1. Information and Support Group (ISG)

The ISG undertakes a wide range of activities in supporting the University's use of IT, ranging from the management of users' accounts on the various central systems to the management and development of online information services and digital technologies, and providing assistance for problems — both for end users, and for distributed IT support staff.

1.1. IT Support Staff Services (ITS3)

In addition to new activities highlighted below, ITS3 (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/its3/) continued to:

  • run hands-on technical courses and workshops;
  • organise regular seminars for support staff;
  • run specialist events informing support staff of new or changed services;
  • liaise with support staff and keep in touch with their needs;
  • run a dynamic web site with useful information and access to essential support staff tools;
  • provide regular induction workshops for support staff;
  • promote OUCS, University, local and national events of interest to support staff through the ITS3 Calendar;
  • develop links with other universities and relevant national organisations such as UCISA;
  • provide staff for the Helpdesk rota;
  • provide staff for the PC Consultancy service.

1.1.1. Portable Private Teaching Network

During the year ITS3 purchased a network of 20 laptops plus cables, power supplies, switches, router, extension leads, etc. to enable courses to be run in any networked room. This was to eliminate the difficulties associated with OUCS lecture rooms being in high demand, the often short lead time for a technical course, and the set up requirements for returning machines to a stable state after a course.

The network proved very popular and has enabled ITS3 to run many courses with minimal disruption to others. A printer and projector were subsequently added, and the network has been hired out to individuals and colleges for a range of uses.

1.1.2. IT Metrics Project

ITS3 was asked to take on the investigation and implementation of recommendations 5 and 6 of the OUCS Review Report, which asked for the setting of basic minimum standards for IT infrastructure provision and IT staff skills. A working group was set up with broad representation from colleges, academics, departments, OUCS, ITSSG, ICTC, personnel, etc.

The working group co-ordinated a series of briefings, consultations, and interviews with support staff and others, both to inform the IT community and to seek feedback and input. On ICTC's recommendation, the two aspects of the project (infrastructure and skills) were split and effort was focused initially on developing the IT Infrastructure Metric. This metric was designed as primarily a data gathering exercise, enabling each unit to carry out an objective self-assessment of its IT infrastructure provision. Following this, it will be possible to identify patterns and levels of provision in different contexts, and to propose appropriate norms for different types of unit.

Consultation regarding the IT staff skills metric continues and will be further developed next academic year.

1.1.3. Pre-Term Round up

ITS launched a new initiative to equip all support staff with the information and advice needed to face the new term. This included updates on many OUCS services and new initiatives, what support staff might expect to be asked, and where to go for help. It also provided an opportunity for support staff to share experiences and suggest solutions.

1.1.4. ITS3 Lunchtime Surgeries

To continue to encourage dialogue between support staff and ITS3, a series of lunchtime surgeries were held. These proved popular for informal problem solving, keeping up with issues and discussions.

1.1.5. IT Support Staff Group

The existing IT Support Staff Group (ITSSG) was reconvened as the Advisory Body for ITS3. Reflecting this change of role, its membership was adjusted to include more elected support staff, a departmental administrator and a senior college figure. Members of ITS3 were no longer to be full members but would be invited to meetings.

ITS3 staff have continued to assist ITSSG with organising the highly successful ITSS Annual Conference and the IT Suppliers Exhibition, as well as being involved with organising social events.

1.1.6. Links with Other Universities

Links with other universities have been strengthened with representatives from Open University and Reading University among others visiting OUCS and giving presentations to support staff on the way IT support works in their institutions.

1.2. The Help Centre

In its second full year of operation, the Help Centre (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/helpcentre/) has continued to consolidate its role as OUCS's front-line support service. Help requests from in-person callers, by phone, and by email showed an increase. The number of problems emailed to the Help Centre rose by around twenty percent over the previous year.

The start of the year was marked by several international virus outbreaks, to deal with which a special anti-virus and security update CD was produced for distribution to all new students.

To help deal with the growing demand, the afternoon Help centre staffing was increased slightly. Helpdesk staff also had an improved appointment-booking facility for passing on to consultancy staff those problems that could not be resolved immediately. A new seated waiting area was also created for the use of in-person visitors.

The resources in the Help Centre itself were upgraded in a number of respects during the year. The PC workstations were upgraded to run Windows XP and provided a significantly more reliable service as a result. The flat-bed image scanners were also replaced. The Centre's PC and Macintosh systems continued to be heavily used, especially printing, CD-writing and scanning facilities. The system of usernames issued for use in the Help Centre was changed to bring them in line with standard Oxford usernames and also to last for the lifetime of the University card, rather than for a term at a time.

