Blockchain technology and us

MmIT committee member Antony Groves looks at how blockchain technology may impact on the work that many of us do…

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Last year Professor Kris Seeburn wrote that “the underlying technology of blockchains will most likely represent a second era of the internet” (2016). Whether or not this is hyperbole, there is certainly growing interest around the use of blockchain technology in research: Jisc Futurist Martin Hamilton (who will be speaking at the MmIT AGM in January) delivered an excellent webinar in October about blockchain in research & education. Last month Digital Science also published a report about the potential use of blockchain technology for scholarly communication and, as detailed in Information Today Europe, will be offering a grant of up to $30,000 for work in this area. However, the reach of blockchain technology may go far beyond research and have wider implications for librarians and information professionals across all sectors. The purpose of this post is therefore to provide a very brief introduction to blockchain technology for MmIT readers, showing where it may impact on the work that we all do, and bring together some useful links to help you find out more about this emerging technology.

To begin, the blockchain was first devised to enable the use of Bitcoin as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system. It provided an innovative solution to one of the main challenges in establishing a digital currency: the need to create a trusted, reliable system that allowed the transfer of money without having to use third party financial institutions. At a very basic level, that is what the blockchain does – it works as a distributed digital ledger enabling trusted payment from one person to another, with each block acting as an entry in that ledger. As Audrey Watters (2016) explains:

Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

The fact that the blockchain is a distributed system means that no one computer centrally holds and controls all of this information; new blocks are added to the chain through a process of consensus building and validation by the network, analogous to Google Docs (at the time of writing there are over 11,000 nodes in the Bitcoin network). It is this unalterable timestamped chain of blocks, establishing clear and open provenance, that could benefit research and scholarly communications. One relatively straightforward application proposed in the Blockchain for Research report is that “a blockchain could provide a notarisation function by allowing scientists to post a text or file with ideas, results or simply data” (2017, p.8).

To be clear, this is still a fledgling technology. Last month Deloitte Insights reported that in 2016 nearly 27,000 new projects related to blockchain appeared on GitHub (a software development platform) but that “about 90 percent of projects developed on GitHub become idle, and the average life span of a project is about one year, with the highest mortality rate occurring within the first six months” (2017, p.10). Despite this, the appetite for blockchain systems has not diminished; it may only be a matter of time until we see this technology underpinning processes and systems that we need to engage with in our roles as information professionals. For example, some of the proposals and applications to date have concerned:

  • Academic and Professional Certification: MIT’s Media Lab created Blockcerts to issue diplomas to a cohort of their students using blockchain technology.
  • Digital Archives: The University of Surrey are currently working on the EPSRC funded project ‘ARCHANGEL – Trusted Archives of Digital Public Records’ with The National Archives and Open Data Institute to develop a blockchain based system that will “ensure the long-term sustainability of digital archives” (2017).
  • Ebook Distribution: DECENT have put forward a use case for ebook blockchain distribution.
  • Fee Payment: In 2014 the University of Cumbria became the first institution to accept Bitcoin payment for tuition fees through their Bitpay.
  • Media Libraries: San-Diego startup, Blocktech, started a crowdfunding campaign to create the Alexandria decentralized media library using blockchain.
  • Medical Records: MedRec, a private blockchain on the Ethereum network, was created by researchers at MIT. This allows patients to access their complete medical history, from multiple providers, in one system.
  • Research Data Management: DaMaHub was a research data management platform using Hyperledger blockchain technologies.
  • Tackling ‘Fake News’: Steve Huckle and Dr Martin White from the University of Sussex have been exploring how blockchains could provide a technological approach to proving the origins of content.

Some of these projects may come to fruition, some may not, but a secure technology that can support payment, accreditation and research integrity is likely to tick many boxes for many institutions. As the list above shows; whether you work in an academic library, health library or public library, developers are starting to think of blockchain applications that have the potential to affect the way that many of us work. Even if these are not realised, at the least, a basic understanding of blockchain technology can help us to better support users looking for information in this area.

