Thank You!

I thought I’d put together some thank you’s to everyone who has helped with the project. I guess the best place to start is at the beginning.

Thank you to my parents for supporting me from the beginning – and thanks to my dad for pointing this opportunity out to me!

Thank you to Neil Witt and Plymouth University for supporting me, and helping with all the financial stuff!

Thank you to everyone who voted for me back in June!

Thank you to everyone who spread the message and encouraged others to vote for me: Mike Gentle (and his friend Alice), Jake Salisbury, Alistair Clarke, Will Howe, Jo Rowland, Harriet Elder, Michael Lewis, Debbie Finnegan, Victoria Allen, Chronis Kapalidis, Sam Smith, Duha Al Musaddar and Neil Witt again!

Thank you to David Kernohan and Jisc for providing this valuable opportunity for me to develop a product and meet fantastic people along the way – and providing the funding!

Thank you to the other projects I have been lucky enough to talk to. It has been a valuable opportunity for me to meet other like minded people and a kind support network. In particular, I’d like to thank the teams at Pitchpatch and Konnect.

Thank you to the experts who I met at the Jisc organised events. The useful feedback I was given by these people enabled me to shape the future of the project and helped me think about the long term, past the “Summer of Innovation”.

It’s been fantastic to get all of this support from everyone, and I am hugely grateful for it! It’s opened my eyes to the world of technology in HE and has been brilliant fun too.

Later is done! Next steps…

It’s safe for me to now say that the development of Later is now complete! There may be a few bugs, and it’s obviously still open to future development, but the first working version is done.

Homepage

Later on a mobile device

Later on a mobile device

The screenshot above shows the homepage as it would appear to anyone using it. Because I used Bootstrap, it also works on a number of different screen sizes and can easily be styled using Bootstrap themes. This will make it super-easy for any organisation to easily customise it to suit their needs.

I have also written a “Getting Started” guide for any IT team to use to install Later within their organisation.

What’s next?

Going forward from here, I will begin user testing of Later. The PALS scheme at Plymouth University have agreed to pilot the product, which will get a number of students and staff using the software, equivalent to a small institution (approximately 2,000 people). This will be a great way to check for any potential issues with the tool and to get valuable user feedback on the effectiveness of the system.

I will also be practicing my product pitch in time for the event at Imperial College in November!

Reflecting on Greenwich

The event at Greenwich was a fantastic opportunity for me to meet other project teams and consider the future direction of my project. It also opened my eyes to some of the other issues that other teams were facing.

Integration
One theme I noticed from a couple of projects (including my own) is the issue of trying to integrate the system we have built within an institution’s IT system. After a very interesting conversation with Scott Wilson of OSS Watch, who outlined some of the issues with IT system integration, this has led me to consider other potential business models for the project going forward.

What’s the message?
When working on a project, often the developers get lost in the idea and start thinking about what else they can add to their project. This is fine, but often what the project actually is gets lost in the message.The event was very valuable to me as I was able to see this problem by watching a few pitches (and helping a couple of projects clarify their message). My advice was “focus on the three best features of your project and sell those.” This means that you aren’t stuck reciting a paragraph each time you are explaining your project, it’s just a couple of bullet points.

Feature creep
This is often a very dangerous position to be in. There is always something which could be added, and the trick is to be happy to say no to many great ideas – at least in the short term. The “Dragon’s Den” was great for getting feedback on projects, but some feedback should be taken with a pinch of salt particularly when creating a minimum viable product.

I’ll be taking all these ideas on board and will hopefully be pitching my ideas at either the event at the end of September or at the event in November.

We’re sending emails!

Later is now successfully sending emails!

This might sound like it should have come much earlier in the project, however I wanted to get the key functionality of the tool in place, leaving email as one of the later things to do.

I have a few more smallish tasks to do, like figure out how I’m going to get logging in and authenticating working. But this shouldn’t take too long. I’m thinking of using some sort of SSO system which could easily be tied into university systems.

Another update

After a holiday to help me refresh myself (and enjoying being in Spain!), I’m back working on the project!

So far, all is going well. I aim to get a large portion of the remaining development finished within the next week or so, so I can get a nice design in place and prepare myself for the activities at the event in Greenwich.

Getting the design in place will propel the project forward, as designs make a huge difference to the end user. This will allow me to get a bit of beta testing going by the end of August, which may highlight certain issues which I may have overlooked.

Back to work…

Useful resources and support I have discovered

(I may have just lifted that post title straight from the guideline posts Jisc sent us…)

I tend to think that I am often sitting in my little bubble, developing this system isolated from the rest of the world. I have been developing web stuff for around 8 years, so am pretty familiar with the techy side of it all.