1.3. Database and Registration

The Database and Registration section (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/registration/) continued development of the WebReg web-based user management software. Lost passwords for all OUCS-administered services can now be reset at any time the Help Centre is open, and functionality needed for specialist Registration tasks is being migrated from proprietary software. As well as improving openness, this supports new TSM (Tivoli Storage Manager) and Athens interfaces, also the Webauth system which is now used by Herald and is the basis for future University-wide Single Sign-On mechanisms.

Staff have served on various Isidore and University Card Replacement working parties. Data in the current student record system is now available electronically to OUCS, as is Sports Federation data now used for the paperless registration of student sports club accounts. OUCS provides information in various forms to divisions, departments, colleges, the Card Office, Payroll, and projects Isidore and Osiris.

University computer facilities are now being provided for large numbers of non-resident students, most of them on part-time courses. User management procedures were developed for an alumni email service, run by OUCS Registration in the early stages of the service, before being handed over as a production system for the Oxford University Society.

This last year has seen major increases in Registration activity, following a three-fold increase in online requests for usernames, from 8873 usernames in 2002/3 to 23,296 in 2003/4. Only further automation of registration procedures has enabled us to cope with this level of demand. The further development of the self registration pages (https://register.oucs.ox ac.uk - out of date), especially the automation of Athens account creation, has significantly reduced waiting-time for personal callers and simplified access for all users, as has the introduction of pages for registering and downloading popular software such as Sophos and VPN.

Total calls per monthFront DeskUsername creation
via web
Unexpire Herald
password via web
Total calls
August 03 805 274 3 1164
September 03 2349 1603 29 4149
October 03 5248 4685 205 10467
November 03 1348 8140 135 9745
December 03 1147 1312 64 2553
January 04 3151 1362 88 4601
February 04 980 939 63 1982
March 04 1383 1176 78 2637
April 04 935 848 49 1832
May 04 767 880 44 1691
June 04 845 986 54 1885
July 04 1159 1091 36 2286
Totals 20117 23296 848 44992

OUCS now routes mail for most units of the university. Although the number of units concerned has stayed much the same, the number of accounts handled has gone up from 41,485 to 46,600. The number of generic aliases (for example, postmaster@unit) have also risen from 3,638 to 4,015 (11 percent rise) with roughly the same portion per division as last year.

1.4. Information Services

The Information Services section (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/internal/strategy/isg.xml - out of date) has as its primary goal the development and maintenance of a coherent publication strategy for OUCS. Its main activities during the year were:
  • 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, priority is given to the delivery of information via the web, using XML and the standards defined by the Text Encoding Initiative. During the year, highlights of the section's work included a substantial reworking of the main web design to use complex display based on Cascading Style Sheets alone, and a new design for the LTG webpages using XML. Other major activities were:
  • continued refinement and development of the course booking system;
  • checking all web sites for accessibility;
  • taking part in the University web audit working group;
  • the development of a system for automatic on-demand conversion of web pages to PDF for printing;
  • conversion of information sources for delivery via the experimental uPortal framework as well as conventional web servers;
  • continued investigations of more friendly systems for authoring in XML, including use of Microsoft Word 2003.
The section contributes to both the Help Centre and to the OUCS learning programme, as well as internal training. Teaching was provided on accessible web design, LaTeX, XML, and the Text Encoding Initiative.

The experimental portal, based on uPortal, has reached a production level service, with a localized look and feel (http://portal.ox.ac.uk/ - out of date); work on developing local services is now a priority for 2004/2005.

1.5. The Research Technologies Service (RTS)

The RTS (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/rts/) has had a productive year in its aim to seek external funding to pilot new digital technologies relating to specific strategic initiatives within the University. In February 2004 we successfully submitted bids to JISC in response to the Core Middleware programme for two projects to implement and evaluate the Shibboleth protocol for the inter-institutional sharing of online resources. The Shibboleth-aware Portals and Information Environments (SPIE) Project (in partnership with Bristol University) will test the effectiveness of Shibboleth in providing integration between institutional and national information environments, especially via enhanced portals and portlets. The Evaluation of Shibboleth for PKI and Grids (ESP-Grid) Project is seeking to investigate what solutions Shibboleth may have for access management within grid computing, alongside or as an alternative to the current use of Public Key Infrastructure. For both projects, which started in July 2004, we were able to redeploy existing staff from within the RTS.

In July, the RTS was awarded a $75,000 grant by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to finance further development of the XAIRA (XML Aware Indexing and Retrieval Architecture) system (http://www.xaira.org/).

Staff from the RTS have worked with the Humanities Division to establish the ICT requirements for humanities research projects. Towards the end of the year we were pleased to learn that three bids to the JISC Virtual Research Environments (VRE) Programme involving the RTS were successful, namely: the Integrative Biology VRE; Building a VRE for the Humanities, which was informed by the requirements analysis mentioned above; and the Sakai VRE Portal Demonstrator Project.

