Snow, Data and Blur at Online 2010

Extreme weather situations and international conferences don’t mix well. Alas snow, snow and more snow was the backdrop for this year’s Online Information Conference held at Olympia, London from Tuesday 30th November to Thursday 2nd November 2010. Quite a few speakers couldn’t make it and I just couldn’t stop myself from suggesting that they consider using elements of online conferencing as a backup, e.g. getting speakers to record and share their talks if travel was going to be a problem.

Blurred Boundaries

That said snow really set the scene for my presentation on Home, Work, Work, Home!? How Information Professionals Can Exploit Blurred Boundaries part of the evolving role of the information professional track. Every year when the snow falls people are suddenly up in arms about why we don’t have more remote working provision. I’ve published quite a few posts on it. This year I spotted the nicely titled Is ‘working from home’ a skive? on the BBC Web site just before I began my talk. Seems like those preconceptions are still there, I’ll have to just keep chipping away at it. My slides are available from Slideshare and are embedded below.

The track also included a really interesting talk by Sara Batts, Senior Research Librarian, Reed Smith LLP, and Olwen Walker, Information Services Manager, Kirkland & Ellis International LLP on Helping The Hybrid: Leveraging Personal Networks to Support Changing Roles. Sara and Olwen explained that we are responsible for our own Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and this can be achieved in many ways, from coffee with colleagues, to personal blogging, use of Twitter and more. This concept can then help us move into a hybrid role – a role that is made up of a number of discrete parts, but linked by a common thread. Basically we get better at doing lots of things which be very beneficial in these times where ‘transferable skills’ are key, although it can make us less specialist. The other talk in the track was New Roles for Information Professionals in Todays’s Fast Changing Environment by Henri Stiller, Chairman and Executive Officer, Histen Riller, France which looked at data collected from information professionals working in the 200 biggest French companies.

There was a lot to see and do (the exhibition runs in parallel) at Online. I only managed to get there for the last two days but here are some of my highlights:

Linked Data in Libraries

Martin Malmsten presenting

Martin Malmsten presenting

I really enjoyed the initial session in the Exploiting Open and Linked Data track entitled Linked Data in Libraries. Karen Coyle, a Consultant from the US kicked off with an introduction to the semantic Web. Karen argued that the basic concepts of the Semantic Web are simple, and are compatible with the building blocks of bibliographic metadata created by libraries but there are some changes necessary – “We’re in a terrible silo“. It seems this transition is already underway and Karen suggested we look at some services like the Open Metadata Registry, BIBO, FOAF and SWAP.

The second talk by Sarah Bartlett, Senior Analyst, Talis entitled What Place for Libraries in a Linked Data World? was a refreshingly practical one that had Sarah show us some of her linked data models. She suggests that you pick a resource you like and model it, this is the only way you’ll truly understand linked data. Sarah explained that bibliographic data is subsumed into the semantic web with potentially endless links to sources such as DBPedia, which enrich our understanding of the bibliographic resource.

The final presentation was by Martin Malmsten, Senior Developer, National Library of Sweden on Linked Library Data Matters. Again Martin took a very pragmatic approach (“people would rather use their light (quick and dirty) API than learn z39.50” to the situation. He gave the example of LIBRIS, the Swedish Union Catalogue, which has been available as Linked Open Data since 2008 and is today connected to various other datasets such as LCSH and DbPedia.

News Searching

Although many of the social media sessions in Harnessing Opportunity from the Social Web and ‘The Cloud’ track were probably not as forward thinking as I would have liked to seen I did really enjoy Phil Bradley’s session on News searching. Phil filled in for one of the speakers who could not make it to the New Tools & Techniques for Exploiting the Social Web session. His recommendations for News searching sites included Bing News, Silobreaker, Social Mention, Ice rocket and more.

IWR Award

The coveted IWR Information Professional of the Year Award is always presented at Online Information. This year’s award went to Library Systems Manager at the University of Huddersfield. I’ve worked with Dave in the past and feel that he is a very deserving winner. He’s done some great stuff with Library usage data, has worked on the Mashed Libraries series, is a real advocate of moving libraries into the 21st century (your OPAC sucks!) and is an all round nice guy.

My colleague Brian Kelly has written a more comprehensive review of Dave’s achievements. Well done Dave!

Other highlights include catching up with lots of people I knew or sort of knew (through Twitter), freebies from the exhibition (!), free coffee and a quiz in the speaker room, the great organisers.

Some of the not so greats were the presentation by Matt Wood from Amazon Web Services which turned out to be a sales pitch and the “Please switch off your Mobiles” sign!

Please switch off your Mobiles

Here’s to a snow free and mobiletastic Online 2011!


Snow Stories

I think most of us have a little bit by now, and some of us have had quite a lot…

It’s that time of year when the UK grinds to a stand still, OAPs panic buy enough milk to last till summer and we all suddenly make friends with our neighbours. The whole thing costs our economy a fortune. Snow time.

