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Digital impacts

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Just back from an excellent one-day conference organised by the Oxford Internet Institute, on ‘Digital impacts: how to measure and understand the usage and impact of digital content‘ (20 May 2011). Among other things, the event presented the work of the JISC-funded ‘Impact and embedding of digitised resources‘ programme, discussed the relaunched ‘Toolkit for the Impact of Digitised Resources’ (TIDSR) and saw the publication of a new report by Eric Meyer, ‘Splashes and ripples: synthesizing the evidence on the impacts of digital resources‘ (JISC report, May 2010).

The IHR’s British History Online (BHO) was one of seven projects (four of them history resources) which received funding under the ‘Impact and embedding’ programme to undertake a detailed analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, of usage and as a result to identify changes which might lead to increased take-up in research, teaching and learning. With the correct tools in place, and brought together in TIDSR, this was an invaluable exercise, which allowed us to spend time finding out precisely how users interact with an established research resource, and how this has changed over the lifetime of BHO. It was clear from other speakers at the conference that this experience was replicated across the remaining six projects involved. With limited resources (both human and financial) available to most projects in the arts and humanities – and these often constrained by the time period of a grant – having the time and space seriously to address these issues felt like an unprecedented luxury. The results, however, have convinced us of the importance of building impact assessment into existing workflows, and will undoubtedly affect how we organise BHO in the future.

Drawing on the experience of the ‘Impact and embedding’ programme, Eric Meyer’s ‘Splashes and ripples’ report makes 25 recommendations, many of which may be implemented by new and existing projects with little additional work. Something which is of great interest to me, for example, is the relative infrequency with which historians cite digital materials, even where (as in the case of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Early English Books Online) it is more than likely a digital resource to which the researcher is referring. This is an area in which resource creators are often their own worst enemies and Meyer straightforwardly suggests that projects should ‘Provide automatic citations that are easy to copy or download’ and ensure that they can be readily exported to commonly used reference management software. If you’re involved with a digital resource that doesn’t make something like this available, do it now! The report repays careful reading, and along with the TIDSR toolkit, will be enormously useful to anyone who is working on the creation of a digital resource.

The afternoon sessions saw more general discussion about impact, with fascinating presentations by Brian Kelly (UKOLN) on social media strategies, and Melissa Highton (Oxford University Computing Services) on the extraordinary impact, in partnership with Apple, of the Oxford podcasts service. Brian Kelly’s presentation on ‘Evidence, impact, value: metrics for understanding personal and institutional use of the social web’ may be viewed at http://bit.ly/mE3BXn. You can also consult the archived Twitter feed (and summary) from the conference that he set up at http://bit.ly/lsgxbz. As with ‘Splashes and ripples’, we will certainly be looking at some of the tools for measuring social media ‘success’ that he described.

Lots to think about!