But there is plenty of support that I have received, in the form of University support from Neil Witt and his team. I know that if I have any issues with the project, I am more than welcome to pop in and ask them any questions. After being introduced to the whole team, they all seem very familiar with the way that Jisc projects work and the best ways of tackling problems.

I have also been sent some very useful project planning documents from Neil, which are based on Jisc’s project guidelines. These have really helped formulate my ideas and get them out of my head and onto paper.

Aside from this, I have been browsing around a few sites like UI Parade for some design inspiration (or procrastination) for when the time comes to design the product.

The Jisc mailing list has been very useful for hearing about some of the issues other people have been having with their projects, but also getting some tips from them about getting the project going. Because I couldn’t attend the event at the Google campus, it’s good to still have the contact with the other projects – and look forward to meeting them all in Greenwich at the end of the month!

A quick update

I’d just realised that I haven’t posted a proper project update in a while! Here’s how things are going:

The development is all coming along well. Like I have said previously, I’m not focussing on design quite yet, this will come along at a later stage.

The messaging system is working well, albeit in a slightly untidy way. I am aiming to get the project built using just HTML on the client side, so that when I build in JavaScript, there is always a fallback for less capable browsers (we all know that large institutions love Internet Explorer!)

I’m creating a command line tool, which would be accessed using SSH, which allows an admin to import the users (staff and students) into the system.

Finally, I’m trying to think of a half-decent name for the project. Later doesn’t really sum up what it does, nor does it sound very good. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Who should have which permissions?

One problem with building new systems is that you have to decide how things should work. Very often, there aren’t existing systems in place which you can copy the behaviours of. Because of this, as I am building the project, I’m realising that there are many problems within my project which haven’t really been solved in an elegant way, which is meaning that I have to think carefully about each decision I make to ensure that it is moving in the right direction, and keeping the system as simple as possible.

The big problem I am having at the moment is who should have permission to send messages? I want to make the system inclusive so, for instance, a society could use the system to send out messages to their members, as could the university to let everyone know of some news. But we don’t want people in a society sending messages to the whole university, because this would make the email problem worse, not better.

In addition to this, we don’t want to have to add confusing permissions to user accounts which will just alienate many users.

I’m settling on a “group” based system, where “managers” of a group can send messages to all the members, but the members can’t send messages to the whole group. Anyone is free to create groups so anyone can send messages.

Beginning Development

I have begun development on my project! I have decided to use an MVC-esque design for the backend of the project. I believe this would allow very quick refinements to the project at a later date should I need to do them. It would also allow me to add additional functionality more quickly.

For the time being, I will be focussing on the code itself, then taking a closer look at design at a later stage. This is because the design will also need a mobile-friendly version, so it is best to know exactly what functionality I will build into the product before creating a final user interface for it.

Development Planning

I have spent the past few days thinking about how this product should work. This has involved talking to a number of people about how possible things are to build, which has helped me think through the idea in more simplistic terms.

The product will be a web application, built in PHP (on a standard LAMP stack). This application will be designed in such a way to allow it to be integrated within an existing Intranet website homepage (possibly using JavaScript embeddable codes and single sign-on).

The application will have two key parts to it. The first part is for sending out messages. It will have a very similar interface to a new email window, or a blog publishing tool. The user will be able to enter a subject and the main body of the email, including any images or attachments they wish to include. This form will also have a number of categories (eg. Announcements, Co-curricular Activities, Research, Placement Opportunities) which the sender can select from when sending the message. Finally, this will also have an area to select recipients. These could be individuals or groups of students, for example “First Year students in the Business School“. (There will need to be some moderation to prevent abuse of the system.) There will be a final option for the message to be public or private, which will be explained in more detail in a short while.

Once the sender has composed their message and sent it, the recipient list is looked at, and any people within the list who wish to receive messages matching that category will have the message sent to them (it is an opt-out system, rather than an opt-in system). Some recipients may choose to have a summary of all messages in a particular category at the end of the week. If this is the case, then the message would be shortened and sent to the recipient at the end of the week along with any other messages, in a single email message.

The second part of the web application would be an interface to be able to see all messages being sent within the institution. This will only display messages marked as public, as well as any messages which have been sent to you. This would look very similar to a blog layout (a list of messages which have been sent) and would be very easy to read or skim through.

This part of the application would allow people who weren’t included in the original message to also read this message, spreading the message further than it may go with a traditional email system.

The reason why I have chosen to build a separate web application, rather than building something within an email system (which is a question I have been asked many times) is because the email systems aren’t designed to be tampered with. In addition to this, JISC is particularly enthusiastic to have systems which can be rolled out to a number of institutions, which may be using different email systems. So by building a web application, the product can be transferred between any organisation far more easily.