JA-SIG Unconf: Recap

So, the JA-SIG un-conference (even the working sessions) is over, giving me a chance to do some thinking and reflection about the event and its aftermath.

Overall, the attendance, interest, and excitement demonstrated by all of the participants was pretty overwhelming. We had both more individuals, institutions, and organizations represented than we ever would have anticipated for an inaugural event. Even JA-SIG product deployers like Collier from UMBC and FLUID were well represented. While everyone undoubtedly came away from the event with different thoughts, two items struck me as particularly exciting.


Collier demonstrated the MyUMBC work he’s been doing. While not uPortal based, the reactions related to the functionality of his portal ranged from “wow, *I* want it” to “you built that yourself?” to “don’t show that to my users or they’ll want it.” A couple of thoughts on why everyone in attendance found Collier’s work so compelling:

* Presentation: Collier threw away the assumption a portal must allow users to add/remove/re-arrange content. This dramatically simplified his problem domain, and allows him to capitalize on web-design techniques to tune his layout and presentation.
* Focus: MyUMBC is focused on end-user tools, not building frameworks. While in many portal project 75% of the time seems to be spent bringing up the platform, and making changes there, Collier spent 75% of his time building tools for news, events, favorites, etc.
* Integration: MyUMBC has a number of tools and concepts that serve to knit the experience together — the favorite stars, the dashboard on the start page, navigation cues all make the experience feel integrated
* Feedback & Monitoring: MyUMBC built a feedback system integrated into every page, and a lightweight dashboard to extract key statistics from that system. As a result, feedback is easy (~6000 in less than 6 months) and mining the data for trends is also correspondingly easy. This combined with standard tools like Google Analytics support a nice feedback-response loop while requiring minimal custom tooling.


JA-SIG and uPortal have always been very focused on building out uPortal as a portal *Framework.* A consistent thread throughout the un-conference however (partly sparked by MyUMBC) is a bubbling thread of focusing on portlets and tools. I think there’s a growing recognition in the community that the tools are what users are visiting a portal for in the first place — and an area we have not focused as much attention on in the past.

In particular, collaborative efforts in the portlet space received a lot of discussion at several different sessions. LMS, SIS, Library, and other areas all seem to be places where schools have repeatedly re-invented the wheel. Collier’s demonstration of the return from focusing on tools, and the timing related to the talk on JA-SIG project incubation I think have all contributed to an atmosphere where people are highly interested in collaborating higher up the stack.