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October 14, 2010
Writing about web page https://start.warwick.ac.uk/
Portal has always been a dirty word in web development. Many people remember the late 90s and the early 2000s, where “portal” referred to a website such as Excite, Lycos and Hotbot. They didn’t provide any intrinsic value of their own, they were just wrappers for a search page that had lots of advertising.
So when I was tasked with building a “Personalised Information Portal” for staff and students at the University, I was sceptical – it’s the natural progression of every web developer that they will eventually be asked by their employer to build a “portal” for something or other. At Warwick, I think there is actually a lot of scope for pulling together a lot of the services that we provide into a single place, particularly with the anecdotal evidence we have that a lot of students simply don’t know about a lot of the services that are available to them. In that sense, building a portal that was little more than a directory of all of our other services still had some intrinsic value.
In the end, we settled on something remarkably similar to iGoogle in terms of usability. Each window to another application is actually a “gadget”, which are organised in columns on a number of “tabs”. This is a similar model to that used by other University institutions who have tried something like this, such as myHome at Ithaca (http://www.ithaca.edu/myhome/) and go.edgehill.ac.uk.
The magic comes from a standard called OpenSocial, originally developed by Google and implemented by LinkedIn, MySpace etc. (but not Facebook). This has a specification for rendering gadgets for users, while also provided the features to potentially build the base of social networking – though it should be noted that we aren’t using any of the social features in Start.Warwick at the moment.
Once we had a gadget container up and running, the real trick was building gadgets for a lot of IT Services (and non-IT Services) applications so that users can add them to their pages. This is deceptively simple to start doing, but difficult to take to completion! Each gadget is a mini-application in itself, and as such has to go through the same strenuous process of design, implementation, testing, review, etc. of a period of multiple iterations. We’ve built around 25 of these gadgets, plus a few more that didn’t make it into the final cut, for everything from the weather to your email inbox.
At the moment, with the gadgets that we’ve been able to provide, we’ve targeted undergraduate students. This was a simple decision based on the fact that we unfortunately can’t get Microsoft Exchange information for users on our staff email system at the moment, but, with the student move to live@edu, we are able to provide users with a view of their email, calendar and TODO list.
If you want to start using Start.Warwick, you can do so today, whether you’re an undergraduate student or not (even if you’re an alumnus!). Just go to http://start.warwick.ac.uk/ and sign in with your IT Services username and password. The first time you visit, it’ll take us a little while to generate a page based on who you are (around 10 seconds) but after that, you can customise the page any way you want.
We’ve created some introductory videos to get you started, these are at http://go.warwick.ac.uk/starthelp/videos