A sky full of stars

To assess impact, it helps to know where you are measuring (or even can measure). Podcasting at Oxford is not a single point entity, rather a collection of Portals[1] and Fileservers, thus assessing its impact as one object is a little complicated, though that is how the project is oriented at this suits a management perspective.

A Sky Full of Stars: Oxford Podcasting is a collection of entities

A Sky Full of Stars: Oxford Podcasting is a collection of entities

The above diagram is an approximate map of the entities that form Podcasting at Oxford. Visitors/Downloaders/Users/Listeners/Viewers initially access content via a portal (typically a website) and these are shown as yellow stars in the above map. The visitors, in effect, only see the “stars” as suggested by the white arrows. The cloud of blue planets represent the physical entities hosting/providing the actual media and metadata for download (for our content is mostly hosted independently from the portal where it appears thus reducing massive duplication and capacity issues).

The red circles represent monitoring points within this ecosystem – solid red circles indicate where we have collected data and the hollow circles represent locations where we either do not monitor, or do not have access to the data. See the post “Connecting the dots” to understand more about what monitoring looks like and the technical steps of podcast distribution, and take a look at “Fishing with a broken net” to see our estimates in terms of data coverage provided by these monitoring points.

Scope is a key factor in this project as its duration is too short to be comprehensive, especially given the spread of podcasting activities and technologies at Oxford. Whilst also being easy on the eye, the purple nebula backdrop here serves to delineate between core systems we consider to be part of Podcasting at Oxford and therefore the focus of LfI and those that are beyond our resources to address. At this stage, we can also narrow down our scope even further to use only the data presently available – Weekly reports from Apple about Oxford on iTunes U, and Log Files from our central fileservers (Incy and Revisionist aka: media.podcasts.ox.ac.uk) as highlighted by the solid red circles. As I discuss in “Fishing with a broken net“, this data accounts for a significant portion of our content, but isn’t close to being comprehensive.

There are a few other more subtle things to note about this diagram[2], in no particular order:

  • The iTunes U Portal star is considerable larger than any other portal star – this isn’t proportional (if it were, then you might not be able to see anything else on the page!) but it is a hint that this is rather a key driver for visitors being able to access our content.
  • The cloud of blue fileservers may seem a tad numerous, but is actually based on the number of independent web hosts we can identify from our central podcasting catalogue. The distributed nature of our current setup makes this a political and technical nightmare to gather data for analysis, however it has it roots in allowing Oxford to rapidly develop a podcasting initiative and is reflective of our devolved institutional nature.
  • Our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE, aka: WebLearn, based on the FOSS project Sakai) is outside the impact monitoring scope for this project. This is because Podcasting at Oxford has been 99% driven by public, open to the world, free content. The VLE is internal facing in nature and typically used to create a walled garden of content for specific groups of students and staff (hence its own fileserver noted here in gray). Whilst our podcasting content does find itself being embedded into the VLE, this usage is so low as to not pursue presently (and we hope to find the data to demonstrate this). Some of the reasons for this are being addressed by the LfI project in Work Packages 4, 5 & 6.
  • I have named the portals that the Podcasting Service has been actively targeting with our distribution strategies. The Web Portal (podcasts.ox) and iTunes U are the primary portals in this approach, however, innovative work done at Oxford as part of the Erewhon project has enabled our content to also be presented within the Mobile Oxford portal (m.ox.ac.uk). Thus far, no work has been done to assess the impact of that portal, and it is an optimistic aim of this project to find data to address that.
  • The two Steeple Ensemble Demonstrators are portal/aggregation services that were an offshoot of work done for the JISC Steeple project. These systems use the open and standardised approach of podcast providers to aggregate content from multiple institutions in one place and by adhering to these standards (and in helping to draft some of the metadata requirements) Oxford actively encourages our content to be accessed and presented via these services.
  • JorumOpen appears in a similar way to the Steeple portals. Work done as part of the JISC funded OpenSpires project to release Oxford Podcast material as Open Educational Resources (OER) has been incorporated into the JorumOpen portal, again using the open and accessible technologies of Podcasting.
  • The cluster of stars with question marks on represent the known unknowns in this map. There are a range of sites outside of Oxford which present our content to their audiences, often using the same sort of technologies that have been mentioned above. Where these sites have stayed true to the ethos of podcasting and are linking back to our material hosted locally we may be able to find traces of their use and impact. However, the podcast content by its nature can be wholly downloaded and repurposed (legally or otherwise) without our knowledge whatsoever. Our only hints of this happening may come from extensive research via search engines, or via enthusiastic visitors contacting us about the content, or by plain serendipity of being discovered by chance. In short, the impact of these particular stars is near impossible to gauge and almost wholly outside the scope of the LfI project.

Whilst the TIDSR approaches seem geared towards the idea of a single entity of academic interest, I hope you can see why Podcasting at Oxford doesn’t easily fit this model and how our Sky Full of Stars is perhaps more fascinating and complex because of this.



  1. Strictly speaking everything in this diagram (apart from the visitors) is a “Fileserver”. In simple truth, everything is also technically a “Webserver” also as these entities are all internet accessible. Since the definition of a webserver is a system for serving files to the web/internet, this should be fairly apparent. However, I would like to distinguish between three types of system for this project. The first is the website or portal, typically serving user oriented webpages advertising the content. These pages are typically based on the catalogue of podcast data from the RSS Server (a webservice solely for serving RSS XML content describing the podcasts and importantly, where to find them). This RSS data or Portal then links the visitor (often without them being aware) to the actual media content hosted on the Webservers acting as Fileservers for podcast content. As with all complex scenarios, this one chooses to ignore some of the multipurpose functionality of the various real world entities and focus on the practical services they offer in relation to podcasting.
  2. Whilst the layout of this image is symbolic in many ways, it doesn’t make any statements about the perceived worth or strength or accessibility of the various portals beyond pointing out that Apple’s iTunes U portal is by far and away the location with the highest public profile. Conversely, the anonymous nature of the vast majority of our visitors could lead you to conclude they’re aliens from outer space and that them being drawn towards the stars is wholly appropriate. Or you could just conclude that this metaphor has been stretched too far already 😉
Posted in Quantitative, Tech-Moderate, WP2: Initial Rapid Analysis | 2 Comments

2 Responses to “A sky full of stars”

  1. […] the diagram in A Sky Full Of Stars we can identify around 21 locations were data can be collected from, and in Fishing With A Broken […]

  2. […] we can collect data from our webservers, that we have a (presently growing) range of webservers in the ecosystem we want to observe, and that we can only observe a limited number of those webservers. In this post, we will explore […]