5. Information & Support Group

The Information and Support Group (ISG) was formed in April 2002 as a part of the reorganization of OUCS. Its primary goal is to bring together and harmonize several previously fragmented parts of OUCS concerned with support services and information provision at all levels, ranging from the walk-in advisory service to detailed technical expertise in research technologies.

The ISG was established with five sections, employing a total of over 30 staff. It is the largest of the five groups within OUCS, and its activities require maintenance of partnerships and collaborative activities across the whole of the department and beyond.

Evolving an overall strategy for the group is an ongoing process. All parts of the group share a common imperative of user-oriented support services, while needing to work directly with their respective user communities to develop local strategic objectives that respond to and pro-actively anticipate user demand. ISG's user communities are widely spread across the whole of the University, and beyond through its participation in leading national and international research support initiatives and services.

Within the RTS in particular, we have begun to consider ways in which we might better evolve towards converged services, with staff sharing expertise across different projects. This environment underlies our committment to organic development of standardized services, with a preference for open source and collaborative solutions which maximize economies of scale.

5.1. Structure

The ISG comprises the following sections, each of which is reported on below.
Help Centre
provides on-demand support and consultancy for IT users across the university;
IT Support Support Services (ITS3)
provides specialist support and consultancy for IT support officers across the university;
Information Services
responsible for all OUCS web and information services;
Registration and Database Services
provides infrastructural and technical support for all registration services at OUCS;
Research Technologies Service
hosts a number of research-oriented specialist services (notably Oxford e-Science activities, the Oxford Text Archive, Humbul, and the TEI) and offers advice upon new research technologies, ensuring the effective dissemination of best practice across the University.

5.2. Help Centre

March 2002 saw the launch of the new OUCS Help Centre, which now provides a single location and point of contact for all of OUCS's support services. Based in the former Help Area at 13 Banbury Road, the new Help Centre brings together the face-to-face services formerly provided by the User Registration Desk, the Advisory Desk, the Learning and Resource Centre (LaRC), the Data Centre, the Centre for Humanities Computing (CHC), and the PC Consultancy drop-in surgery sessions.

The Help Centre extends the access hours for all of these services with opening hours of 8:30 - 20:30 Monday to Friday. As well as providing a walk-in service, the Help Centre is the initial contact point for support requests received by telephone and email, covering a wide range of issues such as problems and questions relating to:-
  • Accounts, passwords, file storage quotas etc. on central systems;
  • Connection to and use of the local network and services;
  • Software and hardware installation, configuration, and troubleshooting.
The Help Centre has a variety of resources including computers (both PC and Macintosh) running a wide range of software, scanners, printers, CD-writers, digital video editing and video playback equipment, as well as an extensive library of self-teach and reference materials. There are also internet-café-style quick-access terminals for email and internet access. Over the summer, a major upgrade of all user-accessible equipment was carried out.

The Help Centre is designed to complement the support already provided by departmental and college IT support officers, by simplifying access to OUCS specialist services for them and their clientele. A crucial part of this is an automated request tracker system used to monitor calls and other activity both by the Help Centre and most other OUCS services.

Staff from elsewhere in OUCS contribute to the success of the Help Centre, whether as second-line support for Help Centre staff, or by dealing with the very large number of queries now sent and dealt with by email. During the period covered by this report, it became apparent that staffing the help desk would also require recruitment and training of part time demonstrators, and this process was initiated. Substantial effort has also been put into preparation of training materials and web-based documentation tackling commonly encountered problems.

Figures Figure 26, Distribution of Help Centre Enquiries in the Initial Period: April 15-July 31, 2002 and Figure 27, Number of Help Centre Enquiries by Status: April 15-July 31, 2002 give some indication of the take-up of the Help Service during this initial period, subdivided by status and affiliation of enquirer, in so far as these can be determined. In the two-thirds of enquiries for which status is known, the majority are University staff and senior members, suggesting that the service is playing a useful role in complementing departmental support efforts.

