Session 1: e-Content Business Models and Sustainability – From theory into practice

Audio from the session
To downlod the MP3 click here

Emma Beer from The Strategic Content Alliance at JISC shares her thoughts on the session:

“We heard from four entertaining speakers on business models and sustainability. Key themes from all speakers were a need to create usable content that would be effective and useful to the intended audiences, and also a need to look beyond funding to bring in extra income streams.

“There was a great deal of interest in this session and I am very pleased the SCA is planning to invest a great deal more in understanding this complex field that I hope can in turn inform the debate on JISC funding policies going forward. From a personal viewpoint, I think it’s important to encourage a great deal more innovation in business models so that a great deal more projects and initiatives can benefit from JISC funding.

“Government initiatives aimed at opening up public sector information (see for instance the signing of the Seoul Declaration on the Future of the Internet Economy by OECD countries in the last month) and the business models to underpin this sort of work will also be key to this debate.”

Speakers’ presentations are available to download at the end of this post.

The John Johnson Collection: A public-private digitisation partnership

Michael Popham from OULS and Peter White from ProQuest explained how they have worked in developing The John Johnson Collection.

Popham began by explaining that the collection relates to ephemera, the small, transient collections of text which make up our everyday lives. Nowadays this can refer to things such as text messages or blog posts, but it goes beyond electronic text to everyday items such as recipes, shopping lists or bus tickets. “This is the evidential data of societal history” said Popham.

Libraries have traditionally been used to document formal documents, such as bound books, but now they are building a catalogue of such ephemeral material from the archives of John Johnson.

The benefits of having the database online is that it is far more accesible, rather than having to visit Oxford, visitors can consult online. It brings out the ‘hidden collection’ in a format that is actually better than the original because it preserves fragile items while allowing far greater access. This is the first time such items have been digitised.

The digitisation has been done in partnership with Proquest, due to their strong experience and knowledge of digitisation. They have been able to look beyond Oxford users to make the collection accessible to other academics and librarians, and better promote and market the archive.

The business model is governed by the JISC consortium, and as part of the agreement Proquest handle the digitsation. This gives Oxford greater protection if there are any problems with the third party responsible for the digitsation.

The sustainability of the project is based on the licence to use the service outside of the UK. The revenues generated cover Proquest’s costs. The partnership builds on the strengths of both parties, and creates a more scalable structure as there is funding in place for a project manager.

White then took over the presentation, demonstrating the website. The website has 40,000 items currently catalogued, of a projected 650,000. Interestingly, all the text of the items is searchable, creating a more intelligent search function which can pick out text within catalogued items. “This is some of the richest cataloguing Proquest has ever seen,” added White.

White briefly outlined other work Proquest is involved in, including an archive of 18th century parliamentary papers. This archive, also funded by JISC, contains digital copies of all papers from 1715 to 2005.

The demonstration archive was certainly impressive – handwritten text is also searchable, and the documents are scanned in colour on a high resolution that allows users to zoom in on text.
White amused delegates by searching for the term ‘innovation’ on the website – the term only seems to appear in reference to ‘dangerous innovation’ – innovation appears to be a dirty word in the 18th century.

Paul S Ell, Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis, Queen’s University Belfast

Paul Ell used 4 case studies to demonstrate four different business models which had varying degrees of successful sustainability.

The first was a database of Irish historical statistics, a census-based relational database covering 1821 – 1971. The aim of the archive is to allow analogue censuses to be machine-readable and increase research outputs. The census has a wealth of data, from agricutlural data to information on crime.

The archive was an early project, so there was no connected website. Most of the staff working on the project either left, retired or died, and the greatest blow was struck when one member of staff who retired took the workstation with her, effectively stopping all work.

The data is still available, but it is difficult to access. Ell believes that the project was also too focused, leading to too low usage for it to ever be sustainable.

The act of union virtual library project was intended to document the act of union in Ireland. The project contains 60,000 objects. Ell believes that the e-content is actually better than the original materials, because not only can they be searched more readily, they are clearer and easier to actually interpret.

The university decided to maintain the project itself to cut costs, and the information servicdes department at Queens agreed to maintain the project. However, this later led to problems – the website hasn’t been changed in 4 years, and there is no time or resources to add new content. It’s on the university server so the information is still available, but it is effectively a dead archive. X suggested that again, this issue might be that the focus of the project was too focused to have mass appeal.

The 3rd example given by Ell was a digital archive of 90,000 pages of Hansard, the House of Commons in Ireland from 1921 to 1973. It’s a web-based, searchable resource with links to contemporary debates. The digitisation allows a rare resource to be used more often, and it is being used.

