Jisc case studies wiki Case studies / Transformations Sheffield Hallam University
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Transformations Sheffield Hallam University

Project Name: infoKit Visualisation

Lead Institution: Sheffield Hallam University

Project Lead: Chris Roast


The problem this project set out to address was being able to find easily required, specific information within the multiple JISC infoKits, and to make that information easily accessible to knowledge exchange professionals and academics. We found that many individuals were not familiar with the infoKits.  We focused on 3 infoKits: Business and Community Engagement; Embedding Business and Community Engagement; and Knowledge Transfer 2.0.


We wanted to develop a method for visualising and easily sorting through the resources that would provide a more appropriate means of accessing and using them, giving users an at-a-glance understanding of the scale and variety of kits, and the information they contained. We developed a prototype tool to do this, using a generic social bookmarking platform (www.diigo.com) for storing resource encodings, and a simple client-side script to pull down the encodings and present them in an interactive visualisation.


The prototype visualisation tool went through a number of iterations, each providing a sounding board for stakeholders to reflect on the relationship between what was expected and what could be achieved. The project met the aims of the prototype by working as a specialized social book-marking tool embodying the encoding of three of the infoKits and presenting the information in a visual way. 

See the full Transformations programme playlist



The problem this project set out to address was to provide academics working in the areas of knowledge exchange with better support in terms of how they are able to access existing JISC tools and resources appropriate for their needs. The focus was upon the JISC infoKits - these represent a large range of research, assessment and synthesis of findings resulting from JISC projects. As such they provide valuable information supporting best practice in a number of areas relevant to applied research, business community engagement and knowledge exchange. The infoKits themselves are provided as standalone online documents with some multimedia content. The infoKits we identified to work on were: Business and Community Engagement; Embedding Business; and Community Engagement: and Knowledge Transfer 2.0.


Aims and objectives

While the JISC infoKits represent a valuable resource for academics and universities, we believe that their form as individual reports limits the ease with which they can be reused and applied to meet the needs of individuals. Highly valuable information for a specific task, such as reviewing collaborative technologies, project planning and management, etc. is present in various kits, but finding each relevant kit and the information relevant to the task within is not easy. The general aims of the project were to address this concern by:


  1. Developing a method for visualising and easily sorting through the resources would provide a more appropriate means of accessing and using them. Visualising will provide users with a better at-a-glance understanding of the scale and variety of kits.
  2. Developing a mechanism for bringing together information that might be distributed between an number of infoKits will help address issues around effective access.


The objectives of the project were:


  1. to develop a prototype tool that would demonstrate the value of a visualised infoKit
  2. to develop a task oriented means of accessing to infoKit resources
  3. to focus upon a small sample of the infoKits and their incorporation in the prototype 


The business case

The value of providing a tool capable addressing the problem set out above is two fold:


  1. The direct value is that the potential existing for the tool to provide a means of generally improving efficiency and quality of knowledge transfer activities. This is achieved by improving access to relevant resources. This of particular relevance to knowledge transfer academics and support staff within HE who are frequently examining new and alternative forms of supporting applied research and developing research impact.
  2. Indirect value comes from ensuring that existing JISC resources can be identified and accessed more effectively. This would make greater value of the overall info kit resource base, and ensure that previous JISC sponsored work has a greater reach and application 


Key drivers

The key drivers for this work came from the recognition of the value of the infoKits as widely applicable resources for a number of applied research and academic purposes, and yet individuals did not seem familiar with them and prior work by JISC. Anecdotally activities such as responding to a new applied research opportunity can involve criteria and requirements unfamiliar to the academic community, and as consequence there is a knowledge and experience gap. The infoKits offer one means of helping bridge this gap.


Hence the key drivers are:


  1. Improving the ease of identifying best practice and prior research relevant to many aspects of applied research activities
  2. Encouraging a broader consideration of the resources that could improve the quality of applied research proposal and activities
  3. Improving the overall quality, and thus competitiveness, of individual academics, centers and institutes in terms of income generation and research impact 


JISC resources/technology used


The initial characterisation of the infoKit visualisation concept was to adopt an informal descriptive framework based upon the intended users' characterisation of their resource needs. This framework was based around identifying "Who" might needs a resource; "How" they might use it; "When" they might use it and "What" it is and what the need is. Collectively these factors would be used to match appropriate resources. This would enable resources to be pulled-out on the basis of addressing specific user needs. This initial vision was captured by the following graphic.



