Why Run a Service?

The debate over when to build, buy, or use is one that rages in higher education information technology units all the time. I am constantly asked why we’d run that service versus just relying on someone else to host it for us. I sit in meetings where the debate over taking something off the shelf for our use is weighed against our desire to build it. It never ends and I don’t expect to ever really have a solid answer.

Not too long ago, I was sitting and talking to Brad Kozlek about our choice to run our own blogging platform. I go through these massive swings about the topic — usually settling somewhere around, “why not just lean on wordpress.com and focus on training and adoption.” That argument works on lots of levels. On this particular day we came to another conclusion about why it is so important that we are running our own service — the potential for community.

Several weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend time talking and presenting with Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, Chief Scientist at Twitter … I wrote about it then, but have been thinking about it nearly nonstop. What became incredibly clear to me was that Twitter is sitting on an Ocean of data. Data that they are working really hard to turn into meaningful content. If you go to the Twitter Search page you’ll see that they are making sense out of this data and showing us how clearly the social web is plugged into what is happening. They have their “Trending topics” displayed right below their search field and it shows you what we are all talking about 140 characters at a time. I’m sure many of you have heard the story about how reports in Mumbai were first broadcast via Twitter and the first picture of the plane landing in the Hudson River came through the same channel — its obvious that what is wrong with big media is the same thing that is so very right with the social web — connections building community that is, in the case of Abdur and Twitter, predicting the future as it happens.

Trending Topics

Trending Topics

So back to the Blogs at Penn State … as Brad and I sat there we realized we are sitting on a river of data that is built entirely on people right here at PSU. Now that we are reaching the 10,000 user milestone with the service we are seeing an explosion in the understanding and use of tags for filtering content. Courses are using them to aggregate student posts together, students are using them to mark portfolio entries, departments are using them to pull information/knowledge about initiatives into focus, and so on. Once we realized that we started to realize that we could begin to act a little bit like Twitter and use our data to see trends and ultimately predict the future as it unfolds. With this in mind we’re working on a few new and interesting ways to not only tap into the community but also ways to let them move the state of the University around a bit.

A simple example is something I’m loosely calling, “PSU Voices.” Essentially we would hand out a tag each month (or perhaps week) related to topic we’d like to see the community explore. Imagine during April (when Earth Day is) asking the student body to write, or post pictures, videos about “ideas to make PSU a more green campus?” We’d ask that question, provide a tag, and watch as the aggregate posts of that month’s conversation came into focus. If we took a simple advertisement out in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, to get people to participate I wonder if they would? If they did I think the results would be amazing.

We’ve already started to pull out some trending data based on the popular tags and we are seeing some really interesting things. It was clear last week that lots of students were working on their portfolios. One of the next steps is to build an interface between the tag and content search to see what people are talking about in mass … I can’t even imagine how interesting that could look when we have 20,000 or 30,000 people writing regularly around PSU. I’m not ready to share the pages yet, but I am hoping that in the next couple of weeks we’ll start to see the unintended results of running our own service — the ability to not create community, but to coalesce it. Anyone have thoughts related to these ideas and others?