The processes and activities within the ITaaU Network+ have emerged as a highly productive and robust working framework. This framework simplifies the administration with a functional collection of repeatable processes. These will be described in the sections below. This framework is particularly productive for workshops. We can confidently bring together a collection of specialist individuals and be confident of generating a swath of new ideas and recommendations. This is followed by a summary of achievements.
The activities which take place within the Network+ were all described and justified within the original proposal which stated: “IT as a Utility is about the provision of information and technology in a transparent and highly usable manner”. Whilst grid and cloud computing technologies as well as sensor networks and the Internet of Things all play a part in this field, we took a decision from the start to focus on the needs of communities of practice and communities of interest rather than merely the technologies themselves.
Thus, rather than organise events around particular technologies, events have been aimed at communities of practice such as: emerging economies, libraries of the future, security in the food chain and smart spaces and cities.
Out of these events other topics subsequently emerged as being compelling subject areas in themselves, namely: data as a commodity, interface and interaction design, accessibility issues, and trust and security. Communities of interest were identified around these important topics and the ideas pursued.
Funding criteria and process
The combination of cutting edge technologies and an exploratory vision ensures that the IT as a Utility Network+ can take a moderate position on risk when it comes to funding activities. The granularity of the funding schemes: workshops, pilot projects and secondments means that this risk is balanced out against the evolving and emerging understanding of what ITaaU means in the context of the digital economy.
Application forms have been prepared for these schemes that capture key information from applicants and ensure that the basic funding criteria are met. Further detail is captured during the contract negotiation phase where needed.
For the pilot projects, there is a two-stage application process: expressions of interest are filtered and subsequently more detailed applications are requested. Secondments are applied for in a single phase. For all of these stages the applications are circulated to the management team for consideration. A table is prepared with summaries of the applications together with a matrix of funding criteria. Reviewers also have access to the full material for reference. Depending on the size and quality of the field, these criteria are either judged in a binary manner or on a short scale. The results are then merged and a summary sheet prepared and re-circulated for discussion. A decision is then made dependent on the funds available and the quality of the prioritised short list.
The Advisory Board also contribute to this process with periodic review of current and proposed schemes depending on how board meetings align with the funding cycle.
The benefits of workshops are two fold. On the one hand they bring practitioners and experts together across sectors and disciplines in ways that would not happen otherwise. Secondly they provide attendees with insight into the Network and its funding schemes. As the Network has progressed, the quality and appropriateness of applications has improved considerably as more applicants have attended one or more of our events or events at which we have participated. Furthermore, strong ideas for specific funding calls have sometimes emerged from workshops that are effectively operating as think tanks. One example of this is the call for embedded librarians to join research teams for short secondments.
Over time we have discovered that there are three kinds of workshop model that work well in this context. For some topics a small scoping event is productive in exploring and defining the key issues and hence the viability of developing the topic. This enables us to consider potential contributors to future events and to align these in the wider calendar.
At the other end of the scale we have run larger events of twenty to fifty people based around a more detailed agenda with guest speakers and contributors providing insight and information to the audience. In the middle we have found that the most productive and ground breaking events bring together between ten and twenty specialists to act as a think tank of creatively-minded experts willing to operate slightly outside their day-to-day comfort zone.
Whilst the larger meetings can last for one to two days and the scoping workshops typically last for half a day, the typical workshops last for one day. The structure of the day falls into four sections that relate to best practice for facilitated discussions: introductions to the topic, introductions from participants, exploration of the agreed key challenges within groups and collectively, and finally agreement on a set of follow on actions. We have found that inviting at least one of the participants to deliver a short thought provoking introduction also contributes to this process.
Pilot projects typically run for six months, occasionally less. Projects bring together team members from multiple institutions and, ideally, sectors in order to deliver a common goal. The call invites proposals that test new ideas or create novel linkages between research areas. In addition to bringing together multiple institutions and where possible, industrial partners, applicants are also asked to focus on including real users in their project plans.
A number of seed ideas were planted for the initial rounds of funding with the intention that there would be a migration towards projects linked to recommendations emerging from the workshops. That said, workshops have themselves investigated many of these pre-defined themes: security and trust, smart spaces, user experience and ethical considerations.
Project leaders have continued to attend workshops and report back informally on work in progress. We look forward to formally welcoming all of the project leaders to the planned ITaaU Network+ meeting in Southampton on 19-20 June, 2014.
Secondments offer an opportunity to transfer cutting edge research knowledge in a manner that benefits researchers and organisations. The inter-sector nature sought for secondments typically involves a university-based researcher spending up to two months within the R&D function of a commercial or non-profit organisation providing essential but not otherwise available knowledge. Through the use of light-touch non-disclosure agreements both parties can typically gain insight and progress to their own agenda.
ITaaU organisers and others from within the Network attend meetings that relate to the topic of IT as a Utility and when possible deliver talks and other activities to spread the word. This matters as it raises the profile of the discussions around IT services and utilities in the context of the digital economy and also provides insight into our funding channels. Attending relevant related events and promoting the ideas behind the Network is a productive way to promote the benefits of multidisciplinary research and development as well as championing the essential nature of inter-sector activity.
Examples of events in which the Network organisers have participated include:
- European Grid Infrastructure Community Forum (Manchester, 8-12 April 2013)
- Communities and Culture Network+ meeting (Leeds, 5-6 Sept 2013)
- Digital Economy 2013: Open Digital (Manchester, 4-6 Nov 2013)
- Annual Workshop of the International Association of Scientific and Technological Libraries (Research Data Management: Finding our Role) (Oxford, 5-6 Dec 2013)
- International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining (New York, 28 Feb 2013)
This established framework will continue to be applied for the remainder of the lifetime of the Network and will also continue to evolve as we review its effectiveness. An interesting development in recent months has been that the workshop model has been run at the Food Standards Agency for an internal meeting. Two representatives from ITaaU ran the workshop for around twenty people and a report summarising the discussions and recommendations. The recommendations were then presented at a follow up meeting.
The next phase of development for the framework is to investigate how IT utilities can be harnessed to increase the benefits of workshops and other activities. Multi-channel spatial audio recording is being investigated as a mechanism to capture and relay the detail of the discussions. A film is being made on the on-going discussions within the Network from a citizen scientist perspective, capturing the human stories around the topics. Finally, social media channels are being analysed to allow deeper understanding of the social interactions and other processes at work across and around IT utilities.