While this is a basic account of what could help users wishing to access resources there are other factors at play:


  • Users often access resources while also dynamically tailoring their view of what they'll find acceptable. In simple terms users have expectations that, say, a single resource that they've used before might be what they want, or that they don't want too many to read. Of course content may also shape their view of what they need. On finding that matched resources share an unexpected term or phrase, a user may try and change the match to reduced the unexpected term. Hence in this case the user will re-formulate what is they they think they need based upon what is found. 
  • The structure of "Who, what, when, ..."  and the terms used to describe them may not be appropriate or relevant to the intended end users. Hence, while it may appear valuable at the design stage, such an approach requires validation. Similarly the process by which resources are encoded along these dimensions also needs to be considered. In particular the effectiveness of any encoding is reliant upon a common mindset and ontology to those of the users.


These factors shaped the eventual design, having prototyped the initial ideas the specific context of use was more accurately identified and the overall design changed. One simple example of this is that the usage context was that of one of an academic involved in knowledge transfer, and as a consequence the dimension of "Who" became hard to resolve, since it was found to be misleading or ambiguous. The upshot of this is that "Who" became implicit in the prototype and no longer a dimension used to match resources. 


Another factor relevant to effective prototyping was that encoding the resources was a knowledge intensive task requiring considerable effort. Contrary to the common needs of rapid prototyping, this meant that re-encoding resources to reflect different approaches to indexing them was a time consuming process. 


The approach and context of development demanded a flexible framework for experimentation. The technical development attempted to maintain simple conceptual structure to ensure any successful prototype would be well suited to working with entire infoKit resource, were it to be encoded. In addition, the simple structure had to be responsive to the emergent approaches to indexing the resources. For these reasons, and to enable easy access to the prototype, the tool was developed as web based resource. The resulting prototype architecture employed a generic social bookmarking platform (www.diigo.com) for storing resource encodings, a simple client-side script to pull down the encodings and present them in an interactive visualisation (driven primarily by jQuery). The specific technologies employed were chosen to be fit for purpose, flexible and not highly committing. In particular the choice of a social book-marking framework was made in order to enable future use of the prototype. Through the flexibility this offers, the potential exists for users to added further resources and update encodings, This facility helps address the potential effort of encoding further resources and encoding them appropriately for users.


Some initial iterations of the design were developed to outline the likely operation:







The prototype visualisation tool went through a number of iterations, each providing a sounding board for stakeholders to reflect on the relationship between what was expected and what could be achieved. In parallel with this process the approach to marking-up and encoding resources evolved. 


Early examples:




The project met the aims of the prototype working as a specialized social book-marking tool embodying the encoding of three of the infoKits. 


Closing illustration detail: 



And some more examples of selecting and showing resources:







The real benefits of the interactive visualisation are only to be realised if it were to embody all the infoKits and to be introduced to, and adopted by, a wide user community. Within the space of the funded project neither of these were possible. However, in disseminating and engaging potential end users the potential value of the tool was recognized. A small empirical study comparing the existing infoKit site with the visualisation tool (with only three infoKits) was conducted. The results showed that the prototype was comparable to the existing infoKit website with respondents finding the existing web site fractionally easier to use. Considering the prototypical nature of the visualisation tool and the fact that only three resources were encoded, these results are not discouraging and suggest that the prototype could benefit from further work in terms of encoding more resources and providing more guidance to novice users.



Qualitative empirical feedback suggests that the visualisation tool potentially represents a break from tradition, and as such it appears as a challenge for some end users. This comes from the fact the the tool needs to be "driven", with the user taking the initiative to an unfamiliar interactive paradigm in order to build confidence. From this and other feedback we feel it is realistic to envisage any adoption of the tool requiring not only the full complement of resources to be encoded but also significant user support.


Key lessons


The key lessons learnt from the work are that although technical enhancements offer great potential benefits within an academic setting, the transformation of practice necessary to realise their true benefit is significant. The diverse range of experience and confidence with Web2.0 technologies complicates the process of dissemination and adoption. 


Looking ahead


Future work will focus upon ensuring an effective robust tool is developed. 


However, a key requirement is to populate the prototype to comprehensively cover the infoKits as a whole. Without this coverage the adoption and engagement with the visualisation is unlikely to be realised.




The further development of this work will be reliant upon external funding, none of which has been identified to date. The addition of other key infoKits applicable to business processes (23 of the existing infoKits are of direct or indirect relevance), would enhance the tool and add depth and more substance to the results returned for the different search terms.  This enhanced resource could potentially become the 'wiki' of choice for academics wanting to  find easily resources that are relevant to business and community engagement in the F/HE sector. The exisiting 'topics' page on the JISC infoNet site does not include a catergory for business and community engagement, and the addition of more infoKits to our tool could contribute to the development of this as a future 'topic'.