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

The DCOCE project (http://www.dcoce.ox.ac.uk/) entered its second year of operation. The team made great progress towards establishing a process for recruiting a potential network of registration authorities (RAs) from within both the University and colleges, together with a sample of end-users and service providers. Services included: two web sites at Worcester College; the "Admit" system used to share admissions data between colleges and MIS; and the Athens single sign-on system. The evaluation methodology and tools were also developed over this time, ready for rolling out during July-October 2004.

1.5.2. Humbul Humanities Hub

The Humbul Humanities Hub (http://www.humbul.ac.uk) is part of the national Resource Discovery Network. Over the past year the RDN has been restructured with a new Executive Director appointed and a national Management Board established. In this period Humbul's content editors created over 3,400 descriptive records, especially within Modern Languages. Much of the year has been occupied by a collaborative project with the humanities Higher Education Academy (HEA) subject centres to ensure we can share information relating to digital learning objects. The AHRB also awarded a grant which enabled the cataloguing of AHRB-funded research projects and freely available peer-reviewed online journals in the humanities. The Subject Portals Project (http://portal.humbul.ac.uk") entered its final year and Humbul continued to contribute to the development of of access management functions (with a notable partnership with Eduserv Athens), and the implementation of a humanities-specific version for user evaluation.

1.5.3. Open Source Software Advisory Service (OSS Watch)

In May 2003, Oxford made a successful bid to run a national Open Source Advisory Service for the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). OSS Watch (http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/) began operations in July 2003 with a staff of 1.2 FTE, drawn from across the Research Technologies Service. OSS Watch's remit is to provide unbiased advice and guidance on free and open source software for UK higher and further education.

The initial task of the service was to investigate the current state of open source deployment and development in UK HE/FE. The OSS Watch Scoping Study 2003 (http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/studies/scoping/), the largest of its kind ever undertaken in the UK, helped set clear objectives for OSS Watch, many of which were themselves achieved in this first year of operation.

During 2003/2004 OSS Watch organised two successful national conferences (deployment and development; and support models for open source development) and brought together experts to focus on the issues relating to intellectual property rights and open source licensing. The service inaugurated a series of roadshow events for further education and overall delivered more than 20 invited presentations.

OSS Watch's success in its first year, and the increasing demand from institutions for support in this area, led to a successful application to JISC to expand the service.

1.5.4. Oxford e-Science Centre (OeSC)

Staff from the OeSC (http://e-science.ox.ac.uk/) have continued to provide support to a wide range of e-Science projects within Oxford including Remote Microscopy; BioSimGRID; DCOCE; and Integrative Biology as well as maintaining a Globus-based gatekeeper service. In Jan 2004 the OeSC organised an e-Science Open Day which presented the vision of e-Science for the university, including plans for the e-Research Laboratory building; launched the Integrative Biology Project; and recognised a new Strategic Partnership between IBM and University of Oxford. University funding enabled the commissioning of a business plan feasibility study for the future of the Centre beyond 2005.

The Oxford e-Science Centre was notified in mid-August 2003 that it had made a successful bid to JISC to host a part of the Grid Infrastructure Testbed Facility (http://e-science.ox.ac.uk/ngs/) which has become the core resources for the National Grid Service (NGS). The equipment (a 128-CPU compute cluster) was delivered in December 2003 and the NGS went into early adopter production phase in April 2004. Initial plans for a University campus grid were also initiated in this period.

1.5.5. Oxford Text Archive (OTA)

The OTA (http://ota.ahds.ac.uk/) hosts the national AHDS Centre for Literature, Languages and Linguistics. The Centre has continued to provide a service to a range of humanities subjects focussing on the preservation and dissemination of digital research outputs; advice on the creation of digital resources and promoting the use of ICT in research. The Oxford Text Archive has also contributed to discussions within the University relating to digital preservation strategies and the development of digital repositories. Highlights from this year include the completion of a detailed report for the JISC on the use of free ebooks in teaching and learning within the UK (http://www.ahds.ac.uk/litlangling/ebooks/). During the course of the year AHDS Literature, Languages and Linguistics acquired fifteen sets of digital outputs from various research projects (including five from AHRB-funded projects).

1.5.6. Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)

The RTS is one of the four international hosts of the TEI Consortium (http://www.tei-c.org/), which maintains and develops the TEI Guidelines for scholars worldwide. During the past year, the TEI in Oxford has worked extensively on the technical framework for the next edition (P5) of the Guidelines; given a range of presentations and courses in the UK and beyond; and continued to maintain the TEI web site, including a new Sourceforge project site (http://tei.sourceforge.net/)

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