In the November/December issue of the Information Management Journal, Victoria Lemieux performs a SWOT analysis of blockchain recordkeeping to see if the hype is justified, concluding that “perhaps the greatest risk will be if information professionals fail to take up the challenge of understanding the capabilities of blockchain-based recordkeeping, allowing its implementation to march ahead without their wisdom and guidance” (2017, p.27). Although it is important that we try to look forward to see how we can continue to best support our users and our sector, it is not always clear how, as individuals, we can do this with limited time or expertise. However, help is at hand – at the MmIT AGM in January we’ll be addressing some of these very challenges:

  • David Parkes will examine techniques, outcomes and tactical insight in the field of near future work.
  • Tabitha Witherick will explore how libraries are uniquely placed to empower people to access, explore and technology in a time when the pace of digital disruption is increasing.
  • Martin Hamilton will reflect on the impact for libraries and librarians of some of the defining narratives of the late Anthropocene era: from climate change and failed states to cheap space travel and artificial intelligence.
  • Alison McNab will discuss current awareness and trend-watching for information professionals.

So sign up for the MmIT AGM, ‘Future Proofing the Library: addressing the issues of today for an innovative tomorrow’, to find out what else 2018 may have in store for information professionals like us.

By Antony Groves.

Report, Slides and Tweets from ‘Affordable Futures’ event

There’s a strain of contemporary culture which views digital innovation as the tool of corporate evil – suggestive of a dystopian future where Jeff Bezos deploys drones to replace you on the enquiry desk.  But at the CILIP MmIT event ‘Affordable Futures: High-tech, low-cost Library innovations’, there was a spirit of human warmth.

Partly, this was because the air-conditioning had broken in the upstairs room at the University of Sussex.  But it was also notable that the speakers – all of whom have a great deal of digital experience and expertise – spoke clearly, inclusively, and without jargon.  There was a real sense, in fact, that anyone can be a digital innovator.  All you need is an idea, or a problem.  Most library staff have plenty of both.

By the time he’d finished, Antony Groves – Learning and Teaching Librarian at the University of Sussex – had the delegates making 360 degree photographs on their phones.  Using the Google Cardboard app and a cheap Cardboard Viewer (£15, and similar in appearance to the old red ‘View-Masters’ of the 1980s), we were able to knock up a rudimentary virtual reality experience within a few minutes.  Sussex uses enhanced versions of this technology to take students and staff into the ‘hidden spaces’ on campus, such as high-security labs.

Dr Jon Knight, from Loughborough University, described how his IT team created versatile digital signage for their library using old display monitors and ‘Raspberry Pi’s’.  A Raspberry Pi is a tiny, cheap computer that you can programme.  It looks like a circuit board, and you can connect it to other hardware via USB ports.  Instead of spending half of the budget on fancy new plasmas, Jon and his team dug out decommissioned computer monitors, whacked Raspberry Pi’s on them, and created displays which gave students real-time information about group-room bookings and study spaces.

There is something quietly defiant about this approach.  If you can make something yourself by recycling old equipment, then you become independent.  Your library budget stretches further, and you are no longer in thrall to a blue-chip company that decides on a whim to make your systems obsolete.

That was very much the vibe of the final presentation, given by Carlos Izsak, a pioneer of the maker movement.  Carlos is an Education and Community Development Specialist, and founder of The Makercart.  The Makercart is a fully portable pop-up makerspace from which Carlos runs workshops and activities.  These makerspaces are places to share experience, ideas, knowledge, and equipment: sounds like a library, right?  At the event, Carlos got us to make LED Christmas cards.  Digital making, even on a modest scale, is a soothing and satisfying way to learn.

All of the speakers were looking for ways to put digital innovation into the hands of people who work in libraries.  Even as someone who writes with a fountain pen, and occasionally slips his sim back into the Nokia, I found the dissident spirit both inspiring and welcoming.  And I left the room buzzing with ideas.

By Ed Hogan.

 

View presentations:

Antony Groves – Creating low-cost VR for your Library

Dr Jon Knight – Using Raspberry Pi’s to drive Digital Signage in Libraries and beyond

Carlos Izsak – Making Library Makers: 3 years in the making…

 

View Storify here.

Discovery AND disorder

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Antony Groves

Committee member Antony Groves from The University of Sussex writes about the issue of Discovery and how sometimes a curve ball can be thrown at you when you least expect it.

Discovery is not a straightforward process, if it were some of us would be out of the job. However this should not excuse unpredictable tools and searches; some obstacles are reasonable to expect and some are not. How would a 110m hurdler feel if an extra barrier were added or if the first was moved 10ft forward? The answer is that we’d only know how they felt if we asked them or maybe observed their next race. The focus of this post is not intended to be UX though, but instead teaching, specifically how we talk to our users about fallible discovery services.