Ell revelead some common search terms used on the archive, to a few chuckles from delegates: emigration, army, Irish language, IRA,civil service, Ian Paisley, drunkeness.

This project was maintained externally, by the AHDS executive, for £75,000. A key difference to this project is that it moves beyond archiving objects, to maintaining functionality of the site. However, funding has been withdrawn, so there are now question marks over how it will be maintained. Funders AHRC questioned why it cost so much to maintain the resource, but X actually believes that the true costs of maitainance is actually a lot higher.

The final project case study was an Irish Studies archive. JISC gave £620,000 to digitise monographs and manuscripts related to Irish Studies, and create the foundations of a digital library resource Up to 100 journals are covered, over 200 years. All materials except manuscripts are machine-readable, and some manuscripts are transcribed.

It has very detailed object level meta data – not just title and issue, but information on editor comments, reviews, all references. This extensive metadata is key to the archives usability.

Ell explains that the reason why this model of sustainability works is primiarily because the content is useful and usable. The content is chosen by academics for academics, and the archive is based in part on library pattern usages.

The archive doesn’t ask researchers to change the way they work, which can be a barrier to other models. With this archive the materials are delivered to the academic’s desktop. In addition, the archive is continuously being added to with new and updated journals, ensuring that it is not a dead resource.

Ell conceded that the archive was not necessarily a sexy, glamourous, complex multimedia resource, but as he explained, “It’s journals which are nuts and bolts of scholarship.”

This sustainabilty model relies on JSTOR – a not for profit devoted to scholarly community, the fact that it is has no profit motive reduces costs.

Income is generated via a subsctiption service for non UK and Ireland users, which provides a good income stream. Ell points to another archive, of data from 3 centuries of English crop yields from 1211 to 1491. It has involved decades of work, and yet has attracted only 12 users. X believes that attracting users is a criticial element of sustainability.

Ell also refers to JISC funding limitations, which can create barriers to sustainability, such as pushing for the data to be freely available as much as possible, and in not allowing overheads to be fully covered by grants. He also believes that there is an assumption that universities have the facilities to maintain e-resources, when this is rarely the case. Ell asks if institutional reposities could be the answer.

Humphrey Southall, University of Portsmouth – The Vision of Britain website

The focus of the Vision of Britain project was originally on historical statistics, but is now a ‘geographical surveys of Britain’ from 1801 – 2001. It also has a census of population, ordnance survey mapping information from 1810-1957 – with no more recent data because of copyright issues.

This archive has no physical collection. It is intended to be used by life-long users, not students. “The archive is about the local history of everywhere,” says Southall. The site has been profiled on BBC Breakfast news and in the Observer, and it crashed for a fortnight following the launch due to the weight of traffic.

The key problem for the site now is that funding has stopped.This presents many problems, as the infrastructure cannot be updated and there will be few staff to work on it from next year.

In order to be sustainable, the site needs to generate income. Income generation is currently more important than repurposing the site for HE use.

Southall listed a number of possible ways to generate money, the most promising being advertising, licencising and co-marketing. The British History Online currently make £1 per 1000 pageviews to the site, which generates £1000 a month.

Southall revealed that a commercial site has potential made £15 million from buying the licence to ancient parish boundaries, and then selling enquries online at £15 each. This contract has now exired, so there is potential for significent extra income.
Co-marketing with a company selling historic maps is also a potential income stream, which would also work to extend the archive’s collection of maps online.

Key to the success of the site is increasing the number of users, although the site is also doing well, with over 70,000 unique users a month. It’s important to engage with public internet – there are 1800 links in to the site from Wikipedia, which is a good indication of the site’s important and value. The site receives a lot of visitors from search engines, and the data is very usable, with much information represented in graphs and images.

“The project has spent more money on meta data than data,” says Southall, which he believes is key to its success.

Question from delegates

Delegate 1: “When you say ‘free’ do you mean free to academics or the public?”

Speaker: The Irish virtual library is free to everyone in the UK and Ireland. At the moment the geographic location is automatic, but in the future we might look at registration. We might need to look at the mechanisms.

Speaker: Vision of Britain is completely free, assuming we can keep it running. It angers me that we can’t have some public money to provide something that would not otherwise be available.

Speaker: It’s free to everyone who can access a public library, or a FE, HE or school library.

Mark Johnson Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton: “You’ve got sustainability and efficacy – sustainable projects might not be efficacious, and vice versa. Sustainability is one of the key factors for JISC, but we need to consider it carefully.”



Popham and White_Public-Private Partnerships