Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Web Science: History Glitches and a Manifestos - a few references for today

The role of Paul Otlet in the precursors to the web and the history of information science is not well known. I came across this information some years ago, but was delighted to find it again today while reading a couple of web science papers from last year's conference in Raleigh.
so today's treasure is...
van den Heuvel, C. (2008). Architectures of Global Knowledge: The Mundaneum and the World Wide Web. Destination Library , 15, 48-53.

Francophone Roots for the web? some observations
You can pitch over to wikipedia for more info on Otlet and the Mundaneum interesting to think that along with Minitel and Reuters this is part of the francophone history of the web.
interestingly there is a different account of Otlet's life from the french version of wikipedia - which since I am currently looking at plurilingualism and interdisciplinarity is highly relevant.

Web futurology?
The paper by van den Heuvel was referenced in 
Carr, L., Pope, C. and Halford, S. (2010) Could the Web be a Temporary Glitch? In: WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27th, 2010, Raleigh, NC: US.

so thanks to Les Carr (aka @LesCarr and Repository Man) for that reminder, and thanks also for an interesting perspective on the web and web science.

This paper addresses the question of whether the Web that we currently enjoy is a permanent and fundamental phenomenon, or merely a fashionable popular enthusiasm for a novel kind of information sharing. I think in some ways it echoes the arguments which Malcolm Gladwell used in Outliers when he identified how various individuals in history have made achievements which are the combination of a particular set of contexts.  In this paper it is the contexts of academic practice and the open values which academia pursue accompanied by the emergence of open publication as a respected practice which have (in part contributed to the phenomena which we know as the web today).  For a deeper understanding, as ever, best read the actual paper :-)

Fabulous however, to reflect that this is the stuff which our undergraduate students experience as an everyday part of their degree courses in computer science at Southampton
And while we are talking about the interplay between research and teaching at Southampton University it there is some good stuff on interdiscpinarity to be found from the same three authors in

Halford, S., Pope, C. and Carr, L. (2010) A Manifesto for Web Science. In: WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27th, 2010, Raleigh, NC: US.

A result no doubt of our Web Science collaborations in Southampton, in no small part due to the hard (interdisciplinary) work that all these folk put into our Doctoral Consortium in Web Science (which has fully funded places available for highly qualified applicants :-).
This paper takes on the discussion about how we realise the interdesciplinarity of web science and break out from individual discipline based research silos.
"Our aim is to provoke and stimulate debate and to move beyond superficial popular psychology and sociology (which envisages engineering human behaviour) and to challenge some of the ways in which social science has engaged with technology and technical actors. To facilitate this, and taking our lead from Donna Harroway, the paper sets out a radical manifesto for web science".
It also has quite a lot to offer when it reminds us of the need to find, use and respect research which come from research traditions and forms of discourse which are different to those with which we are comfortable and familiar.
Take for example the following quote
"For whilst we might all agree that Web Science cannot develop without inter-disciplinarity, we should be clear from the beginning that this is no simple matter. We need to be realistic about what we are getting ourselves into. There will be big challenges in making ourselves understood to each other and developing collaborative understandings will require us to leave the comfort of our disciplinary silos. But, the promise of new forms of knowledge and understanding that are bigger than the sum of our parts are gains worth working for".
For me this has echoes with the ideas of plurilingualism - a policy approach backed by the UN, UNESCO and the EU.

I think these the challenges and benefits of working and cross fertilising between linguistic cultures are as great as those promised by interdiscipliarity and web science. Furthermore, the web does not exist in a single language, nor should it be bound by the invisible philosophical and epistemological constraints which come with any one linguistic tradition.
Plurilingualism argues for the need to continue to recognise and support discourse in more than one language - because of the need to communicate between many different languages, to respect those for whom communicating in only one language is not an option, and to respect and value the different types of discourse which are enabled by different languages and to respect and value the traditions which are an integral part of each different language. (Byram 2006)

Meanwhile, searching out some reading for a PhD student, here is  something which I am sure is related in some way, I just stumbled across the essay (online) which Papert wrote as an introduction to Mindstorms. In some ways I see it as a bit of a technology affordances perspective and its added into my refs for today

Papert, S., (1980),The gears of my childhood Forword to Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books)