The anomaly that has prompted this post is the re-ordering of results when inserting AND between search terms in Ex Libris Primo (as of March 8th this appears to be happening at 15 Russell Group Libraries). This can be tested by typing the search terms academic integrity into your discovery tool, then academic AND integrity, and comparing the two. Although the number of results stays the same, some of you will see that the order of the items changes. Predominantly this appears to be a Primo issue (although is not happening everywhere with Primo) but Summon has its own mysteries. If you compare the above two searches in Summon, at several Russell Group libraries you will get a different number of results (although admittedly only a very slight difference).

The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education establishes “Searching as Strategic Exploration” as one of its six concepts, furthermore explaining that “searching for information is often nonlinear” (ACRL 2015). However is this intended to excuse tools giving inconsistent results or instead explain that searching is an iterative process, or both? Yes, if we’re teaching our users to search for resources in a strategic and systematic way we should also be showing them the other databases we subscribe to and not solely relying on our discovery tools, but shouldn’t this be providing a solid foundation on which to build? If our discovery services are not as good as they can possibly be, students will very quickly turn to Google instead.

When we have noticed anomalies we have reported them to Ex Libris who have worked to resolve them or provided an answer as to why certain things are happening. The answer to a previous irregularity was that “the results of different searches aren’t necessarily comparable in a linear relation” (Ex Libris Knowledge Center, 2017). Is this a satisfactory response though? Within the Library we continue to user test our discovery tool (as do Ex Libris) and during our next round of testing we may find that students don’t mind these minor aberrations or perhaps are already used to shifting results from using Google. It could be that they haven’t asked, or even noticed, but as information professionals we should be ready to help those looking for the answer. Evidently including/excluding AND between search terms does make a difference, perhaps not to the number of results but certainly to the way they are ordered. I cannot currently explain to users why this is happening or which set of results really is more relevant. What I can do is show them other ways of sorting and narrowing their searches. Like that first 110m hurdle, it is an obstacle that can still be cleared, I just feel I would be a better coach if I could explain why it’s moved 10ft forward.

References

ACRL (2015) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Available at: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework#exploration (Accessed: 5 March 2017).

 

Ex Libris Knowledge Center (2017) Boolean searches in Primo don’t work as expected. Available at: https://knowledge.exlibrisgroup.com/Primo/Knowledge_Articles/Boolean_searches_in_Primo_doesn’t_work_as_expected (Accessed: 5 March 2017).

Following the success of the learning technologist, is it time for a research equivalent?

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Andy Tattersall

With so many scholarly communications tools and technologies now available, how do academics decide which are most appropriate for their research? Andy Tattersall suggests it might be time for a research equivalent of the learning technologist, a role that has helped drive innovations in teaching underpinned by technologies. The research technologist would be embedded within the university department, make recommendations on appropriate online tools, provide technical assistance and also offer guidance on accompanying issues of ethics or compliance. With the right ongoing support, academics can improve the communication, dissemination and impact of their research.

The research cycle is changing rapidly and a lot of that change is due to the proliferation of technologies and websites that support the research process. Many of the most useful tools have been captured by Jerome Bosman and Bianca Kramer in their excellent 101 Innovations in Scholarly Communications. Whilst this work is a great help to those aware of it, the reality is a majority of academics are either unaware of or unwilling to engage with the myriad tools and technologies at their disposal (beyond social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, ResearchGate, etc.). There are several reasons for this: workload and deadline pressures; fear of technology; ethical implications around their use and their application, especially when it comes to third party software; or too much choice.

The usefulness of these tools has been recognised by major publishers, who have made certain strategic investments in order to create their own research cycle workflows. So if the likes of Elsevier are looking to use these tools to change the research ecosystem, this should be of great interest to anyone who publishes with them, right? But with so many tools available, how do academics navigate their way through them? How do they make the connection between technology and useful application? And who helps them charter these scary, unpredictable waters?

Image credit: A Multitasking Busy Guy by uberof202 ff. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Lecturers and teachers have their pedagogy, what do researchers have?

If we look at applications of technology and social media in teaching, we can see more clearly how things have been implemented. Post-2004 and the advent of Web 2.0 there was an increased uptake of technology in the teaching community. The advent of virtual learning environments aided this, with the ability to employ discussion forums, blogs, video and, more recently, social media. Of course research has also taken advantage of these tools but the difference with teaching is that it was often led and facilitated by the learning technologist. This group of centralised, university-educated professionals help drive teaching innovations that are underpinned by technology – the clue is in their job title. The technology itself does not drive the teaching innovation but can help initiate and improve on it. By championing technologies with teaching staff, technologists have helped refresh higher education, making it more fit for the 21st century. They have helped shape learning and teaching through approaches such as blended and flipped classes, video and screen capture, fresh forms of assessment, use of mobiles, and social media. In many cases the innovation is led by the lecturer but, like research, in most cases it requires a good degree of guidance to get them there.

