A few days ago, the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) put up their new website. I've been having a serious, and not so serious, play with it since. It looks, above all, clean and white. It's been noted that pleasingly there is less orange, and more soft corners; very Apple or Nintendo in design. Unlike the previous website home page, there isn't dead space; it's filled with content, but still easy to read.
Here it is:
To backtrack. There are still, surprisingly, quite a lot of UK academics who haven't heard of the JISC (even within the academic electronic info community). What do they do? In a nutshell they:
- Provide JANET, which is the network and other stuff that hooks up academic institutions to the Internet. If it ends in a .ac.uk, that's pretty much their domain (no pun intended), so that's kinda important. Fund lots of projects that go into just about all aspects of technology in Higher and Further Education. They've been doing this for not far off two decades now, and in that time the number of projects must run into the thousands.
- Fund a range of services for HE and FE, such as the excellent and seriously useful Digital Media service, legal advice, and regional support centres for post-16 education.
- Provide access to all manner of online databases, collections, resource indexes and guides. And not just provide access, but also fund them being kept up to date. From hairdressing training to chemical data to news stories, there's not many subject areas of digital data which JISC haven't had some involvement in.
- Do lots of other things, such as lobbying, consultation, negotiation with data providers, and trialling all manner of teccie things in education.
I've been doing JISC related things on and off for 15 years, having worked on, or for, 14 funded projects, several services, and for the JISC itself in various self-employed ways. My first bit of self-employed work, eight years ago, was with the redevelopment of the JISC website at the time, which was a mixed bag of experiences. At one presentation/meeting which did not go well, the debate pointlessly went round in circles about what people really wanted on the home page of the JISC website. I indicated that a large button saying simply "Give me funding" would be the preferred option of many people who used the site (I didn't phrase it quite that tactfully).
I'm affectionately fond of the JISC for a number of reasons, one of which is that they are generally forward looking, having an academically-oriented open-minded sceptical approach. Some funding bodies (and I've had a lot of experience, in different ways, of these) "talk forward" in terms of emerging technologies, then won't fund anything that isn't "safe" or "proven". Which is, like, a bit dumb as you can't usually "prove" that a certain technology works (or not) until you've funded some quality research in it.
JISC, on the other hand, are the Heineken of funding bodies in some ways, funding technologies that other organisations can't (or won't) reach. So, for example, they support an advisory service on Open Source software, fund projects that explore the potential of Moodle, Twitter and Second Life, take an open-minded exploratory (and funded) approach to virtual worlds in education, and provide social media services such as the Involve blogging platform for academics. Yay for JISC!
This experimental approach to funding is not new for the JISC. In the mid-1990's they funded the eLib (Electronic Libraries) programme, an excellent summary history of which is provided by the Bodley's Librarian at Oxford. eLib was a big kick up the posterior of trundling UK academic libraries for, looking at it now, a very small amount of funding.
Internally within the JISC, there's a wide range of opinions on many technology issues; collectively, the JISC attitude is usually "Hmmm; not sure about emerging technology X. Make a strong enough case that it should be researched further, and we'll probably fund it." As exemplified by Chris Rusbridge's "Let a 100 flowers bloom" ethos to eLib phase 1.
And it is the funding that is the key thing for many of the core audience of the website. So I was really, really pleased to see, slap bang in the middle of the home page of the new JISC website - a large "Give me funding" button! Yes!:
One click takes you to this:
And that's a cheerfully honest recognition of what many people want from the JISC (Money!) and the primary or sole reason why they use the website (How do I get money out of the JISC?). It would be better if more funding bodies took this approach. It drives me mad with certain other funding body websites, having to wade through loads of self-important crap to then find that they have no funding in my area, or that I'm not eligible. With the new JISC website - one click on a big orange button, I can see what they are funding at the moment, and one more click gives me a good and clear idea of how to apply, and what the future funding plans of the JISC are. It simply couldn't be made any clearer, so hopefully this approach will stay.
Other funding bodies: stop being so self-important on your websites and follow this approach. I don't care when you were founded and by whom; how does that pay my bills? I do care about whether you will give me money or not.
Another way in which the JISC website gets a #MeLikes is on the search mechanism. This works well. If anything a little too well, as someone in JISC has been very diligent with keeping old metadata. It was a shock when doing an "ego search" to find 479 results when searching on my name. WTF?! Turns out that the content of many of those pages from eight years ago have been slurped into the new website, metadata and all.
Searching on something more useful, such as "Second Life" OR "Virtual Worlds" brings up 320 results, some of which are new to me. But where it gets really good is being able to search across the JISC website and JISC services in one go, and order the results in terms of newest first. Which for the same search, gives 2,150 results:
Oo la la! Stuff is coming up in that from the Intute subject gateway, the RSCs, JISC Digital Media and a whole range of other JISC funded services. In the spirit of the "Take two bottles into the shower?" advert, I can now do just do one search and go. (I was going to write that I'm as "happy as a pig in muck" about this, but then realised it's not a good saying to use at the moment).
Other things I like. You can customise what you see on the home page to filter out (or in) topics and other stuff you aren't interested in. The default is set to "Give me everything you've got, JISC." But you can sharply reduce this:
- They've kept the historical stuff. Some of it is, like, wow. Have a read of the 1996 to 2001 JISC strategy; it's a complete scream. It feels, not so much like a different decade, but a different age in civilisation altogether. And those amounts of money seem utterly tiny, especially in this age of banks losing the odd billion pounds down the back of the sofa.
- You can listen to the latest podcast with just one click on the home page.
- If you are topic-focused then the website is very much topic-oriented, from the home page to the "What we do" section. Topic browse is a significant part of the website.
- In a stalker-friendly move, they've kept and even expanded the contact information for JISC staff. I loathe so-called advisory services which make it as difficult as possible to contact the relevant member of staff. However, and I know this suggestion will go down like a lead balloon but I'll say it anyway - staff pictures, please?
- It's nice and clear what JISC do with the 82.5 million pounds they get and who they get it from. And speaking of banks (does quick calculation) that's, on average, what RBS lost every 30 hours last year.
- The website has been tested against IE8 (forward looking) and IE6 (far enough backwards looking). I know more than a few people, especially in one geographical area, who stick stubbornly to IE5 and am glad that the drawbridge is being pulled up against them.
- They've even got a Creative Commons statement for, and on, the website.
Having been involved in the development of the 2001 website - which had just a fraction of the content of this one - I've got an idea of the issues of dealing with a diverse collection of changing "stuff", produced by many individuals across an organisation. It is, to put it mildly, a "non trivial" task. The new website isn't 100 percent perfect, but is as near as dammit. I've found a few minor things worth reporting in, but for a website with many thousands of pages, created by people in a myriad of ways, there's surprisingly little wrong in there. And in the spirit of cheerful openness and using available social media, JISC asked for - public - reactions through Twitter, and also for stuff to be reported or fed back.
It looks good to me, and bang on what academics need. Funding first, information and news on relevant developments second, everything else meh. I hope the JISC will continue to add content to it, mesh in emerging technologies (*cough* JISC Second Life island, perchance? *cough*), and above all not feel the need to redo it all again for a good few years yet.