The quote (paraphrased) from mindstorms which sticks in my mind is to the effect that - the children in explaining how they are controlling the computer articulate (and thus concetise and formalise)  their understanding of the mathematics which they are trying to model.
  • Byram, M., Plurilingualism in Europe (2006) British Council
  • Carr, L., Pope, C. and Halford, S. (2010) Could the Web be a Temporary Glitch? In: WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27th, 2010, Raleigh, NC: US.
  • Halford, S., Pope, C. and Carr, L. (2010) A Manifesto for Web Science. In: WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27th, 2010, Raleigh, NC: US.
  • Papert, S., (1980),The gears of my childhood Forword to Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books)
  • van den Heuvel, C. (2008). Architectures of Global Knowledge: The Mundaneum and the World Wide Web. Destination Library , 15, 48-53.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Thinking Web Science

thinking web science is what I have been doing for the past few days, although its a constant backdrop to the research I do :-)
As ever, on a friday, I get a little peeved , when people who have hijacked the term web science  when talking about science on the web or using the web for political science - decide to publish their stuff - but hey.
More interestingly ( I think) is a bit of speculation about a few of the manifestations of web science....
I find myself fascinated by the way in which new business models have emerged with increasing persistence of the web. I observe that the hard nosed profit oriented organisations are learning from each other, but also small organisations, concerned with rural development and sustainability are also finding out about this stuff, and turning it to their advantage.
Frequently when I chat to people about the social impact of the web I give examples of how these gains are manifested, but I thought it was time I recorded this information - if only so that I can go back and refer to it myself again in future.  Some of them were not explicitly web science manifestations when they emerged, but are now mediated and accelerated via web-based communities.
One dimension of these activities is the power of the meme - ways in which ideas catch on, and how human beings are supremely adapted for extending simple ideas
so, what are the things I am thinking of?
short list to be elaborated with links and further info
1 - aggregated translation service in african countries where contributors are paid via micro payments to mobile phones.
2 - credit union style activites in india
3 - rural self education networks in india mediated by internet connections
4 - so calle "WI degree" common foundation, then negotiated curriculum
5 - dissemination of good practice to agricultural communities

... more later, supper now

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Web Science Curriculum Development - update

Our paper WSCD: Negotiating the Web Science Curriculum Development through Shared Educational Artefacts has been accepted for ACM WebSci'11
Southampton Web Science MSc


The far-reaching impact of Web on society is widely recognised and acknowledged. The interdisciplinary study of this impact has crystallised in the field of study known as Web Science. However, defining an agreed, shared understanding of what constitutes Web Science requires complex negotiation and translations of understandings across component disciplines, national cultures and educational traditions. Some individual institutions have already established particular curricula, and discussions in the Web Science Curriculum Workshop series have marked the territory to some extent. This paper reports on a process being adopted across a consortium of partners to systematically create a shared understanding of what constitutes Web Science. It records and critiques the processes instantiated to agree a common curriculum, and presents a framework for future discussion and development.

The need to study the Web in its complexity, development and impact led to the creation of Web Science. Web Science is inherently interdisciplinary. Its goal is to:
a) understand the Web growth mechanisms;
b) create approaches that allow new powerful and more beneficial mechanisms to occur.

Teaching Web Science is a unique experience since the emerging discipline is a combination of two essential features. On one hand, the analysis of microscopic laws extrapolated to the macroscopic realm generates observed behaviour. On the other hand languages and algorithms on the Web are built in order to produce novel desired computer behaviour that should be put in context. Finding a suitable curriculum that is different from the study of language, algorithms, interaction patterns and business processes is thus an important and challenging task for the simple reason that we believe that the future of sociotechnical systems will be in their innovative power (inventing new ways to solve problems), rather than their capacity to optimize current practices.