The research technologist

Whether we call it a research technologist or digital academic specialist, this role would not be too different from its learning technologist counterpart. It would support research and its dissemination in the use of video, animation, infographics, social media, online discussion, mobile device use, and social networks, to name just a few technologies. The learning technologist applies pedagogical reasoning for their technology choices, and the research equivalent would need to assess the same considerations. Not only that but good communication skills, information literacy, and an understanding of data protection, ethics, and what constitutes a good technology – and how it can be applied to a specific research setting in a sustainable and timely manner – are all essential. For example, the use of video to disseminate research around speech therapy would potentially be more useful than an infographic. In the same way, an infographic published in a blog post might be a better way of conveying the results of a public health project.

The reason why in-house support could benefit the practice and dissemination of research is that researchers are very pressured for time, and often don’t know what they need regarding research technologies and especially dissemination. Secondly, when they do know what they want, they often need it “as soon as possible”. These two problems are more solvable within the department, especially as researchers often don’t know where to go for specific help. The research technologist would be a designated, focused role, embedded within the department. They’d be a signpost to new ways of working, problem solving and, most importantly, be able to consider all issues of ethics and/or compliance when passing on advice. They’d become the “go-to” person for anyone wanting to use technology as part of their research.

More than just using technology

The issue of employing more technology in your research comes with various challenges. For example, with research that is sensitive, controversial or otherwise likely to attract negative attention, using social media does come with many issues. Instructing researchers to use Twitter to communicate their research is all well and good until they receive negative comments, especially abusive and threatening ones. Something like Twitter requires a technical explanation (e.g. how to use the block function or employ a dashboard like Tweetdeck) but also advice around negative comments, how, if and when to respond, when to block, and, in some cases, when to report to the platform, your institution or the authorities. Another example might be the copyright issues around ResearchGate or YouTube. Unless time is spent helping researchers understand how to use these tools and what the accompanying major issues are, those researchers will remain reluctant to use them at all. Additionally, the more those who use them have bad experiences, often through no fault of their own, the more likely others will see good reason to navigate around such opportunities. One bad experience on social media could put a researcher off using it for good. With the right ongoing support, these technologies can, in an impact-driven environment, help communicate and disseminate your research to wider audiences.

The role I am fortunate to have, information specialist, is akin to a learning technologist but I work more closely with researchers these days. My role was established a decade ago to look at how technologies can be leveraged to support my department. That extended to research and teaching staff, students and our own academic library. In that time I put my department on the path to their first MOOCs in 2013, edited a book on altmetrics, and championed Google Apps, as well as the use of video and social media on campus. Whilst I have seen the creation of new roles around learning technology, marketing and impact, there remain areas of support that fall between the cracks. This is where I pick up much of my work, supporting research and teaching colleagues around the use of video, infographics, social media and the many less attractive associated issues, like copyright, security, ethics, and the negative impact on productivity. I work closely with the centralised departments, which benefits all parties involved, and carry out some teaching, marking and write the occasional paper. In effect I am a hybrid model that is, hopefully, better able to understand the needs of all involved, including the centralised departments that work so hard to support researchers.

For teaching, which has always required librarians, IT technicians, and marketing experts, the learning technologist does not replace these roles, but complements them. The establishment of learning technologists within departments has helped bring teaching forward to take advantage of new technologies. For the same to happen within research it needs institutions to consider the learning technologist and explore whether there is value in developing an in-house research equivalent, a kind of “Swiss Army knife” professional, who can exploit the burgeoning number of opportunities afforded by the many new technologies out there.

Originally published in the LSE Impact Blog and republished under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Andy Tattersall takes over as the Chair of the Cilip specialist interest Group MmIT.

Andy Tattersall has taken over as the Chair of the Cilip specialist interest Group MmIT.  MmIT aims to unite CILIP members engaged in, or interested in, multimedia information and technology developments in library and information science. The group is concerned with the organisation, delivery and exploration of information through modern media including graphic forms, video and web tattersall-smallbased applications. The Committee’s remit is to support 1500 members in the group by running regular events, a yearly conference and a quarterly journal. Andy has written about taking over as Chair of the committee and what their plans are for 2017 and beyond.

