Supporting an open future at Jisc

David Kernohan and Catherine Grout
David Kernohan and Catherine Grout
Digital technology is making new approaches to open data possible in both research and professional services. Jisc’s Catherine Grout and David Kernohan describe the work taking place to support an open future. 

“Open” is a huge part of Jisc’s history. From using technology to open up education to students who cannot study on campus, to sharing open educational materials for anyone to reuse and benefit from, we at Jisc have been long-standing and globally respected advocates for open.

Now digital technology is opening up new possibilities for open data approaches to support research and professional services and Jisc is keen to help universities unlock these opportunities. We are helping to develop the tools to create value from this open data, whether it is to allow ground-breaking medical research to proceed while also protecting individual privacy, or to provide universities with the most advanced business intelligence in an affordable way.

There are sound business reasons that underpin our open advocacy for individual academics, institutions and the wider sector. By opening up information, research data and educational materials we can create new value that is a direct boost to our universities, the economy and society more broadly.

How openness = efficiency

But what do we mean by open? According to the Open Knowledge Foundation, something is open when “anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose”.

The most common way to express this is via adding a license to an artefact, which explicitly tells a user what they are allowed to do with it, for example a Creative Commons license.

Immediately we see the first cost saving, which is that we no longer need to ask, or grant, permission to reuse something. This process, even when intentions are good on sides, takes time and thus money to resolve.

A second cost saving can be seen at a higher level. If someone somewhere has done something once, documented it well and shared it openly, there is no need to do it again.

Of course, we may want to do it again for the purpose of reproducing research for verification, but if data is shared openly, even this process is easier. Being able to draw on raw experimental data, allows us to more quickly create new resources or knowledge.

Open data in research

Sharing research data openly is an emerging practice, but is one that promises to improve research productivity. All major UK research funders are now requiring funded projects to include provision for research data they generate to be shared as openly as is possible, and Jisc is working with the sector to support institutions in meeting these requirements.

To do this it is important to have the right infrastructure and management processes in place to deal with data and Jisc is working to build shared services and solutions for all universities to make this possible. For more information about how we are going about this, see our Research at Risk blog.

Open licenses play an important role, allowing academic work to reach much wider audiences, and open citation data enables links between publications to be organised and made searchable. Opening up a range of research and educational content also benefits hard-pressed undergraduates facing the costs of textbooks and secondary reading.

Open data in running universities

Jisc is also supporting the application of open data in other aspects of universities’ work. Through our benchmarking project with the Higher Education Statistics Agency, we are producing a tool that helps universities to evaluate their performance in comparison with other institutions. This collection of data can help university managers make more efficient use of scarce resources.

We are also helping university staff to make better decisions with the launch of our business intelligence tool. This will provide them with access to relevant data including student recruitment, research performance and operating costs, which can influence their strategic planning. Once fully launched, it will help to improve universities capacity to make decisions based on sound evidence, whatever their size and budget. 

We are also working with Universities UK and the Open Data Institute on the Creating Value from Open Data project, which explores the potential of opening up data in the sector. Four focus areas have been identified for the project, including student choice and recruitment, business processes and intelligence, research management, and learning and student experience. 

An open future

A fully open future does require dedicated time and resources to support the change to open data.

For example, further investment is needed to develop the changing business models that will enable open access and to build the infrastructure required to support open research data.

There are certainly challenges to be met and we are trying to pave the way forward by providing the right advice, solutions and products to make the journey to an open future an easier path for us all.

Catherine Grout is head of change implementation support and David Kernohan is a senior co-design manager at Jisc.