Distribution of Help Centre Enquiries in
     the Initial Period: April 15-July 31, 2002
Figure 26. Distribution of Help Centre Enquiries in the Initial Period: April 15-July 31, 2002
Number of Help Centre Enquiries by
     Status: April 15-July 31, 2002
Figure 27. Number of Help Centre Enquiries by Status: April 15-July 31, 2002

5.3. ITS3

The mission of the ITS3 (IT Support Staff Services) section is to address the needs of distributed IT support staff by provision of central resources and organization, and to work with senior OUCS and other University staff in order to ensure that the interests of IT support staff are taken into account.

The section provides a forum for the sharing of knowledge and the pooling of benefits amongst all IT support staff distributed across departments and colleges. Its advocacy role and its provision of networking facilities are important to staff who might otherwise work in isolation. Its aim is to maximize centralized benefits of this kind while encouraging the diversity of excellence which characterizes the business of teaching and learning at the University.

During the period of this report, the ITS3 section organized a number of training events, seminars, etc. Of particular importance were the annual IT suppliers annual exhibition held in November, and the annual IT Support Staff Conference held at the Saïd Business School in July, both of which attracted record attendance. The ITS3 web pages were reorganized and a new system of monitoring external enquiries (using Request Tracker) was set up. It was agreed to allocate an additional member of staff to provide administrative support for the section, effective September 2002.

5.4. Information Services

The Information Services section expanded to include five members of OUCS staff during the year, taking on additional responsibilities such as the course booking database and extra web sites. The primary goal is development and maintenance of a coherent publication strategy for OUCS, and the main activities are:
  • Management of public web sites for OUCS;
  • Management of internal web sites for OUCS;
  • Processes for creating printed documentation;
  • provision of information in accessible formats, including Braille;
  • Production of leaflets and newsletters as needed;
  • Provision of in-house teaching and support for publication systems;
  • Liaison with University-wide initiatives.

In almost all cases, the priority is delivering information on the web, using XML and the standards defined by the Text Encoding Initiative.

During the year, the main OUCS web site was re-designed to provide a more dynamic front page. A web site was launched specifically for new students and staff (welcometoit.ox.ac.uk), the site for the Oxford e-Science centre (e-science.ox.ac.uk/) was re-designed, and a working party from across OUCS created and implemented a new logo for the department.

The biggest effort in the first half of 2002 went into the creation, in conjunction with the Unix systems development team, of a complete new online booking system for OUCS courses, which was successfully completed in time for the 2002/2003 academic year.

The section contributes to both the Help Centre and to the OUCS learning programme, as well as internal training. Teaching was provided on web design, LaTeX, XML, and the Text Encoding Initiative.

5.5. Registration and Databases

Registration is the key to all OUCS services. Until completion of a full information system for the University, the Registration Database is likely to remain a unique source of data about all university students, staff, and academics. It combines and checks data from the University Card registry, the Payroll data, and the various lists of Members of Congregation, Departments and Colleges. Using this database, OUCS allocates and maintains individual e-mail accounts for all new members of the University.

Keeping these accounts valid is a major exercise which is an essential part of the e-mail service on which the University increasingly depends for internal and external communication, at all levels. Registration and Database sections handle over 1000 enquiries of various kinds every month, as shown in the Figure Figure 27 which records the number of updates (of whatever kind) made to the registration database monthly.

Registration staff contributed greatly to the successful development of the Help Centre during this period. A number of enhancements were made to the database system itself, and to work on designing and implementing tools for use by Help Centre staff.

5.6. Research Technologies Service

The RTS aims to provide a centre of expertise for the development, implementation and support of leading open source technologies within digital environments with a particular focus on research and research-support. Its goal is to build on and expand the reputation of OUCS as an effective centre for e-research activities locally, nationally and internationally.

The RTS was established as an umbrella grouping for a number of key projects and initiatives characterized by their significance to the evolution and maintenance of state-of-the art research-support services in the field of information technologies. IT is a rapidly moving field, where today's leading-edge research is tomorrow's standard practice. Effective provision of IT services in support of the conduct, dissemination, and preservation of research and research findings therefore requires a ‘research focus’ at the same time as maintaining the service focus which characterizes all ISG sections. In this respect, the RTS also complements OUCS activities in support of teaching and learning, provided by the Learning Technologies Group.

