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Erewhon: Mobile and location-based services in Oxford

Overview


The Erewhon project at the University of Oxford investigated the areas of mobile applications, web services and institutional geo-spatial data. The key areas where there were innovation outcomes are in (1) an open-source framework for institutional mobile applications, (2) an open-source solution for managing institutional geo-spatial data, (3) the data set that was collected, and (4) advice to institutions on developing services, managing open data, and identifying a mobile strategy. The advice they've produced seems pretty sound, so I'll concentrate on the other items for this review.


Molly


Molly is an open-source framework developed by the project for exposing institutional web services as mobile web applications. Essentially it is a specialised web framework with mobile-friendly widget-style HTML templates for common campus applications (e.g. library search, maps) backed by connectors for taking data from web services at the institution.

The idea of mobile applications backed by web services is certainly not novel, nor the idea of mobile applications backed by geo-spatial data (these were some of the first mobile applications on on the iPhone platform, for example). Nor is the case for developing mobile applications for universities a new idea; many institutions have been developing mobile applications, either as bespoke in house development (e.g. TVU, Coventry and Northumbria ) or in partnership with specialist companies (e.g. Duke Apps). JISC has also funded other projects to develop mobile applications, for example MyMobile Bristol.

At around the same time as the project was underway, several commercial offerings were developed that also enabled institutions to offer mobile applications connected to their institutional data, so the overall technical model is not itself an innovation - for example the CampusM platform operates in a similar manner, although in this case it offers native mobile applications (e.g. iPhone apps) rather than mobile web applications (see this article on ReadWriteWeb for a brief discussion of native applications on mobile versus web applications targeting mobile browsers).

There are also other offerings based on particular institutional systems, such as Blackboard Mobile Central and Moodle Touch. Molly itself provides connectors for the Sakai VLE.

It is likely that MIS vendors will follow suit and offer suites of mobile applications for their platforms. For example, Sungard is offering a range of mobile applications for its public-sector MIS applications.

It is also worth noting that the MIT Mobile Web framework, a very similar open-source mobile framework emerged at around the same time as the Molly project; from which the Mobile Web OSP community open source project has been developed.

So the key innovation here is not the application itself, but its position as a UK-oriented community open source project as a sustainable alternative to both commercial products and also bespoke development by individual institutions.

This is a strategic intervention, and relies on the adoption of Molly by other institutions to share the costs of developing and maintaining mobile applications and contribute to the sustainability of the Molly project itself. The team have made a good start by taking a community-oriented approach, and have two production implementations (University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes).

The key challenges are promoting an open-source community alternative when vendors will be aggressively pushing their own solutions, and to attract more users and developers to sustain the project. Oxford has good support in place for this type of project, the project team have already been working with OSSWatch, and Oxford have their own deployment of Molly they will want to maintain; all of these are good indicators for sustainability for the near term.

To aid in monitoring progress by Molly I used Ohloh code analysis and this shows that while development is ongoing, there are still a very small number of active contributors. Molly really needs to work hard on engaging a more diverse community of core developers to reduce the dependency of the project on institutional support at Oxford in the longer term.

For the JISC - the funders of this project - the main action points to take forward would be for its advisory services to point institutions looking to develop mobile web applications to the Molly project to consider it as an option, and to consider carefully whether new project proposals involving mobile applications should be encouraged to contribute to the sustainability of Molly in preference to either bespoke development or adopting commercial solutions.


Gaboto


Gaboto is a system for managing geo-spatial data; it emerged from a need identified by the Erewhon project to store and make available geo-spatial data for its mobile applications. In particular a need to tag locations of institutional buildings and resources and to describe connections between locations and resources. The team had already evaluated a number of existing GIS systems and found them unsuitable.

The Gaboto system is now described as follows:

"Gaboto maps first class java objects onto RDF. By this it introduces a layer on top of RDF giving you RDF's flexibility in storing objects, their properties and the relationships between objects while preserving the full power of java objects."

So Gaboto is positioned as a more generic piece of Semantic Web middleware for Java applications rather than by its initial implementation as geo-spatial storage - this may improve its prospects for uptake elsewhere. However there are a large number of Semantic Web frameworks and tools that do approximately the same job: for example Jena, Elmo and Sommer. Gaboto seems positioned as a Java-RDF mapping framework on top of Jena, quite similar to Elmo and Sommer, with some pre-defined ontologies for geo-spatial and temporal data.

A good overview of the problem space that Gaboto addresses can be found here.

Clearly the Erewhon team felt that existing solutions in this space had some drawbacks for them; however its not terribly clear what the advantages may be for other organisations with a similar requirement. The unique proposition of Gaboto seems less to be the framework itself so much as components developed for it that serialize data in a range of geo-spatial formats such as KML.

Overall I think Gaboto is more of a point solution for the project to get over a particular problem rather than something innovative in itself; other institutions may find it a good approach for holding and serving geo-spatial data, but there are other options available. Gaboto is also not an out-of-the-box solution, but rather a toolkit that can be used by Java and RDF-savvy developers to create their own solution to similar problems.


Modelling institutional spaces and resources


In terms of innovation, I think what Oxford have done here that is new is to undergo the process of mapping buildings and other resources (including wireless access points and car parks), and linking the descriptions of these resources together into a coherent model (for example, to describe sites as well as individual buildings). This model is then used to drive applications using Gaboto as the framework to deliver the data to applications. The data is exposed for use in a variety of formats which can be found from the Oxpoints website.

This type of semantic location modelling is something which has been described quite well in research literature (for example, see Roth, 2005; and Kalamatsos et al. 2009) and there is a current EU FP7 project which seems to explore similar principles (see MUGGES). However there no other live, practical examples of implementing this approach in the HE sector that I'm aware of which is what makes this work innovative. It will be interesting to see what kinds of services the Oxpoints team can support with this data, and whether the benefits of those services will be sufficient to encourage other institutions to undertake similar exercises with their own resources.

As with open linked data generally, the benefits are only made visible in the applications that make use of it, but I think there is a lot of potential future innovation to be developed using the dataset.


References


Kolomvatsos, Kostas and Papataxiarhis, Vassilis and Tsetsos, Vassileios (2009). Semantic Location Based Services for Smart Spaces. In Metadata and Semantics. Sicilia Miguel-Angel and Lytras, Miltiadis D.(eds.), Springer US.

Roth, Jorg. (2005) The Role of Semantic Locations for Mobile Information Access. Mobiles Informationsmanagement und seine Anwendungen, Sept. 22, 2005, Bonn, Proceedings of the 35th annual GI conference, Vol. 2, 538-542

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