbs of Manchester Metropolitan University (http://bit.ly/PZdKw) and Alan Paull of APS Limited (http://bit.ly/cF6Fhd) – promoted the uptake and sustainability of XCRI through engagement with the European standards process and endorsement by the UK Information Standards Board. Through this work the value of XCRI-CAP was demonstrated so successfully as to ensure it was placed on the strategic agenda of national agencies.

Hotcourses manages the National Learning Directory under contract from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). With over 900,000 course records and 10,000 learning providers the NLD is possibly the largest source of information about learning opportunities in the UK, which learners and advisers can access through dozens of national, regional and local web portals. Working with a number of Further Education colleges Hotcourses is now developing and piloting ‘bulk upload’ facilities using XCRI to ease the burden on learning providers supplying and maintaining their information on the NLD. UCAS also continues to make progress towards XCRI adoption. Most recently, at the ISB Portfolio Learning Opportunities and Transcripts Special Interest Group on January 27, 2010, UCAS colleagues described a major data consolidation project that should pave the way for a data transfer initiative using XCRI, and cited growing demand from UK HEIs for data transfer rather than course-by-course data entry through UCAS web-link. The project is a two-phase one, with XCRI implementation in phase II, which is due to deliver sometime in 2011.

Having ensured that the specification gained traction and uptake the project has worked extensively at developing the core information used by XCRI into a European Norm with harmonisation from other standards that addressed this space developed elsewhere across Europe. It is this process which has seen the evolution of XCRI from a standalone specification to a UK application profile of a recognised international standard. This could now be transitioned to an actual British Standard through BSI IST 43 (the committee of the British Standards Institution which looks at technical standards for learning education and training). At the same time adoption of the specifications were continued to be supported through engagement with policymakers and suppliers while the technical tools developed for adopters continued to be updated and maintained.

XCRI Aggregator DemoA couple of key tools were developed by the support project to assist implementers of XCRI. An aggregator engine was setup and maintained by the project and is demonstrated at http://www.xcri.org/aggregator/. This shows how its possible to deploy an aggregator setup that pulls in courses from several providers, and offers a user interface with basic features such as searching, browsing, bookmarking, tags and so on. It also demonstrates some value-added aspects such as geocoding the course venues and displaying them on Google Maps. Once you’ve had a look at the demonstrator you can get hold of the code for it at http://bit.ly/9eViM2
The project also developed an XCRI Validator to help implementers check their data structure and content. This goes beyond structural validation to also analyse content and provide advice on common issues such as missing information. Currently the development of this is very much at a beta stage but implementers can try out this early proof-of-concept at http://bit.ly/aeLArY. Accompanying this is a blog post describing how to use the validator at http://bit.ly/aHoJtH

Up to press there have been around 15-20 “mini-projects” which were funded to pilot implementation of XCRI within institutions. These looked at developing course databases using the specification, extending existing systems and methods to map to XCRI and the general implementation of generating the information and the exporting of this via web services. Not to say that this was the only project activity around XCRI. Various other Lifelong Learning projects have had an XCRI element to them along the way and all these have contributed to forming an active community around the development and promotion of the spec.

This community’s online activity is centred around a wiki and discussion forum on the XCRI Support Project website at http://xcri.org and while the support project is now officially at an end, the website will stay around as long as there is a community using it – currently its maintained by CETIS. Some XCRI.org content may move to JISC Advance as XCRI moves from innovation into mainstream adoption. However, as long as people are trying out new things with XCRI – whether thats vocabularies and extensions or new exchange protocols – then XCRI.org provides a place to talk about it, with the LLL & WFD project at Liverpool (CCLiP – http://www.liv.ac.uk/cll/cclip/) currently looking at how to improve the site and provide more information for non-technical audiences.

More information on the XCRI projects can be found at the JISC website, specifically at http://bit.ly/awevwQ