The story behind… VESPa – the Virtual Environment Sampling Platform

What it is like working on an IT Innovation Challenges project and what does it take to complete a project? In this interview, Maureen Doyle, project manager of VESPa – the Virtual Environment Sampling Platform, reflects on her experiences as project manager.

How did you come up with the idea for VESPa?

When I did an online postgraduate course in Ecological Techniques at Oxford I noticed that many of the people were living outside of the UK in countries such as Croatia, Japan, Cambodia, Hong Kong and even I was attending the course from the Isle of Man. I noticed then how important it was to get a feel for the subjects from home and this was only possible due to the course’s specialised tools and their online availability. So when the IT Innovation Challenges team started selecting ideas, the course directors (Jocelyne Hughes and Thomas Hesselberg) and I proposed to upgrade/develop one of their tools, the ‘Virtual Meadow’, not only for the ecology department but also with the potential to be used by many different fields of study at the University.

What were the first steps?

At first the team met in Oxford so that Ted Koterwas (Lead for the Web and Mobile Applications team who built the tool), could obtain a list of the requirements needed to start building the tool. As the development phase was in process, the remainder of the VESPa team started working on the datasets. We already had data for Ecology from Jocelyne Hughes and Thomas Hesselberg, and Roger Bailey had also provided us with WHO’s Malaria data for the Medical Sciences dataset. Danny Dorling provided us with the data for the Geography dataset, and Ben Lowe offered us archaeological data from his dig in Mondragone, Italy.  We also sourced the Earth Sciences dataset online from the British Geology Society.

What were your challenges and successes as a project manager?

Being a project manager was very exciting. I had never worked as a project manager before, nor had I taken on a project of this scale. Initially the team included Roger Tang who was acting as a co-project manager. He was amazing help during the proposal and the first phase, but – unfortunately for us – he moved to Australia to pursue his PhD. From then on, I was running the project by myself, but I really enjoyed the sense of responsibility.

We had to postpone the project deadline twice due to a learning period when creating the datasets which had to be refined considerably and due to staff availability. I realised as a project manager that projects don’t always go according to plan. This was very overwhelming for me at first, since I was conscious that as project manager, I was accountable for the success of the project and it was a stressful period. But after some time, the limitations were adjusted without negatively affecting the project and the team. This was the main epiphany for me.

What do you take away from this project?

I feel that not only I have learned lots of new skills but also have contributed to the future of education which is relying more and more on specialised online tools.

It was an absolute honour to be a project manager to the VESPa project, getting selected by the IT Innovation Challenges panel was extremely exciting! I also received lots of support from the IT team and the admin ladies, Ylva Berglund Prytz and Judy Mcauliffe, who were extremely helpful.

Find out more about how VESPa works and how it may help you in the second part of the interview with Maureen Doyle.

Visit VESPa – the Virtual Environment Sampling Platform.

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