WikiVLE open sourced!

WikiVLE is a Virtual Learning Environment that I built for my Web Client & Server coursework in Winter/Spring 2012

WikiVLE

It's a VLE based around the concept of a wiki - all users can work together to create awesome notes about a particular topic that they're learning about. It's kind of a focussed Wikipedia (but nowhere near as good!). Users can upload files such as Powerpoint slides, PDFs and images; edit notes using Markdown syntax and log in using the built in account system or via the University of Portsmouth's LDAP server.

I've decided to open source it, mainly because I'm a big proponent of open source and I want to practice what I preach, but also because I wanted you guys to help me out! Hopefully we can work together (using the magic of Git) to make it awesome :)

The source is available now on Github, and I'm planning to put up a live demo sometime soon. If you're interested get in touch (see alasdairsmith.org.uk) or fork the repo and submit a pull request.

Exciting News...

I haven't blogged in a while, which seems to be the way I start every post here...

Radweb logo

If you've visited my nameplate (alasdairsmith.org.uk) site in the last few months you might have seen a big banner at the top, shamelessly promoting myself :) I'm really pleased to announce that I can now take it down! For the next year, I'm officially part of the small but growing team at Radweb. We (feels weird to write that) create awesome stuff for the web, from WordPress and Magento sites to full blown, built from the ground up, web apps.

I'm going to mainly be working on InventoryBase, a brand new web app that is designed to help landlords keep track of their inventories. We just released a promo video, with an insanely catchy tune that's been playing all week in the office:

InventoryBase is built on BackboneJS, with a backend built from FuelPHP. This is a pretty big step up in level of coding complexity for me, and I'm really excited to dive in some more. At the moment it looks like I'll be full time on this project at least until September, to help bring it fully up to it's potential.

In addition, I'm going to open-source my big coursework project that I've been working on for the last couple of months. Check the blog post, or view the source code.

PS. Try the super-secret cheat code on inventorybase.com - press up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A on your keyboard to see what I mean.

Government sponsored identity APIs?

gov.uk homepage

I came across this interesting article on O'Reilly Radar yesterday about gov.uk, the new (beta-ish) upgrade to direct.gov.uk. It's mostly about how the site was built (yay for open source), comparing with traditional government IT development.

But there's a really intriguing nugget in there - hints of an "idenity services" API. Here's the full quote:

With regard to API's, our long term plan is to 'go wholesale,' by which we mean expose data and services via API's... We are at the early stages of mapping out key attributes, particularly around identity services, so to be fair it's early days yet."

I'm presuming by "identity services" they mean ways of programically identifying someone's online account as an actual person - somewhat similar to OAuth. In fact, since the development is all about open source, I wouldn't be surprised if they actually built it with OAuth.

This is a really intriguing path for government to take, and I'm pretty sure that I would be controversial... I know for a fact that many (especially in the US) distrust government getting involved in the web and would hate this idea.

On the other hand, this has potential for some really great innovation in Gov 2.0 - the concept of "Government as a platform". What if I was able to sign in to something like my bank account, or something similar with my driving license? Or my passport? This admittedly has some flaws, as there's nothing to stop the government tracking you this way. But, again, some would consider this no worse than Google or some other corporation tracking you.

I personally can't make my mind up whether I'd use something like this. What I will say is that I think that they should go right ahead and test it out, as the worse that can happen is that nobody would use it... (Actually they'd probably be torn apart for spending "X million pounds on failed IT project")

Alternatively, I could be reading way too much into a single quote and they're not considering anything like an identity API.

We Don't Need No (Computer Science) Education

(x-ray delta one on Flickr)

I'm cautiously optimistic about Michael Gove's reform of ICT to become more like Computer Science. It's deperately needed (and has been for about 10 years) as outlined in these articles in the BBC and the Guardian:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16493929

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jan/11/michael-gove-boring-it-lessons

I personally feel like I was massively let down by IT lessons when I was at school. I never felt like IT lessons were remotely fun or interesting - they were typing lessons merely that taught us how to be good worker drones. I was far more interested in science (which I still love), and so I started Biochemistry at Cardiff. I found that this wasn't the subject for me, and started to become more and more interested in the web and it's possibilities. Now I'm studying Web Technologies and I love mucking around with code. I'm extremely lucky to be able to do switch like that, and I'm sure that there's others out there who aren't.

The revamp is great news as it seems to focus much more on creating rather than only consuming, a path that I think has dangerous consequences.