I want to say what an honour it is for me to formally take over as the Chair of the Cilip specialist interest group for Multimedia and Information Technology (MmIT). Not only because of my passion in this area and the work this group does but also to follow in the steps of my esteemed committee colleague and friend Leo Appleton. I cannot stress enough how Leo has been a very important part of MmIT over the past decade and is now starting in an exciting new position as Director of Library Services at Goldsmiths. I want to publicly thank Leo for all of his energy and leadership in steering MmIT through many waters, sometimes choppy ones at that. He was a large reason for me joining the committee over six years ago and I am delighted that he is staying with us and taking on the challenge of taking our long running journal into uncharted open access territory. Leo steps down leaving MmIT entering arguably its most positive and exciting period since I joined the committee.

As I step into the chair’s role from that of secretary, it also means many changes are afoot within our
committee structure. Firstly Catherine Dhanjal has stepped down from the committee as our journal editor. Catherine brought a tremendous amount of skills and contacts to the committee and ensured the very smooth running of the MmIT Journal over many years. She will be sorely missed by all of us who have served on the committee with her and we wish her all the best in her own enterprises as she continues to run her own successful consultancy. With Catherine stepping down it left us with a decision as to the future of the journal. After much discussion we agreed that the journal should go fully open access on a quarterly basis. The content and quality of the journal will remain the same as it focuses on technology and libraries and will be edited by Leo.

I’m pleased to report that John Bottomley, who works for OCLC, will remain as our treasurer for the next year, giving us some degree of consistency on the committee. John has excelled in his honorary position and ensures that MmIT remains in a healthy financial state. Ruth Wilson from Edge Hill University has stepped into my old shoes as secretary, a role that I am certain will aid the smooth running of the committee and all of its ventures. I’m also very pleased that we have Nic Kerr from The University of Liverpool who has been invaluable in the smooth organising of our events, of which we plan many more over the next few years. Dia Mexi-Jones and Lizzie Sparrow continue to help guide and support the marketing and communication activities of the committee.

 One of the best gifts Leo could give us before he stepped down as Chair was to be very proactive in recruiting new members to our committee. I am happy to report that we have five new committee members who bring together a superb collection of skills and insights that I am sure will drive MmIT forward. The addition of such experts in our field of work will no doubt make us more valuable to our 1500 members and everyone involved in the library and information sector. I’m pleased to announce the five new appointments.

Luke Burton – Digital Transformation Manager – Newcastle City Council

Antony Groves – Learning and Teaching Librarian – University of Sussex

Alison McNab – Academic Librarian – The University of Huddersfield

Virginia Power – Graduate Tutor – University of West England

Claire Nicholas-Walker – Electronic Resources Librarian – Lewisham Public Libraries

I have been aware of the work of some of the new committee members for some time and am very excited about the prospect of working with them to take MmIT to new audiences and deliver fresh ideas and content. In 2017 we will launch many new initiatives by the group that I am sure will be of interest to MmIT, Cilip members as well as librarians, information and knowledge professionals across the UK. These changes will include the aforementioned new journal model that everyone will be able to access without subscription. We will host our fifth national conference on the 14th September at The University of Sheffield on the topic of ‘Open’. We will be sharing details about conference submissions in the next few weeks on the theme that ranges from open libraries, research, education, spaces, data among other strands. We are also planning the delivery of yearly half day workshop events that we will host around the country, as well as a yearly webinar event. If any of this appeals to you then there are several ways you can keep up to date with MmIT. Firstly by joining the group as a member, either by selecting it as one of your special interest groups if you are a Cilip member. Or you can still join us for a yearly fee of £40 without being a Cilip member. You can follow our blog and Twitter accounts for regular updates.

I remember when I joined the committee in September 2010 and there was much discussion about whether the group should continue. Given it had begun a few decades earlier with an original remit pre-dating the web, the committee questioned their relevance today in a world that no longer worked in microfiche, video, CDs or talked about ‘multimedia’. Back then I wondered why such a question should be asked, as more than ever there was a need to understand the ever changing world of technology and media as a profession. I feel the committee does have a valuable remit, more important than ever given how technologies seep into every part of our personal and professionals lives. There are a growing number of technologies and websites we can leverage for our organisations and our professional development. Our committee’s aim will be to explore as many of these as we can and share what we find with you. We will look to working with external partners, experts, writers and speakers and help support the library and information community as we always have. Hopefully through a new model, new committee members and new opportunities to impart knowledge we will help support our community better than ever before.

You can find out more about the committee by going to the Cilip website

http://www.cilip.org.uk/multimedia-information-technology-group/about-mmit-special-interest-group