JISC conference – Strategic Content Alliance: building bridges to e-content

Stuart Dempster, SCA

The SCA is funded by the BBC, Becta (the schools ICT agency), EPSRC, JISC, BL, MLA and the NHS (in particular, the national electronic library for health). The rationale for the SCA is about seamless access and the issue of lifelong leraning. The sponsors have recognised the benefits of working together in terms of expertise and funding. The analogy of the ‘marathon’ is useful when examining an individual’s changing and expanding access to e-content throughout their lives. A lot of public agencies provide different levels of access, and the SCA want to reduce the barriers that exist to access.

In terms of the UK, there are a raft of different issues shaping the landscape – no alignment of financial years, poor cross-sector collaboration, no strategic alignment in terms of policy so there is frequently criticism, increasingly devolved activity in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (so devolved governments will develop their own resrouces) and insufficient funding.

The SCA wants to deliver a UK Content Framework – including best practice, examples, and tools to employ when creating electronic content. If you want to find out how to procure goods and services, there are currently a lot of web services available; the SCA is planning to provide a one-stop shop. The SCA offers a ‘big tent’ approach – there are two tiers of membership, funders’ membership if you contribute financially, and aligned organisations, who benefit from the SCA’s work and participate through non-direct financial contribution. There are also quarterly Home Nations Forums. There are full-time executive staff at JISC and SCA, but also seconded expertise from the funders, aligned organisations and beyond – an inclusive, collegiate approach. This is unique in terms of the UK taking the lead in recognising the world has moved on and the landscape is changing. There’s international interest in the work being pursued, from the US and increasingly the EU.

Rather than the information superhighway, we’re currently stuck in concrete on a B-road. The plan is to accelerate things and make them easier day-to-day. The objectives are to build on JISC’s work and create a common information environment, deploying a UK Content Framework and producing economically viable exemplars, rather than cutting-edge activities that aren’t practicable.

As far as change agents are concerned, some strands that have been identified are: common licensing, eg shared services, where a university library is offering resources to the NHS; common middleware; digital repositories; mass digitisation, occuring due to public and private investment; devolution; service convergence; UK government policy reviews, eg the Power of Information Review from last year. We are working with national agencies to try to unpick issues when it comes to using government data online. Obviously the other change is funding, in recognition of the current economic climate and the level of investment available. Global change agents include: the EU; the emerging economities; Google and Microsoft; Open Content Alliance and Microsoft Live Book Search; and Web 2.0.

The areas in which we’re working deal with policy and procedures, service convergence, interoperability, an e-content register and audit, audience analysis impact and modelling, advice, support and embedding (building on JISC activity in this area), business models and sustainability, advocacy, dissemination, standards and good practice.


Naomi Korn, IPR Consultant

How has the digital world democratised IPR issues faced by diferent sectors? The bottom line is that it’s never been easier to access stuff. Within this content-rich world, we all have two roles – users of other people’s stuff and content creators/publishers ourselves, meaning the potential here is enormous.

But IPR underpins most types of content, and copyright emerges as soon as content is created. Copyright democratises IPR issues across public sector bodies and many sectors. It’s all-encompassing and the laws are tight and restrictive.

One core issue is the nature of the content itself. It’s not that there’s one type of content, but everyone will be using and creating different types of content. Sound, music, broadcast, film, photographs, text, typography are all covered by copyright legislation, lasting for different durations, and when we look beyond this, there’s a strong likelihood that if we use multimedia content, there are layers of rights. With the internet, sometimes we don’t even know who created the material, meaning the emergence of “orphan works”.

The law is a beast! The problem is that although it aims to strike a balance between rights-holders and users, but there are lots of exceptions but very few of them of any real relevance to users. Indeed, many rights-holders don’t acknowledge the relevance of exceptions that are relevant within a digital framework. On the web, it’s uncertain whose legislation is in force. The copyright laws haven’t caught up with new technology – in joint works, who owns the rights? Ultimately, the law restricts the flow of content. The Gowers review of copyright is taking place now, and we’re looking probably looking to some kind of statutory instrument in the autumn of this year. It’s important that we make our views heard and expressed clearly with regard to how much current laws restrict use of content.