However (you knew it was coming), I'm not convinced about the so called "open source" curriculum. Feels very much like a buzz word to please the geeks, rather than a concerted effort to change across the country. If "schools and teachers [have] freedom over what and how to teach" what's to stop a school that is unmotivated and/or incapable of updating the curriculum from doing so?

If we're serious about creating a new generation of makers and hackers then the government needs to step up and provide a concrete curriculum. I realise that this top-down approach is very much against the hacker mentality, but I worry that we've neglected technology education for so long that we've lost the skills to teach it.

I'm also skeptical of how the government will handle this guidance, and only listen to the huge corporations that have pushed hard for this. While we must thank them for bankrolling this change Microsoft, Google, IBM and others should have equal input as (real) open source initiatives and small scale hackers. Raspberry Pi springs to mind. As does Apps for Good. And Codecademy

So that's education sorted. Now we just need to overturn the Digital Economy Act and invest heavily in internet infrastructure, and we'll be golden :)

Is a "peer reviewed web" possible? This and many more questions about Hypothes.is

The service promises to check, verify and critique content on every web site in the world. Using a system of browser plugins, URL shorteners, a destination site and other approaches they plan to lay comments over web pages. Comments? You laugh? Well they promise to make "better quality" comments by ranking and classifying them, with sentiment analysis and a reputation system that will in effect produce community peer review.

If this works, then I agree with Marshall Kirkpatrick (fantastic journalist), and I'm very excited to see more. The ability to crowdsource credible and relevant knowledge right in line with the original content would greatly improve the quality of information on the internet, which increasingly affects the world around us.

However (you knew it was coming), I'm skeptical for a few reasons:

Firstly, it seems to depend quite a lot on the sentiment analysis which they're apparently calling "stance". The video says they can pick up on a whole list of sentiments, which will be used to filter/rank the comments. I've not yet seen sentiment analysis that can do this accurately, despite the masses of data we have out there - unless they have an incredible new breakthrough (which I guess is possible) then I'm not sure how they can properly rank comments.

Another technology that has been promised many times and mostly failed is reputation ranking systems, again one of the tent poles holding up Hypothes.is. I'm yet to be convinced that reputation ranking systems that cover the entirety of human knowledge are even possible. Without artificial intelligence (and even then) how is it possible to accurately rank every aspect of a person's knowledge?

Depending on mainly on these technologies (as the video suggests to me) leads me to think that the supposed moderation will dodgy at best. Of course, I could be wrong especially if some crowdsourcing of comments is involved.

Next, who gets to pronounce the supposed domain experts? People who Hypothes.is are "engaging" to seed the service with quality knowledge - who are they? And how can they possibly have experts on every topic on the internet? Do their partners (so far: the Internet Archive, and the founders of Slashdot) have a say? Aren't we supposed to be avoiding a "top down editorial bureaucracy"?

Now I must admit that many of these fears have been allayed because I've found out that Hypothes.is is a non-profit. Neutrality is one of their 12 principles, but the service would be massively less useful if I suspected a basis.

What are they going to do to get me to write a comment on Hypothes.is instead on in a tweet, or a blog, or a Google+ post? In fact, there's no mention of the fact that a lot of commenting on stories these days happens elsewhere, not in the comments section. I actually happen to quite like this current system quite a lot - I have the chance to expand my thoughts and opinions right here. I would like more ability to link directly to a paragraph though - just like Dave Winer's blog.

Finally, the video brings up the problem of cold launch strategies. They address this, to an extent, in their FAQ saying that all social networks have the same problem and that they'll make the service useful from the start. What actually happens remains to be seen, as I say I hope it does work.

I'm also intrigued by the "distributed" nature: is it going to try to de-centralise comments? Can I install a version on my server? If so, I'm loving this - the ability to control my content on my server is an important data perservation point. Decentralisation is a key concept of the internet, and it's high time that comments went the same way.

One more question: The video also mentions videos - how will this work, especially with the dominance of Flash? Even YouTube (backed by the mighty Google) can't really do comments on videos properly. I'd quite like to see audio mentioned too...

I really hope they manage to annswer all my questions, and if they manage to pull it off then I'm extremely excited. I really like their 12 principles, especially open source, transparent and pseudonymous - all things that are "of the web".

Climbing Hurts (sometimes)

I managed to slice half the skin off my finger bouldering yesterday. Thankfully I doesn't really hurt at all :)