Technology Ecosystems


I feel a bit embarrassed having only secured one single blog post in 2013 . My mentor Martin Weller would be ashamed of me. Interestingly though, according to my annual feedback, my blog received almost as many visits in 2013 as 2012 (around 3000 visitors). Is that a reflection that the content is becoming more valuable as time passes?

Reflecting on 2013, for me it’s been the year of turning aspirations into products. For the iSpot project for example I created what I called a “Technical Roadmap”, which is really a grand way of saying that we had so much to deliver from a total of four different funders, we also been involved in BBC TV series (The Great British Year) and in the OU’s first Futurelearn MOOC on Ecosystems. (Which I took part but sadly became a drop-out!)

As a consequence we needed to ramp up the technical management of the project for what was an extremely challenging year and the Technical Roadmap helped us to keep our sanity (most of the time). Richard Greenwood has created a project blog about the main technical work during 2013.

Here are a some of my highlights:

globe1. Internationalisation/Community (the link takes you to the UK and Ireland community)- This is by far the biggest technical feat of the year for iSpot. The system now supports numerous communities organised according to geographical or taxonomic criteria. Richard Greenwood worked very hard on the functionality, which uses polygon mapping to calculate areas (and use multiple polygons so a region such as the UK, or Eastern Europe can be mapped out). The difficulty was providing communities without destroying the taxonomy (species dictionaries) as these sometimes span many areas. With the UK is was simple but now there are multiple dictionaries (one for Global iSpot) that need to be used in the correct places. Richard therefore couples the taxonomies to the observations locations, but decoupled it from the community (polygon) model, thus allowing freedom to create communities without having to use a dictionary that wasn’t relevant to their locale. The technology used is MariaDB and Open Street Map for creating polygons (and Google maps for displaying them). Richard also implemented Geo-IP to direct people to the correct community be default and the system will also allow people to move to different communities. Communities don’t have to be countries (we now have a budding Chilean community on iSpot for example ). Communities have their own News items and maps which are centred on their geographical region, and observations relevant to that community. Communities don’t just have to be geographical, they can also be around organisations or species or in fact anything that can be filtered against within iSpot, this makes the feature potentially very powerful.

species surfer2. A species surfer – The species surfer (or ID tool as it was originally called) allows anyone on iSpot to browse the species dictionary (taxonomy) using images to represent the main categories and sub-categories. Within a sub-category people can look at the variety of types to track down ones that are similar to their own observations. We know from talking to users that this is something they’ve been interested in having. Many people use Google and other sites to try to find out more about their observations and we thought that since iSpot has over 250,000 observations, the majority of which have been accurately identified, we should use that feature and draw it to people’s attention. It also acts as a learning tool and we hope it will be useful for field studies and research, from novices through to experts. This has only just been released so we still have further work to do to improve it but we want to get feedback from users since we know that there is still more work to do on this. The iSpot team have  provided  help information to guide people in how to use it correctly.

quiz13. Intelligent quiz – The existing crowdsourced identification model within iSpot, rewarding improvement in ability to identify observations, provides some of evidence that people are learning and improving their understanding of nature through iSpot, however it isn’t full-proof. For example a person may gain reputation through identifying very common species and without expanding their knowledge of other species. We therefore require empirical evidence of improvement in people’s ability to identify a greater variety of observations as their reputation improves; the iSpot intelligent quiz is designed to test this knowledge. The quiz was launched in July 2013, since then around 350 people per week have taken one or more quizzes, so an average of around 50 people per day. The quiz is tailored to the level and subject area that people request when they start a new quiz on iSpot. The reputation level that iSpot provides is a good indicator of the level that people should take but there is no restriction on the level so, for example, a level five expert could take  a level 1 quiz and vice versa. The data from the weekly logs shows however the people are averaging about 7 out of ten for quizzes across the skills levels which suggests that people are naturally finding a level which challenges them.

The quiz has a number of different types of question that test a range of knowledge within a specific domain, some questions are multiple choice and others are about entering the correct name or type of observation, some examples are shown below:-


The quiz is largely image-based and relies on people correctly identifying observations. The quiz is open to both visitors to the website who have not yet registered, and also to registered users. Registered users have the benefit of being able to look back at previous quizzes they have taken to compare results. As part of the intelligence the quiz tries to select images which have been agreements and ones which are non-contentious, for example it will attempt to filter out hybrid types. In the example below people can use the button in the right hand corner of the image to expand it and see additional detail.


Certain questions prompt people to enter correct names associated with an image, they are based on the names given within the species dictionary on iSpot. The system will look up the dictionary and offer suggestions for entries that match, or which are very similar to, the name entered by the user.


We collect overview information about the quizzes on a weekly basis, including information about preferred groups, as you can see from the chart below birds consistently prove to be the most popular category for people taking the quiz.



The weekly statistics show us that the percentage of visitors who take quizzes compared to registered users varies from week to week.

For example during w/c 16th September 2013 about three quarters of people taking the quiz are registered users as indicated in the following diagram.

