De/fragmented Collaboration?

I’ve been thinking a lot around the idea of providing collaborative tools at a national level for education and research recently, spurred by several conversations and the general march of free to use tools proliferating around us on a daily basis. This post is an attempt to bring some of those thoughts and ideas together – I may not be entirely successful! I’m going to pose myself the question, should an organisation like JISC be funding collaboration tools, or is the market saturated? What value can be added?

We’ve all become so used to having a stready stream of collaborative and multimedia tools and apps provided ‘free’ to our finger tips that we’ve become lazy consumers. I was amused this week at the outcry when Facebook acquired Instagram – the comments reflecting an emotional response to ‘don’t take my tool’ rather than a logical analysis of the fact that services we don’t pay for cannot live forever on Angel investment. (Here I could write another whole post on funding models through Angel investment, crowdsource kick starters, open foundations, national funding and commercial approaches – but I won’t. Phew!) I won’t do the hackneyed ‘if you are not the customer you are the product’ thing, but we do need to be rational about the longevity of services we rely on, but don’t pay for.

What then is a sensible approach to funding collaborative tools? There is a general lack of interest in paying for a platform – particularly when you can never be sure where you should be, which you should be on, and most importantly know where your potential collaborators are. If there is less interest in buying these tools, does national level funding for research and education make sense?

There is certainly evidence that we are using social and collaboration tools in the JISC community a lot. This ranges from the everyday on Twitter, hosted blogs in a variety of formats, wiki spaces, poll tools, voting tools, Google Apps, Dropbox, tools to take and manage photos, tools to edit videos…need I go on? The sustainability / reliance question is different in every case – sometimes we are relying on institutionally hosted tools, in other cases we are creating, storing and hosting our stuff on public sites where we are less sure of future service, and indeed service terms like ownership, data protection etc.

Other academic communities certainly think there is power in nationally provided services, and are frankly doing it a lot better than the UK. The excellent Foodle service (which is far and above Meetomatic in terms of features) and Filesender are obvious examples.

Another thing that is common for all of these is the need to login. Again the way in which we do this varies with the platform, the host, and its links. Many of the tools use oAuth or oAuth style permissions via Twitter, Facebook and Google credentials. Sometimes we use our professional email address to register, sometimes we use our personal addresses. Generally though, there isn’t much consistency. A question I often get asked is if there is any value in providing an R&E OpenID instance (or instances). I don’t really have an answer to this – I generally ask for the use cases and more information, do researchers, students, staff members want it? What is clear though is that we are mixing and matching our login approaches, which in turn affects the profile or persona we present when we are logged in. Whilst there is an argument to be made that reducing and consolidating the number of credentials used on these services, there is certainly a good argument to be made to supporting a consistent approach to persona across these services.

I’m wondering if supporting the management of persona (and in turn credentials) is a good argument for providing such services at a national level? Could this be less about what platform but about a better approach to presenting and using academic identity?

Here I’m talking about something like a mash-up of VIVO, and SSO, and reputation services, and openID concepts, and author (and non author) identifiers. A full on proper identity layer for the R&E community, powered by federated access management via your institution. Is that an achieveable vision? Here are some of my wants around this:

  • I’m sick of uploading the same photo again and again and again in to every new system that wants it from me. Can’t I have a profile that just provides this? Ditto for all my other ‘profile’ data.
  • I want to be able to be very clear about the fact I am presenting my professional profile on this service, and my personal profile on that service. Ideally, I would like to have a link to guidelines about how that profile will be used that can be set by my institution for my professional account (i.e. the social media guidelines we all have) and by me for my personal account.
  • I want to be able to track my activity across all the tools I use for my job – I need some sort of identifier to achieve this.
  • I want this to be moveable across institutions.
  • I want to know my collaborators can provision themselves in to the social and collaborative tools I’m using quickly and easily.

I could go on, but I don’t want to make this post endless or a use case specification for a non-existent service.

One of the things that would absolutely have to change is how we think about the importance of identity management within our services. I get endlessly depressed by the number of times I get told ‘oh we are going to sort out the access management stuff in phase 2′. Essential workflows within your services should never be relegated to phase 2. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey did not get where they are by thinking of the identity elements of their service as a phase 2 tack-on. We are endlessly shooting oursleves and our users in the foot by rolling out services with random approaches to login, profile and identity management without thinking about where the service sits in the everyday workflow of a user, and how many other times some other site has asked them to login.

So to get back to my original question, maybe if we could provide a decent, full, comprehensive identity approach to these services there would be value in a national something…but if it was built, would they come? Do researchers, students, staff members at insitutions have any interest in such an approach? What do you think?

*Updated*

Today I saw this post via @ppetej, which is an interesting take on the Facebook / Instagram / Identity message. It’s the perfect reflection on the difficulty of managing usability, security and privacy – which is the theme of my talk at the rapidly upcoming TNC2012 (gulp). Whereas many people would say that being able to consistently use your Facebook account to provide your digital foortprint – this also means handing over all of our personal information and behaviours to Facebook. So what are the options?

  • Keeping accounts on each and every tool we want to use. This is all fine if you can be smart about it, but the problem is that most people end up using the same username (email) and password combo on all of them. From a security perspective, this is clearly problematic.
  • Accept the rise of big brother and go with the flow. Most sites allow you to log in with Facebook / Twitter / Google now…but certainly not all. There is also the the problem between what the site might accept as a credential and the permissions your credentials carry. There isn’t much point an academic publisher accepting Facebook when Facebook doesn’t give a verifiable statement of institutional affiliation.
  • Work on our personas so that we use the appropriate credentials in the appropriate place, and they reflect who we are in that context.

Amanda’s piece seems to make some of what I talk about above make sense, considering the management of an professional academic persona separately from a personal one, but identity is a complex area. Can we ever get the flow right so that the user experience is good, the site secure, and the management and use of personal data acceptable to all?

  1. simonfj’s avatar

    Amen to everything you say Nicole,

    You’re sooo close. “maybe if we could provide a decent, full, comprehensive identity approach to these services there would be value in a national something…but if it was built, would they come? Do researchers, students, staff members at insitutions have any interest in such an approach?”

    Now take it one step further. Edu institutions are just a subset of .gov institutions. So ultimately some .gov institution is going to provide me/us with a lifelong learning/citizen account. And maybe that will work across borders. http://www.initiative.eu/page/eci-faq

    I’ll be interested to see your TNC2012 preso.

    BTW. Would you miind setting up a blogroll between this blog (and any others) and the one on the refed site. It’s very hard to remember where all the fragmented refed discussions are taking place. All the best.

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