Many of us use many different policies within the same organisations – individuals in the same department do things differently, including using words differently. People interpret words and phrases differently. That in itself locks up content. There has been some splendid work by John Casey on cultural approaches to copyright.

It’s not that there isn’t stuff out there to guide us, but sometimes it’s too complicated. Staff are under-informed about copyright issues and how it affects them. Copyright isn’t just a legal issue, but it’s seen as something solicitors should deal with. Again, that locks up access.

So what are the solutions? First, international developments, such as licensing initiatives like Creative Commons. There are protocols being established about how data is used and shared, for example in Science Commons. The i2010 Digital Libraries has been addressing the issue of orphan works, and I think that will make a real difference. A number of standards are developing such as PLUS and the ACAP and SPECTRUM. JISC itself is funding a registry of electronic licences.

The SCA are keeping ahead of these developments, forming partnerships with organisations who are pushing them through. The programme of work is 18 months, and we’re currently six months in. We’re looking at guidelines and best practice, but also lobbying, working with other rights-holders and government agencies to tell them about the issues we’re faced with. We believe the work we’re doing can lead to greater empowerment. We won’t necessarily solve things, but we will begin to make things better.

Simon Delafond – BBC Time Sharing – memoryshare and centuryshare

BBC Memoryshare is my day job, launched last summer and is now live at bbc.co.uk/memoryshare, there to aggregrate data and content since 1900. Users can contribute memories against dates, add comments, browse entries using an interactive timeline, and view contextual information. We are hosted on a variety of BBC sites, some local sites, some radio sites, and they’ve all generated about 1300 memories at the moment.

The aims are to bring people with stories to tell to the attention of programme-makers, to create a living archive, and aggregate BBC content around date. One of my colleagues says, “We want to own time”, which I think is a little ambitious.

BBC Centuryshare is a project with the SCA which the BBC is helping to lead, with the purpose of promoting interoperability by gathering data from organisations and displaying it. First, we analyse data. Entries sit inside a database within a collection, and we look at what’s there – what content is in each database, and how it’s stored. Then we aggregate it – we suck out the data, and put it inside our own database. Ultimately we present it on a timeline, similar to the Memoryshare one – push data sources together and put it in one place, so that people can see articles from different collections all together, creating connections between different content and showing the power of sharing information. Finally we augment it, by getting users and professionals to add different information – keywords, for example, or the way they’ve used the information that exists.

That’s the ambition, and we need to work with SCA partners to get there, and align ourselves to the BBC’s strategy of find-play-share. This is at an early stage. We’ll make a prototype with a reduced set of data to see if it’s a viable project, and we hope to launch in March 2009.

Meredith Quinn, Ithaka

What can we learn about the way that for-profits approach sustainability? Ithaka are a not-for-profit based in New York City, and have a mission to promote uses of IT to advance HE worldwide, through stategic services, research, and shared admin services for affiliated organisations. Our role is similar to the role played by venture capitalists in the for-profit sector. The classic situation for a project is contact from someone at an online resource, coming to the end of its wave of grant funding, seeking to understand what the next step should be. It’s this situation that prompted the work we do, and we’re really pleased to be working with JISC and the SCA.

Many scholarly digital projects keep returning to funders for more money to support ongoing operations, not just start-up costs. We’re at a point where it’s nearly been 10 years that this kind of project has been running, so there’s a limit on the amount of funds available to support innovation.

So how can these projects develop sustainability plans that will allow them to thrive over time? Ithaka have written a paper, available on the SCA blog, and we’d appreciate peer review. It offers an approach to sustainability which is more than writing a business plan. When you write a business plan, it’s the first thing to go out the window when you come into contact with reality. We focus more on the mindset and the process that underwrite the ongoing business.

We also look at revenue models, rather than the cost side of the ledger, and try to suggest in which cases they might be most applicable. We did a series of interviews on the news sector, because we thought the news media are analogous to scholarly communications and have hit many of the same problems with the advent of digital technologies. They’re different in that they tend to be for-profit operations and are forced to confront sustainability issues faster.