Interestingly during the previous week the ratio was more like 60/40 in favour of registered users so this seems to be indicating that as time passes the quiz may be becoming more popular with registered users however this will require further data analysis.


Each quiz has up to ten questions so the table below shows that during the previous week there is an 80.7% completion rate.

The completion rate for the previous week was 89.1% and completion rates seem to fall consistently within 80%-89% percent range.

quiz8We are tracking the average scores of people who take the quiz and the results show us that there is only a very slight variation in score between people who class themselves as novice and take a level 1 quiz and people who class themselves as expert and take the level 5 quiz.

There is a slight decrease from 7.5 to 6.5 going from level 2 to level 3 and beyond however it is worth bearing in mind that the quiz provides novice users with up to three “lifelines” to use to help them (a lifeline is typically where two of the four choices are removed to make it simpler for people to find the correct remaining answer).

We have yet to analyse the raw data coming from the quizzes and because the service is relatively new we need more time before we can start to get useful trend data to help us demonstrate that people are increasing in their knowledge of nature through using iSpot.

In particular we need to understand the relationship between the amount of time people have been using iSpot and the level of knowledge they have attained. The data already indicates that people who use iSpot are gaining knowledge about nature and over the next few months we will be conducting further data analysis to understand exactly how this is being achieved.

These are just a selection of some of the new features in iSpot (I have at least 24 more to share with you!). I am very interested in how these systems evolve over time and the nature of the co-evolution of the technology and the people using that technology.

The Facebook we see today is very different from the first iteration of Facebook.

People are generally much more technology aware, and use technologies frequently for “selfies” and to share with others in a connected way. Systems must therefore evolve to support the changing perceptions of users to technology and iSpot can naturally support learning using images and photographs that people nowadays naturally want to share.

I’ve summarised some of the latest iSpot features that explain this co-evolution process in a presentation that I gave in December. We “technocrats” rely heavily on the community, and the subject experts to help us create services that are useful and provide mechanisms of learning and improvement.

I will be continuing  over the coming months to give examples of the richness of the  systems that we’re working on the Institute of Educational Technology. Working in partnership with the Science Faculty and Open Media Unit and the 36,000 users of iSpot.


iSpot roller banner - final

iSpot logo

I’ve been busy. Sorry. Very unbloggy recently. My contribution to the blogosphere and Twitter has been pathetic. Where was I?

Magile? = Mobile + Agile?

One of the reasons has been that I’ve been managing a project over the past year to create a participatory science mobile app for the iSpot project – actually it’s taken more than a year and we’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride with this one. I’ve documented the process in a conference paper that I’m pleased to say has been accepted for mLearn 2012. There’s a ‘stable beta’ version on the Google Play store, it’s really only a proof of concept as the more innovative pedagogic/technical features such as ‘around here’ (geo-spatial data about observations within a specific locale presented through a map view) and the posting of comments and identifications about other peoples observations are part of the new version which also has a fantastic user interface.

The paper focuses mainly on the reasons for creating a mobile app for participatory science and about the types of functionality and design considerations required during app development. I’ve quite pleased with the result. The paper iSpot Mobile –  A Natural History Participatory Science Application is available through the OU’s Knowledge Network.

If you’d like to try out the stable beta app (for Android) visit the Google Play app store (direct link to app) however before I move on from the app (there’s lots more I want to say about it but I’ll write a new post when the new version is released shortly) I want to conclude by saying that creating this has been an extremely liberating process. The work reminded me of the kind of hand crafting of HTML we did back in 1994/5 when building bespoke websites viewable through Netscape (if we were lucky) on our own custom built web servers based on Windows NT.  Thats what building this reminded me of, and I think that the HTMl5 v native issue will eventually get resolved but at the moment as Zack Epstein explains in his post the jury is still out! – which makes development expensive but hugely rewarding.

ispot mobile screenshot

ispot mobile


I’m going to be blogging more about iSpot as we’ve got a busy 18 months ahead with this project. It’s part of the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory project and has funding to internationalise, personalise, incorporate a social layer, work better for novice users, work via mobile, be interoperable or embeddable (through APIs) with other sites and services, and incorporate new ecology functions through funding from the The National Lottery, Garfield Weston Foundation and British Ecological Society respectively.

I’ve created a technical roadmap for iSpot to explain all this and I hope to regularly blog about what is happening throughout the next three years of that roadmap.

Lots to do I better get started.

Magile = Magic + Fragile?

Agile Ballooning

Over the next three months there are projects planned which will use 140% of the available resources. In reality this means that we’ve got to hire in freelancers and contractors to cover work and ensure we’re meeting all the commitments. All of the work is strategically significant and high priority, and I’m acutely aware that the funding available to make these things happen is only available until August is unlikely to be available again in the next couple of years so we have a small window of opportunity to get things done. I thought that I’d explain what the developments are and how we’re planning to manage them.