Excluding e-Science projects, RTS activities bring into the University research funding in excess of £400,000 annually; e-Science funding is typically shared with other departments but is orders of magnitude larger. The RTS also generates significant income to offset its overhead costs, both from external grants and by sales of goods or services. OUCS contributes a total of 1.5 FTE effort to the coordination and management of RTS services. Major components of the RTS at the time of its establishment were part of the Oxford e-Science Centre, the Oxford Text Archive, and the Humbul Humanities Hub. Brief reports on each follow.

5.6.1. Oxford e-Science

e-Science activity at Oxford expanded rapidly during 2001-02. The Oxford e-Science Centre, which is predominately shared between OUCS and the Computing Laboratory (Comlab), began recruiting staff to work on five DTI-funded projects. In addition, successful applications for more than a dozen e-Science projects were made by a range of scientific and engineering departments throughout the University.

The Oxford e-Science Centre has played a full and active part in the national e-Science programme, working with the seven other regional centres to develop a nationwide e-Science grid. This year the basic infrastructure was put in place to support the sharing of resources between sites, to be known as the ‘Level-1 Grid’, and planning has already begun for the creation of a ‘Level-2 Grid’ to provide a stable, robust e-Science grid for a number of test applications. Staff from the OeSC also entered into negotiations with prospective partners (both academic and commercial) for a number of other major e-Science proposals which, if successful, should see a dramatic increase in the size and scale of e-Science activity at Oxford during the coming months.

5.6.2. Oxford Text Archive

In the course of this year, the OTA gained additional funding to work specifically on linguistics resources, and made a number of significant accessions in that area. The number of resources acquired by the Archive remained low, but the quality of its cataloguing increased considerably with over 500 records enhanced significantly. Use of the OTA's online holding continued to increase, with the number of catalogue queries (205,789), online deliveries (41,312), and other web site hits (254,470) all more than double the corresponding figures for the previous year.

OTA staff also continued to play a major advisory role for scholars within and beyond the University, both by supplying informal advice and consultancy, and by carrying out formal technical assessment of research proposals submitted to the Arts and Humanities Research Board. More than a hundred such proposals were assessed during the year, representing about a third of all those submitted to the AHRB, and a 10% increase over the previous year.

More details of the OTA's activities are to be included in the AHDS annual report (see ahds.ac.uk/public.htm).

5.6.3. Humbul Humanities Hub

Humbul has continued to expand its contribution to the national Resource Discovery Network (RDN), in both quantitative and qualitative terms. As a result of its active pursuit of partnerships in subject-specific domains, both academic and commercial, Humbul has been able to increase its coverage dramatically, with over 2000 new resource descriptions being added during the year, and more than twice that number reviewed for inclusion. Its web site received over 5 million accesses, with over 83,000 focussed searches being satisfactorily performed. User feed-back indicates a high level of satisfaction with the service, across all sectors of the academic community and the general public.

In November, the first of a series of new customization facilities was introduced, allowing registered users to customize their use of the Hub's resources in a number of different ways. Over 500 users signed up for this facility during the course of the year, and the technical developments required have proved invaluable in extending the expertise of Humbul staff to support further strategic developments in the areas of portalization and authentication. Humbul also played a major part in the development of the RDN's Subject Portal Project during this period.

During the year, Humbul staff published a range of documentary and other materials for use by cataloguers, as well as running several well-attended training sessions at both local and national levels, aimed mainly at subject specialists and information professionals.

Further details of Humbul's activities are available in its annual report at humbul.ac.uk/ac/annual-0102.html.

5.6.4. Other RTS Activities

OUCS has long been an active member of the international Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a major international effort to define and support standards for encoding of scholarly textual data. RTS staff organized the first members' meeting of the newly set-up TEI Consortium in November, and worked on production of a new XML edition of the TEI Guidelines. This was finally published in June: see further www.tei-c.org.

During the period of this report, considerable effort went into devising common communications and technical strategies for the RTS, and on drafting terms of reference for an RTS Advisory Group. A set of strategic objectives was defined and published, with other materials, on the RTS web site.

RTS staff also worked on the preparation of bids for external funding of a number of projects, most significantly a bid to the JISC for exploratory work on the use of digital certificates for authentication in a complex, heterogeneous environment.

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