ACM WebSci'11 is in Koblenz this year - and we are going to present a paper :-)
"Web Science is concerned with the full scope of socio-technical relationships that are engaged in the World Wide Web. It is based on the
notion that understanding the Web involves not only an analysis of its architecture and applications, but also insight into the people, organizations, policies, and economics that are affected by and subsumed within it. As such Web Science, and thus this conference, is inherently interdisciplinary and integrates computer and information sciences, sociology, economics, political science, law, management, language and communication, geography and psychology".
Following the great news, our extended abstract proposal has been accepted, we are working on the final version of the paper we will present. You can find out abstract in EPrints. Students who are interested in following a PhD in Web Science can do so via our Doctoral Consortium which combines a preparatory Masters Degree with three years of intersdisciplinary study typically  supervised by a small team of academics representing the component fields of study.
Meanwhile, Michalis Vafopoulis, who is also part of our team, and who has been leading the subject categorisation initiative for the web science trust has made the outcomes of that work available via the Web Science Trust pages which was one of the outcomes of previous Web Science Curiculum workshops at the conference.
Along with the fact that Jim Hendler is convening Web Science Curriculum workshop at this year's conference, it looks like it is going to be a pretty good year for folk developing and teaching Web Science as an academic discipline.
Croitoru, M., Bazan, S., Cerri, S., Davis, H. C., Jonquet, C., Prini, G., Scharffe, F., Staab, S., Vafopoulos, M. and White, S. (2011) WSCD: Negotiating the Web Science Curriculum Development through Shared Educational Artefacts. In: ACM WebSci '11, 14-17 June 2011, Koblenz, Germany. (Submitted)

ready for a mobile world?

The redoubtable Brian Kelly twittered the outcomes of a quick survey he had done of the Russell Group University's front page
"Are Russell Group Unis ready for the Mobile Web? Findings from the #MobileOK tool:"
So when I cam across this (now old) xcd cartoon, i thought it was appropriate to put the two together

Xcd server attention span

"Yesterday I attended Nominet’s launch event for the W3C UK and Ireland Office (and note that tweets containing the #w3cuki hashtag are available on TwapperKeeper). A number of talks covered the Mobile Web including “Mobile web: where diversity is opportunity” by Dr. Rotan Hanrahan, the Chief Innovations Architect of MobileAware.  Dr. Hahrahan informed the audience about that many assumptions about Web sites are based on desktop browser experiences and many of the assumptions are wrong in a mobile context.
This made me wonder whether the assumptions we have regarding the design and structure of institutional Web sites will be valid for mobile access.  The W3C have developed mobileOk which isa free service by W3C that helps check the level of mobile-friendliness of Web documents, and in particular assert whether a Web document is mobileOK“.
Are the home pages of Russell Group Universities ‘mobileOK’, I wondered, or have they been designed and tested for desktop access only? Yesterday I used the mobileOK checker service to check the home page of the 20 Russell group Universities".
The results are given on Brian's web page.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

from tragedy to joy - the real story of the commons

some thoughts and thanks to Alan Dix - as is so often the case there seems to be synchronicity in the atmosphere :-)
I'm doing some background work for a paper we have on the stocks just now and was doing a bit of tidying and reference chasing and context setting.
Southampton Common Frosty Morning: Su White

Sunrise - a frosty morning on Southampton Common
in the process I came across a short but compelling post from Alan Dix on "the *real* tragedy of the commons"
I’ve just been reviewing a paper that mentions the “tragedy of the commons”1 and whenever I read or hear the phrase I feel the hackles on the back of my neck rise.
Of course the real tragedy of the commons was not free-riding and depletion by common use, but the rape of the land under mass eviction or enclosure movements when they ceased to be commons.  The real tragedy of “the tragedy of the commons” as a catch phrase is that it is often used to promote the very same practices of centralisation.  Where common land has survived today, just as in the time before enclosures and clearances, it is still managed in a collaborative way both for the people now and the for the sake of future generations.  Indeed on Tiree, where I live, there are large tracts of common grazing land managed in just such a way.
It is good to see that the Wikipedia article of “Tragedy of the Commons” does give a rounded view on the topic including reference to an historical and political critique by “Ian Angus”2
The paper I was reading was not alone in uncritically using the phrase.  Indeed in “A Framework for Web Science”3 we read:
In a decentralised and growing Web, where there are no “owners” as such, can we be sure that decisions that make sense for an individual do not damage the interests of users as a whole? Such a situation, known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, happens in many social systems that eschew property rights and centralised institutions once the number of users becomes too large to coordinate using peer pressure and moral principles.
In fact I do have some sympathy with this as the web involves a vast number of physically dispersed users who are perhaps “too large to coordinate using peer pressure and moral principles”.  However, what is strange is that the web has raised so many modern counter examples to the tragedy of the commons, not least Wikipedia itself.  In many open source projects people work as effectively a form of gift economy, where, if there is any reward, it is in the form of community or individual respect.
Clearly, there are examples in the world today where many individual decisions (often for short term gain) lead to larger scale collective loss.  This is most clearly evident in the environment, but also the recent banking crisis, which was fuelled by the desire for large mortgages and general debt-led lives.  However, these are exactly the opposite of the values surrounding traditional common goods.
It may be that the problem is not so much that large numbers of people dilute social and moral pressure, but that the impact of our actions becomes too diffuse to be able to appreciate when we make our individual life choices.  The counter-culture of many parts of the web may reflect, in part, the way in which aspects of the web can make the impact of small individual actions more clear to the individual and more accountable to others.
  1. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248. … and here is the danger of citation counting as a quality metric, I am citing it because I disagree with it! [back]
  2. Ian Angus. The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons. Socialist Voice, August 24, 2008 [back]
  3. Berners-Lee, T., Hall, W., Hendler, J. A., O’Hara, K., Shadbolt, N. and Weitzner, D. J. (2006) A Framework for Web Science. Foundations and Trends in Web Science, 1 (1). pp. 1-130. [back]

