I was recently invited to join the JISC Resource Discovery Infrastructure Taskforce - the first meeting was yesterday. We had been given some background material, and a couple of people ( Owen Stephens and Paul Miller) were asked to present ideas around this general area, but the main order of the day was to establish terms of reference and some guiding principles. I had fondly imagined that this would be a fairly rapid exercise - more or less a bureaucratic process before we got down to the nitty-gritty of what problems we needed to solve and how we were going to solve them.

I couldn't have been more wrong. As the day progressed, I was fascinated to gradually realise that there was a real disconnect between different understandings of what was meant by the term infrastructure. I made a few attempts to pause proceedings while we sorted out a definition, and at the end of the meeting I suggested that a priority for the work which will go on before the next meeting ought to be to establish a reasonable working definition of this term.

Some other scoping issues were dealt with fairly quickly. For example, the infrastructure, what ever that is, would be national in scope, but would serve 'local' services. But I think the lack of a general and common understanding of the term 'infrastructure' became a real problem yesterday.

Now, I'm not one to insist on precise definitions. Some terms are very useful in spite of, or even because of the fact that they have no precise definition. I have no problem with using 'Web 2.0' for example, even in non-marketing contexts! My own problem was that I have some fairly clear ideas about what infrastructure is - or is not - but it turns out that these are not shared by everyone else. For example:

  • I assume that infrastructure is not generally user-facing. In the sense that a national infrastructure supports local services which support users, I see the primary stakeholders in an infrastructure as being those people who are providing local services. They are the people who both know what users want (or they should do!) and who know what support they need at a national level to make that happen. However, others in the meeting assumed that users would be directly accessing 'infrastructure services' in a variety of ways.
  • I imagine a successful infrastructure to be mostly invisible. This turns out to be the opposite view to some at the meeting, who (perfectly reasonably) want UK national infrastructure to be overtly 'world-class'.
  • I imagine a successful infrastructure to be rather boring. Even train-spotters don't generally photograph the infrastructure, the track etc.... But some of the discussion yesterday was around innovation and not being afraid to take risks. I guess I see infrastructure as tending to be the product of a conservative development process.

Some at the meeting had notions of infrastructure as clear (to them) as mine (are to me), just different. Some I suspect did not have a clear idea in their mind to start with. These were probably the wiser ones in hindsight. I suspect by the end of the meeting, everyone's ideas had shifted (mine were in free-fall).

Nonetheless, the discussion was really interesting - I enjoy having my preconceptions challenged - and I met some insightful people. I look forward to the next meeting,

In the meantime - help us out please! Infrastructure - what does it mean to you?