This year’s snow observations

Last year I wrote quite a few posts on the effect the snow has on home working and people’s perception of home working. In Snow Observations I mentioned the problems my husband had had getting to work and the fact his company weren’t keen on home working.

I later asked him (my husband) if he could work from home…y’know, if he wanted to? He explained that he needed to get some security codes from work and they didn’t give them out to just anyone, so basically no. Hmmmm…I’ve read varying reports of what the disruption caused by snow will cost the economy but it’s more than likely it will be in the billions. It seems to me that with the increase in use of broadband many companies could start to rethink their attitude to allowing occasional remote working. Hey, it might actually help the UK economy!

It was the day he returned after last year’s snow that he heard about redundancies being made at his company, he lost his job in March. He now has a new job and works for a company who are much more upbeat about home working. He set up his Virtual Private Network on Tuesday and has been able to work quite happily from home over the last two days (though he did moan a few times about the lack of monitors, I think he has 2 at work). The VPN access allows him to see a representation of his desk top remotely. I haven’t been able to experience this because I don’t have a desktop at the University, just the one here at home. His company issue guidelines on VPN use with some key points, for example they suggest that those working from a remote machine should ensure that nobody else will need to use it in their absence. All sounds fairly sensible to me. The company is based in a fairly remote location and has lots of staff based in international offices so remote working is much more a part of the infrastructure.

Last year I also asked “Are remote workers getting a raw deal? It’s almost as if they are expected to carry on regardless.” This comment stems from the fact that the University shuts (this year it has been shut for 3 days so far) but as a remote worker you are still expected to work (while others who work on site aren’t). The big irony for me this year has been that although I’m a remote worker I haven’t been able to work during the snowy period because my children have been off school and nursery. I’ve had to take days off. I suppose some might say that the choice to have children was mine and that remote working has many benefits so the disadvantages just have to be dealt with. As my dad would put it “if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined” (apparently an old army saying).

So what’s different this year?

All in all it does feel like a lot more people are managing to carry on regardless. Twitter has been very supportive with tweets from people and organisations on which roads are dangerous, whether places are open or not and how the land lies in different locations. Brian Kelly discussed how Universities have been using Twitter during the snowy period – Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow. The comments discussing various alerting systems (such as Facebook, Web site, text alerts etc.) are interesting too. My children’s primary school has now set up a text alerting system to inform parents of whether the school is open or not. This has been a big help, I don’t even need to get out of bed to find out that my day has been shaken up again!

It looks like there is more snow to come, so wrap up warm and get remote working.

Before the Snow Storm Hits

So it’s been snowing again…Is it just me or does this happen every year? Here in the UK we’ve done our usual thing and panicked. Of course what we really need is a home-working strategy so that most of us don’t have to make the difficult journey into work. Nick Cavalancia, Vice President of Windows Management at ScriptLogic has written a guest blog post for us on how businesses need to provide more support for remote workers – especially as the snow will hit the transport in and around London in the final working days of this year. He discusses the Microsoft solutions that are out there.

The benefits of remote working need to be highlighted to businesses this winter as we are set for another productivity-stopping snowstorm in the UK. Last winter, according to government estimations, only 1 in 5 workers could get to work, costing businesses productivity and money as employees were stranded at home.

It is crucial that remote workers stay productive and have access to information to conduct normal business, but this should not be to the detriment of the company’s security.

An essential part of creating an effective home-working environment is having the right software solutions in place where employees stay productive and secure. The following tips can help any IT administrator ensure that workings are “online” even when they are in the office:

Keeping Employees Productive

A range of commonly-used Microsoft technologies exist to deliver applications to remote workers, and usually a combination of technologies including Virtual Private Networks, Microsoft Terminal Server (in the process of being renamed as “Remote Desktop Services” in Windows Server 2008 R2), Outlook Anywhere and Outlook Web Access. Which of these technologies is selected by the organisation depends on the blend of security and data portability it wants to provide to the user. Another major consideration for home workers is how the organisation will support them when they encounter problems. “Free” solutions generally rely on the user having an established VPN connection, or require that the administrator takes control of the end user’s screen to resolve the issue.

The inability to access pertinent company information or applications while working remotely destroys a worker’s productivity. In order to ensure that remote workers have access to a standardized network environment and the information they need to be productive, IT administrators are encouraged to adopt third-party tools to support remote management of workers’ desktops, regardless of whether the user or the administrator is part of a managed domain. Not only does an advanced remote support solution increase end-user productivity, but it also provides significant time savings for administrators through faster problem resolution.

With the best remote support solutions, IT administrators can troubleshoot a user’s PC within seconds from any location, taking advantage of diagnostic tools and performance information without interrupting the user’s work or taking control of their screen. Advanced remote support software eliminates the need for remote users to spend a lot of time describing unexpected behaviour, or have an administrator physically visit their PC.

