6. Information & Support Group

The Information and Support Group (ISG) is concerned with support services and information provision across OUCS and at all levels, ranging from the walk-in help service to detailed technical expertise in research technologies. The ISG has 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.

The RTS in particular has established a policy of attempting to converge its services, with staff sharing expertise across different projects. This environment underlies the commitment of the group to organic development of standardized services, with a preference for open source and collaborative solutions which maximize economies of scale, but where the highest priority is to ensure solutions meet the needs of the users.

6.1. 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 Staff Services (ITS3)
provides specialist support and consultancy for IT support staff 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.

6.2. Portal experiments

From February to July 2003 the Information and Support Group organized and led a pilot project involving staff from all sections of OUCS in the implementation of a web portal, as an alternative or additional means of access to information resources in the University. The distinctive feature of portal technologies is their ability to aggregate and integrate disparate information sources into a single consistent interface, which can also be customized. Unlike a static web page or a page of links to such pages, a portal presents directly information fed to it by many different sources, using a small number of pre-defined standard interfaces.

The aims of the OUCS pilot portal project were:

  • to gain more experience of portals, web services and associated standards;
  • to investigate the extent to which existing services can be streamlined and integrated to offer a user-focussed view of OUCS information;
  • to encourage the migration of OUCS internal office processes to the digital information age;
  • to disseminate our experience using this technology, and that of others, to other information providers within the University.

The portal was successfully implemented using the open source uPortal framework, with a range of channels of information from OUCS and library sources. In addition, a series of seminars about portals was organised for the university's IT community. It is intended to take the portal to a production standard during 2003/2004.

6.3. Help Centre

The OUCS Help Centre 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 08:30 - 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 21 and 22 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.

Number of Help Desk Enquiries by Division
Figure 21. Number of Help Desk Enquiries by Division
Number of Help Desk Enquiries by Status
Figure 22. Number of Help Desk Enquiries by Status

6.4. ITS3

The mission of ITS3 (IT Support Staff Services) is to address the needs of distributed IT support staff by provision of central resources and organisation, 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.


Registered IT Support Staff by affiliation
Figure 23. Registered IT Support Staff by affiliation

ITS3 provides a forum for the sharing of knowledge and the pooling of benefits amongst all college and departmental IT support staff. Figure 23 shows the breakdown of registered IT support staff by affiliation. The section’s advocacy role and its provision of networking opportunities are important to staff who might otherwise work in isolation. Its aim is to maximise centralized benefits while encouraging the diversity of excellence which characterises the business of teaching and learning at the University.

During the period of this report, ITS3 organised many formal and informal training events, courses, seminars, briefings, supplier demonstrations and maintained, increased or initiated links with other event organisers and training providers. These include other universities, UCISA, UKERNA, the BCS (local and national), Netskills, the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford Linux User Group, Oxford eScience, local and/or specialist IT training companies like WellHouse Consultants and SkillSolve, and manufacturers such as Sun, Veritas, Dell, Apple, etc.

The ITS3 web pages include dynamic status indicators for key services, news items, commonly required support links, a growing collection of resource links and dynamic current virus listings. A key feature of the pages to promote and publicize events is the ITS3 Calendar. During the period, this has been enhanced to include archive listings, termly or weekly listings with Previous and Next options, local and distant event indicators with the option to list either or both and dynamic today/tomorrow/soon listings.

ITSS Induction Workshops have continued to be popular and run regularly. This year’s IT Suppliers Exhibition in December was extended to two days with IT personnel from local schools and public sector organisations invited as well as University staff. Collaboration with commercial training companies has seen many training courses run at Oxford for ITSS allowing them to benefit from reduced costs, customised courses and minimal travel expenses. The ITSS Annual Conference was held at Keble College and attracted over 200 attendees to enjoy three major presentations from external speakers, question sessions with senior managers, reports from local committees, fourteen workshops and a social evening. Figure 24 shows the distribution of conference attendees through the University by affiliation.

IT Support 
Staff Conference Attendees by Division
Figure 24. IT Support Staff Conference Attendees by Division

On a national level, ITS3 staff are on the UCISA Staff Development Group Committee and its Distributed IT Support Staff sub-group, promoting good practice and the needs of distributed ITSS.

6.5. Information Services

The Information Services includes four members of OUCS staff. Their 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 similar 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 section has continued to refine and develop the course booking system, and to deliver even more material via the web. Major activities have been:

  • checking web sites for accessibility;
  • developing a system for automatic on-demand conversion of web pages to PDF for printing;
  • converting information sources for delivery via the experimental uPortal framework as well as conventional web servers;
  • investigation of more friendly systems for authoring in XML.

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.

6.6. 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.

Registration staff work closely with the Help Centre and provide a major part of the software on which its services depend. They also contribute to the development of new management information systems in the University.

6.7. 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.

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. Established components of the RTS are the Oxford e-Science Centre, the Oxford Text Archive, and the Humbul Humanities Hub, brief reports on each of which follow. During this year, the RTS also successfully bid for and established two new JISC-funded projects, one on the use of Digital Certificates, and the other on Open Source Software.

6.7.1. Oxford e-Science

e-Science activity at Oxford continued to expand during 2002-03. 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.

6.7.2. 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 ).

6.7.3. 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 feedback 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 portalisation 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 http://humbul.ac.uk/ac/annual-0102.html .

6.7.4. Other RTS Activities

6.7.4.1. OSS-Watch: the national Open Source advisory service

In July 2003 the Research Technologies Service started a nationally funded Advisory Service on Open Source Software. Its goal is to provide the UK further and higher education community with neutral and authoritative guidance about open source software, and about related open standards. Specifically, it provides:

  • A web-based clearing-house
  • conferences and workshops;
  • focussed assistance for institutions and software projects considering open source;
  • investigative reports.

This service (named OSS Watch ) is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) for two years, and has two half-time staff and a project manager.

6.7.4.2. Digital Certificate Operation in a Complex Environment (DCOCE)

The goal of the DCOCE project is to investigate the use of digital certificate technology as a means of providing access management in a complex information environment. In the course of this year, the project plan was finalised, and a stakeholder/advisory group set up. Despite delays in recruitment, the project made good progress in 2002/2003. Several sites with experience of digital certificates and public key infrastructure (PKI) both in the UK and abroad have been contacted to provide context for the project's work in designing a PKI architecture for Oxford. Initial development work has been to implement and evaluate the Leeds University Certificate Issuing Engine and to survey other implementations worldwide, while also gaining better familiarity with Oxford's own IT infrastructure.

DCOCE is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) for two years. The team comprises a full time manager, a full time technical developer, and an evaluation officer.

6.7.4.3. Text Encoding Initiative

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 are very active in the working groups of the TEI, including:

  • Revision of the TEI framework to work with schema languages, and to interact better with W3C standards
  • Guidelines for conversion of legacy SGML documents to XML
  • Extending the use of the TEI for authoring new documents as well as describing existing texts
  • Technical training, and presentations about the TEI, was given in Oxford and at a number of international conferences.

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