There are some dimensions to this argument which I am in the process of clarifying in my head, so I thought it timely - another synchronicity, Alan Dix had just been the external examiner to one of our star EngD/PhD students Clare Hooper (supervised by another worthy blogster and academic Dave Millard)

Like Alan, I have some personal experience of commons.

My own common at home, when I am not on sabbatical in Montpellier is a fine local open space, site of scientific interest and well used place for thought and play. We are fortunate in Southampton of having many parks and open spaces, and I probably do some of my best thinking there.
As an academic in the University of Southampton, based in ECS we live breathe and eat the commons. We share our academic publications through eprints, our learning resources through EdShare, and are among those at the bleeding edge of open and linked data through activities such as

Our research in Web Science is concerned in its interdisciplinary manner in not only the Technology, Engineering and Analytics of the Web but also to the web as a 'social machine'. This latter aspect is to my mind most interesting (and thus most important)  in the interactions between the social and the technological, the affordances which emerge and the artefacts associated with those affordances.
Understanding the power of the social, and having the skills, knowledge and understanding to engineer the tools of the web had enabled Southampton to realise small contributions such as the open data projects and its predecessors such as  eprints and edshare. It has enabled us to make our own contributions to the commons; we have put our wealth into the common ground, and we have turned our thoughts to why this should be done, and what beneftis accrue. We are lucky to attract scholars (who are also practitioners) like Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Stevan Harnad who make their own forceful contributions and who engage those in power with discussion on the way forward for the common good.

Here in Montpellier, there are open spaces and a socialist local government who are consciously endeavouring to engineer the city for the greater good. We see public transport subsidised and well used, large scale social programmes and experience the vibrancy of a young city which at its heart hums to the sound of human discussion rather than choking in car fumes.  Trying to understand this social entrerprise (and using the engines we have on the web) enabled me to find a fine wiki - wikisara which seems to have a collection of GPS routes of public transport networks from across France, and a resource which is far more useful than the static map, conscientiously produced by the good burgers of this fine town. it is a general observation that public mapping is one interesting social manifestation of the web, and projects like open street map and open cycle map are testimony to the fact these are not merely french phenomena (far from it)

At the same time as I appreciate the social use of wikis in france, I also experience the hegemony of the french publishing industry - observing the differences in online publishing models between france and the UK - and the extent to which you have to pay for stuff in france! I also note that the french take on web sites (reflected in much of southern europe) is far less concerned with form and function, but more often a frustrating content free showcase which seeks to limit the visitor's experience rather than offering them open information to explore and use.

I want to find out more about these differences in manifestations and web artefacts, and I want to begin to understand what causes some of these differences.

Here, the points made by Alan Dix citing Ian Angus have real strength. A simple shorthand - history is about power, and if we have commons as a part of our history, we also have the heritage of the forces of power and hegemony.
Some thoughts about the common land
  • Common Land when cleared was more useful to a single powerful person than to many less powerful individuals.
  • The powerful individuals changed the commons for their own specialised use
  • There was a finite supply of land which could be usefully converted from common land to personal use
Alan gives wikipedia as an example of commons emerging, and I have a PhD student doing some very interesting work looking at trust and the growth of wikis in different cultures.
hmmm... there is more to do and say, and I will be doing some more thinking about this one - thanks Alan, very useful :-)