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“Every day I wake up and ask, ‘how can I flow data better, manage data better, analyse data better?”

Rollin Ford, the CIO of Wal-Mart

Quoted in A special report on managing information: Data, data everywhere
Economist, The (London, England) – February 27, 2010 Page: 71

Libraries and their attitude to user activity data.
In the commercial world there are countless examples of how the private sector uses the data about their customers, from Wal-Mart’s CIO (quoted above) through to supermarkets use of loyalty cards and to the recommendations that are commonplace in websites such as Amazon.  But examples of libraries use of this type of data are still quite rare and libraries have been very slow to take advantage of the vast pool of data they have about the behaviour of their users.  Libraries have long been used to using systems to count how many item have been borrowed or bought, but have been strangely reluctant to look in detail about what people are borrowing and use that data to help users make better informed choices.

Some work has been done through the TILE and MOSAIC projects, and the latter included anonymised circulation data made available by Huddersfield University and used to run a competition to encourage ideas around the use of that data.  JISC also ran an event earlier in the year about this area ‘Gaining Business Intelligence from User Activity Data’ which has been written up here and in the ALT newsletter.     Dave Pattern at Huddersfield is probably furthest along in working with this area and his blog is a good source for ideas about what can be achieved with user activity data.

Following on from the event in the Summer JISC have clearly been thinking about how to increase the pool of examples of how user activity data can be used so have included it as one of the strands in their recently announced Funding Call 15/10.   With £500k available for 7/10 six month projects to take place in the early part of 2011, there’s the opportunity for libraries to get involved in developing new ideas about how to use user activity data.

User Activity Data is a particularly interesting area for me as a good deal of the work that has been done so far has been around the use of loan data.  Working in a library where students don’t borrow books from us, or even visit the library, we’ve got to look at other areas of data.  Most of our users engage with us through using our e-resources and that’s an area that we are looking to see how we can collect, analyse, and use that data to improve services and offer recommendations to help users get more out of their e-resource usage.

Using evidence of what customers are doing to shape personalised services is now common practice across the business and commercial sectors. From giving people special offers based on their loyalty card transactions to the ‘Customers who bought this also bought this’ of Amazon, many companies are exploiting user activity data in numerous ways.

Libraries, though, have been very slow to realise the potential of activity data. With modern Library Management Systems now recording and keeping transactions for many years, and with the growth of systems such as ezproxy to control access to eresources, Libraries now have a rich seam of user activity data. But, with the exception of a few people such as Dave Pattern at Huddersfield, the take up in the HE sector hasn’t been high.

[Interestingly there is some use of this data in the public library sector. Evidence Based Stock Management takes details of library loans and uses that data to build a set of reports to allow librarians to make decisions on stock purchasing. In times where public library stock funds are under severe financial pressure (and from personal experience that has long been the case), being able to have evidence of stock performance is a powerful value for money, stock quality and customer service tool.]

To investigate the potential JISC have funded the MOSAIC project (Making Our Shared Activity Information Count) MOSAIC ‘is investigating the technical feasibility, service value and issues around exploiting user activity data, primarily to assist resource discovery and evaluation in Higher Education.’ MOSAIC builds on some of the work undertaken as part of the JISC TILE project and has used the user-activity data from Huddersfield University to build a demonstrator system and as the basis for a developer competition to identify some possible ways user activity data can be used. The project has also been looking at issues around data protection and getting permission for data to be made available for reuse.

I was able to attend one of the workshops the project held earlier this month to look at the work so far and the competition entries. The workshop aimed to get feedback from a range of librarians and academics. It was good to get to look in detail at the competition entries and talk about the work of the project. There were a total of six competition entries:

Interestingly three different approaches were taken with essentially the same set of data. The three approaches covered different ways of search, tools to show value for money and using the data to provide information about particular courses. Given the limited data available and the short timescale to develop a new service it was encouraging to see so many different approaches. The MOSAIC project is in the process of writing up their project report and it will be interesting to see what the outcomes will be.

In the next blog post I hope to cover some of the ways that libraries can make use of user-activity data to improve or deliver new services.

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April 2020

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