There are four themes we observed in the course of our research that we think have merit for online academic resources. First, engaging in rapid cycles of innovation, for example the Guardian. Guardian Professional was charged with pursuing as many opportunities as possible, so they started up projects and identified rapidly which ones should be killed. They had to evaluate what was working, and if it wasn’t, it got the boot. It enabled them to get ahead of their competitors. They started a dating site, for example, that’s become very successful. It wasn’t just content sources, but business models. It was one of the first organisations not to go down the subscription route. This culture of rapid innovation is contrary to the culture of grant-funded projects.

Second, seeking economies of scale, and the example here is TimeInc. They decided they wouldn’t allowed their individual magazines to have their own unique presence online, and put them onto the same platform, encouraging magazines with similar themes, eg food, to work together to develop strategy for their web space. It has saved infrastructure costs and people costs, with concentrated groups of people thinking about the issues. They also believe they’ve consolidated their market share. A conglomerate can do this, but it’s harder to work in the academic sector because of all the scattered resources. This is why it’s important for organisations to have access to the same information and work together to leverage economies of scale.

Third, the importance of understanding your unique value to the user. Academic online resources tend to be quite supply-side orientated. There might be a sense of a user out there who might benefit from it, but it’s not a normal part of developing the resource. Corporations are much better at market research, and The Economist did some research into its readers. They found that their readers saw reading it as a ritual, or a “lean-back” experience. They want to lean back for an hour and 15 minutes on average and read through this week’s issue. This has enabled them to make some interesting choices about their online content. More is available than you might think, because they don’t think that’s where the value is. They’re still trying to understand the new users they have who are not focused on the paper edition. What’s important is that they’re going out and trying to understand where the value is.

Lastly, the importance in implementing layered revenue stream. It can seem like we have to choose between advertising and subscription and so on, but in the commercial news sector, using more than one allows you to diversify your sources of funding and to understand the value your reader gets from your product. We think this would be a good thing for online academic resources.

Q&A session
Q: What are you trying to do to not become a cathedral, ie just visited by a few people on a few days?
SD: What the SCA is not is a Soviet-style central plan. It is meant to be an enabler within a short period of time to develop best practice, and use empirical evidence to develop tools for academics. It’s not a set of edicts, it’s an enabler. It’s taking expertise and skills of the sponsors and specialist consultancies to really make a change here.
Q: It partly answers my question, but I think the question is overall, I couldn’t get a good sense of what you expect people to do with the content.
SD: I understand that. There is a fair amount of expertise and financial muscle being put into IPR more broadly. There are two sides to this work – one aimed at policy-makers and strategists to bring some degree of sanity to a crazy situation, and conversely the practitioners, who are faced with these decisions. Publishers have a number of different licences, which makes it difficult for organisations to deliver content in a meaningful way. Agencies mandate specific terms and conditions in their grants. Naomi was right, this is a first step along a very long path.

1 thought on “JISC conference – Strategic Content Alliance: building bridges to e-content

  1. Andy Lane

    As the questioner at the end of this session whose questions and comments have been rather curtailed I would like to expand on the comments and questions I made.

    The impression I got from the presentation and the information here on this site is that this has all the hallmarks of a content provider push intitiative without aclear idea of who the users are and what they want to do (although memoryshare was a bit better in that respect)- and a point well made by Meredith Quinn in her presentation.

    Issues of standards, formats and interoperability are universal but beginning to shake out a bit but have little influence on discoverability of e content per se, especially if it is to just find information (search engines can do that without formally linking repositories although you may want federated search for particular users/purposes). Where they are important is about reuse and remixing or adding user content or augmenting existing content. So are you wanting to do all these things and who do you want to participate as primary or secondary users. Is it individuals or groups or organisations? Or is it about just making the stuff ‘more’ available or in controlled ways and see what happens?

    And the biggest barrier to people using stuff beyond just searching for information is not technical but a cultural one embedded in habits and formalised laws (especially about copyright)where value in most work is destroyed in the belief that content (= ideas) itself, rather than what people do with it is most important. In other words the extension or physical property law to intellectual ‘property’ is even less meaningful for virtual (digital) property where the economics of abundance not scarcity starts to kick in.

    So it would be great to know more of the thinking behind the SCA as I am still struggling to see what will turn a worthy venture into a useful one.

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