A specific problem that the university faces is the aggregation, integration and publishing of ‘space-time data’; that is, data relating to the use of space (i.e. room bookings, geo-spatial location data) and time (i.e. timetables, event schedules, library book returns).
This project will address this problem by developing plugins for existing university systems that expose useful data which can then be aggregated into new web-based services. One of these web-based services will be a new calendaring system for students (initially, hopefully staff later).
All student’s calendars will comprise of three core layers; academic timetable, assignment deadlines and book return dates. We will create plugins for the three DMS ((Data Management System)) the University uses for these, Blackboard, SirsiDynix Horizon (HiP library portal), and our in-house developed timetable system.
Because we will have developed a standard for storing space-time data from these systems we are also going to create a number of other plugins for other systems so they can add to the datastore. These systems include WordPress, and providing the University has moved to version 2007 in time, Microsoft SharePoint.
Detailed here are our initial ideas as to how we intend to develop plugins for the systems to access their data.
One of the big motivations behind this project is that, as students, there is no easy way of finding out hand in deadlines for assignments, being informed if the deadlines change, and seeing the deadlines marked on a calendar alongside our academic timetables (so that we can realise that we’ve got one week not two until that deadline!). For example at the moment, the media faculty releases an Excel spreadsheet that mixes deadlines for every module for every year group which isn’t very useful if I’m trying to work out what has changed if a deadline is updated.
By September all faculties will be using Blackboard for detailing assignments. Many already are, and some have been for several years. When creating an assignment, there is an optional field that the academic can fill in to specify the deadline. Unfortunately, less than 10% of assignments created on Blackboard during the last academic year had anything in this field. Another problem we have is that a number of schools and faculties are making use of the Turn It In service (via a Blackboard plugin) and we have yet to investigate how Turn It In stores the data in Blackboard.
As we understand it, and we will have this verified, the license the University has with Blackboard allows us to develop on top of the Blackboard API and also access the underlying database (which is MS-SQL based). As neither Nick or I are particularly well versed in Java, and also the API doesn’t seem to give us access to the information we need we believe the route we should go down is to access the data straight from the database.
Therefore we will create a script that will be executed on a cron job that checks for new assignments in the Blackboard database, and verifies the date and time of existing assignments. Additionally we will try and enforce that academics must use the deadline field when creating assignments.
Through work that we’re doing on our Jerome “un-project” we have a head start on the accessing data from Horizon. The University has invested in Talis Keystone which integrated with Horizon and abstracts our the data over a friendly REST/SOAP web service. Using the APIs we’re developing for Jerome we intend to access book return dates for individuals and publish these as one of the Total ReCal layers.
Our timetable system was written in-house many years ago so we’ve got a lot of control over the output. For the time being we’re not going to completely replace the HTML version of the timetables but add in a new script that will generate the ics feeds along with the timetable renders (this happens on a cron job at 3am every morning).
WordPress and others
A side project of mine has been developing a system that can add location awareness to our online services. When you visit one of these services your IP address is sent to this system and then matched against a list of IP ranges for the University’s wireless and wired networks. The response, if you are on campus is the building that you’re in, which campus you’re on and whether you’re on a wired or wireless connection. If you’re not on campus then it will list your closest campus and where roughly in the world you are (using the MaxMind database).
We will develop a WordPress plugin that will query this system when someone creates a blog post on our blogs.lincoln.ac.uk platform and then push this information to Total ReCal. A hypothetically mashup we could then build with this data something like a heat-map of blog posts tagged “research” and overlay this on Google Maps so we can see where the most research blogging is going on at the University of Lincoln.
When we know the situation with SharePoint we can also plan for potential plugins for it too.