Keep Data Safe

In organisations which handle sensitive data, employees working from home often have access to large amounts of confidential or personal data, such as customer bank account numbers, patients’ medical records or internal account information. This puts companies at risk of a potential data breach or privacy law infringement. A common scenario is that of workers taking data home on USB storage devices, which are easily misplaced.

To control this risk, IT administrators should consider a solution that places removable storage security policies on corporate laptops and home PCs. A good solution installs a software agent and per-user security policy on each device, providing granular control of USB ports and all other removable storage devices, so privilege employees can be given less restricted access than those who have no need to take data off the network.

Another common requirement is for control over which types or classes of USB device are allowed to connect, based on the device ID or even serial number. For example, if an organisation issues biometrically secured and encrypted USB drives to its workers, it will want to ensure that no other device is used, which requires a strong restrictive policy. And for some types of device (e.g. DVD-ROM drives), the administrator might want to provide read but not write access for non-privileged users.

Respect Employee Privacy

While remote management of a user’s personal computers is necessary for employee productivity, businesses could face legal trouble if they overstep the privacy boundary. When accessing a home worker’s computer, especially if it is used for both personal use as well as business, laws restrict administrators from looking at users’ personal applications and data. Business need to carefully consider the extent to which users are allowed to use non-company-supplied IT hardware for working from home. Remote desktop access through Terminal Server or Virtual Desktops might be one way to address the challenge of providing access without exposing data.

Snow Observations

We’ve had more snow in Wiltshire (where I live) and Somerset (where my office is).

The day has been a fun one (lots of snowball fights with my children who had the day off school) but also an interesting one from a ‘remote worker perspective’. I want to put to you two observations I’ve made during the course of the day.

Observation number one

Early this morning my husband set off for work as usual, it’s a 50 minute drive to his office. An hour and a half later I got a phone call (from a pay phone!! He’d left well prepared!) from Sainsbury’s in Chippenham. He’d managed to travel 7 miles in all that time. Most roads were closed and he decided to come home. After he got back he spent most of the day explaining to the children the tricks to making a good snowman!

I later asked him if he could work from home…y’know, if he wanted to? He explained that he needed to get some security codes from work and they didn’t give them out to just anyone, so basically no. Hmmmm…I’ve read varying reports of what the disruption caused by snow will cost the economy but it’s more than likely it will be in the billions. It seems to me that with the increase in use of broadband many companies could start to rethink their attitude to allowing occasional remote working. Hey, it might actually help the UK economy! This sort of relates to my previous snow post which asked if a snowed-in-UK of today could manage a lot better then a snowed-in-UK of times past?

(That said a Guardian poll is asking the question “Do you have the technology to work from home?” and over 80% have answered yes – poll still open at time of publishing).

Observation number two

Today the University of Bath (where UKOLN is based) actually shut up shop for the day. It’s up a really steep hill so would have been very difficult to get to. I work part-time and Thursday is a non-working day so this didn’t really effect me, but it was interesting to watch how it effected others. it seemed that those who usually work from home and those set up to work from home pretty much carried on as usual (unless they had child care problems). Those who can’t do their job from home or who aren’t set up to work from home disappeared off the radar. This is I suppose pretty obvious but sort of begs the question “Are remote workers getting a raw deal?“. It’s almost as if they are expected to carry on regardless. I know snow like this is rare but the University has closed before for other reasons. Are the expectations for remote workers higher? Maybe I’m being lazy and just looking for opportunities to take days off but it does seem a little unfair.

Do these observations make sense? Do they contradict one each other? I’m not too sure. All I know is the snow has certainly brought remote working into the spotlight again.

Have a look at this ComputerWeekly article: Snow shows strengths and risks of remote working for some more thoughts on this.

Snow, Snow and more Snow

Hey, did you know that it’s been snowing today?

Of course you did! You couldn’t avoid it with the blizzard of news items, photos and Twitter messages.

You can get snow reports via Twitter or use the #uksnow hashtag to share what’s happening in your area and plot it on a Googlemaps mash up.

The UK always goes crazy for a bit of snow and in London they shut down the tube too just to add to the chaos!

A Twitter post from Euan Semple gave an interesting ‘remote worker’ angle to the mayhem:
how much more productive will the UK be today when people can work online from home instead of being “busy” in the office?

There’s a lot in this short tweet. Firstly, Euan is sort of saying that a snowed in UK of today could manage a lot better then a snowed in UK of times past because so many of us work from home. He’s also weighing up the value of the 9-5 worker who is in the office and ‘seen to be working’ against the remote worker who is possibly more output driven and may work on a less social/different schedule.

The BBC web site actually reported that demand for broadband was up by 20% caused by people working from home. However there were also reports that the snow fall put strain on technology networks as many people accessed travel web sites, like national rail enquiries. It also effected mobile networks.

Ironically I had to travel in to the office today so didn’t have the luxury of being snowed in at home. Shame, my Snow in a Wiltshire Gardengarden looks like it’s crying out for a snowman!