Firstly we’ve had a number of successful small bids by academic colleagues. One of the most interesting of these, led by Doug Clow, is the development of a community based version of iSpot – this project is called iSpot local and is JISC funded for the next six months. The project is around community engagement as much as technology and there are a number of Bio Blitz’s to engage locals. Because the system is can be largely standalone we’re using a freelancer to carry out the work and using a series of hooks to the main iSpot service. The plan is that the iSpot local modules will be made available and can be set-up by anyone using a generic Drupal instance. Then you request an API key to allow your service to connect to iSpot and transfer the data between the services. Without the key you’ll still get the local community toolkit but it only becomes really useful when you can overlay all the data, the ‘spots’, that are localised to your community. There will be a map which will be set to your region or area (you’ll need to configure it initially to set it for your region) and the sightings in your area will then be displayed. The freelancer is having to work pro-actively on a steep learning curve to get the services working efficiently but he has been making good progress and we’re confident that the system will be ready for the first Bio Blitz on the 21st May.

A second project which we’re currently involved in is around the aggregation and presentation of Digital Scholarship data, this is led by Martin Weller, this is interesting because it is getting data feeds from a number of existing services and pulling data to form a view of an academic’s digital profile. As Martin says

Boyer defines scholarship as being based around four functions: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. We can think of digital scholarship then as the changes in all four of these that are brought about by the impact of digital and internet technologies. For example, if we take ‘discovery’ to be largely synonymous with ‘research’ then a digital scholarship view would be interested in the way researchers are collaborating using new technologies, sharing and visualising data, forming research communities using social media, etc

Up to now we’ve been using a contract developer (Richard Greenwood) to build the service but Richard is now required on another project around developing android apps (see below) and so we’re employing a contract developer to complete the final phase of work which is around adding further data feeds and working with the researchers to develop the visualisations.

The third project we’re undertaking is to develop mobile apps for the iSpot service. iSpot recently passed the 10,000 user mark and so it’s at a stage where we’re considering the use cases and the baseline activities that need to be developed through to ‘production’ level service. I’m excited by the opportunity to work with the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute to create mobile apps. We’re concentrating on developing an app for Android and iPhone initially but we’re creating an API which can be used across mobile platforms. Richard Greenwood is going to be working on the API and also developing the beta iPhone app. The apps will allow users to easily use their phones to capture images and upload and share them. Because of the location specific information and the visual aspects of iSpot it is a perfect service to deploy as a mobile app and it will interesting to explore how things like the image carousel and mapping information can be recreated through an app.

The fourth project we’re working, led by Mary Thorpe, is called PePLE, the concept is to create a professional working environment to support social workers, as Mary says…

PePLE is a resource for the training and continuing professional development of social workers that can be used with flexibility to fit in with the operational demands of workplaces. The resources can be used to support independent study or existing employer led provision.

The site is unique in terms of the tools it provides and we had to make the difficult decision (as we did with Cloudworks) to use a framework other that Drupal for it because there were too many constraints within Drupal to allow it to be considered. By the way there’s a good blog post about the decision to move to CodeIgniter by another of the developers, Juliette Culver, for those that want to explore the pro and cons of different PHP framework environments. The work on this project is almost complete and the site is being used as a resource to support OU Health and Social Care courses.

The fifth project we working on is the development of the OU Media Player, which I’ve already blogged about in a previous post. Work is going to plan on this project but we’ve had to be very agile and flexible in our thinking and do some reassignment of work throughout the project, to ensure things get delivered as expected since there are fours units all working together on this project and the timescales are tight. There an early demonstration of the embed service in action (note not yet accessible!).

So these projects are all significant and all have deadlines of end of July. What are the lessons we’re learning for doing all these things together and with limited resource.

1. It’s the people who make the project work. Good people who are flexible in their thinking and are into solving rather than creating problems.

2. Being pragmatic. Don’t think you can do the ‘gold star’ service within three months. In particular getting a realistic scope and keep it realistic. The developers need to be good as deciding when the requirements come in how to manage those against existing ones.

3. Use freelancers and contractors where you can on the commodity items.

4. Keep reporting and documentation to minimum. Rely on the developers to self organise, using tools such as TimePanic to keep active tracking of their time on projects.

5. Organise meetings effectively. In the team we have a system which I’m exploring where we only arrange meetings on Monday or Tuesday and the rest of the week is purely for programming. This allows the ‘flow’ that is needed to develop. So all the team only arrange any project meetings on the Monday or Tuesday in any week. The meetings are kept short and a fixed agenda. I have monthly 1-2-1’s to check progress (the team use Google Docs to record their progress for these 1-2-1’s) and rely on project blogs to keep me informed of any day-to-day changes.

6. Issues are flagged up and recorded and resolved quickly and without fuss or blame. We assign an owner to problems and fix a date to have things resolved. We use the same Drupal module that use for managing bugs and feature enhancements. I bring in project support staff to assist me with organising resolutions if they involve multiple parties/units.

7. Ensure the developers are not ‘managing other people’s monkeys’, I use the 1-2-1’s as an opportunity to explore what the developers spend time on to try to ensure that the majority of time is on the development of the services and not on administration, design, support.

8. Be transparent. Keep active communication channels open with the project team, stakeholders and end users. This can be done in numerous ways and will help to ensure rapid feedback and iteration.

None of these things guarantee success but they help to reduce failure rates.