New software is being developed every day by researchers across the UK. It’s put together to achieve an aim or to complete a project – and often it’s put into storage and often forgotten about or even lost. Jisc is one of the main funding bodies for digital technology research projects in the UK, and Matthew Dovey, Jisc Technologies, says it was increasingly aware that there was a real resource being wasted. It therefore decided to run a pilot project to promote the software that had been developed for its projects.
Jisc worked with OSS Watch at Oxford, and with the Software Sustainability Institute, to identify what code was out there and to present it in a way that made it accessible to other interested users.
It is now easy for potential users to find software that is relevant to their needs, with straightforward descriptions of the functionality, compatibility information and any multimedia materials that explain and promote the software and its related project.
“As a result of the Wilson review of Jisc, we are keen to maximise the impact of our activities and projects," explains Dovey. "There was concern that while some of the projects’ software was being taken up and used, others hadn’t been – and often for good reason, because it was hard to find and hard to understand.”
The Software Hub would also give Jisc a clearer picture of the work that had been done over the years, allowing it to evaluate its contribution to the Higher Education/Further Education sector, and to improve the planning and management of current and future projects.
The pilot aimed to establish what was required, and what would work, Dovey says.
“We didn’t want to create a graveyard of software – it had to be something that would work and be useful. We also needed to get a feel for the maintenance aspects: how much work would be needed and who should do it? Zero maintenance would see it just decay, whereas high maintenance would not be viable – and we had to gauge the division of work between Jisc and the community,” he says.
“We knew we needed something better. The aim of the project was really to find out what that was.”
Once the project began, the principle aim was to tag all the codes with metadata to make it easy to catalogue and find. However, finding it in the first place proved a challenge.
OSS Watch developed software to harvest these, ‘trawling’ the URLs of the websites of past Jisc projects to see what software was there, the Institute then stepped in to work on the metadata and sustainability of the software found.
The project also trialled ways of creating promotional content such as videos, but this is complicated by the fact that developers have moved on to new projects and are understandably less than keen to go back and work on areas where funding has run out.
The future of the programme will depend on current restructuring at Jisc, Dovey says. However, “the Software Hub will continue to run as a pilot – and it is very likely that there will be a software service from Jisc in the future. This pilot will inform what it would look like, both in what not to do as well as what to do.
“The project did what it set out to do and, given the tight timeframe, did it well. We produced a pilot system and also a good deal of food for thought and recommendations for the future regarding the processes needed and the difficulties to be overcome,” says Dovey.