We have received funding to develop a system for managing and distributing a full Linux system-on-a-key to students on our new undergraduate pathway. We are looking for an Informatics student (PhD, MSc, or BSc) to research, recommend, develop and test an appropriate solution that meets our needs. Read on for more information.
This Autumn, the Department of Geography is launching an innovative new undergraduate ‘pathway’ in Geocomputation and Spatial Analysis (GSA). The pathway responds to a recognised gap not only in our own module offerings, but across the offerings of UK universities as a whole: the need for geographers with the programming skills to process ‘big geo-data’ using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and able to tackle pressing geographical challenges in commercial, governmental, and third-sector data analysis and visualisation.
Effective delivery of this pathway will require students to store and manipulate large data sets, to install and manage new ‘code libraries’ and applications on-demand and as-needed, and to be able to collaborate flexibly on- and off-line across multiple platforms (mobile, personal, and institutional). Within the constraints of managed IT infrastructure these needs can only be met through the use of ‘bootable’ USB flash drives that provide a platform on which open-source geocomputation and spatial analysis tools can be hosted and run.
To meet this need this project will develop the GeoComputation USB Platform (GeoCUP). GeoCUP will allow students to manage and run a Linux-based operating system over which they have full administrative control. This capability is integral to successful learning on the GSA pathway as the innovative nature of student assignments and independent projects requires the use of compiled open source software libraries and tools.
This project therefore seeks to research, configure, develop, and test a management strategy to support this bootable USB flash drive approach so that it: i) enhances student experience of the College’s computing environment; ii) minimises the maintenance demands on staff as this approach cannot be supported by central IT; and iii) creates opportunities for other staff to deploy a similar system when flexibility and agility in computing are called for.
There are several overarching objectives for how GeoCUP will improve the student learning experience:
- An operating system over which students have full control will allow them to maintain and customise their individual instance of GeoCUP to suit their personal computing needs. As the students develop competence in programming and analytical techniques, they will begin to pursue separate, distinct challenges requiring the ability to compile and install code libraries, or even entirely new applications, on-the-fly. This is impossible to achieve in a traditional, tightly-managed computing environment context.
- We will be able to maintain and update the ‘master version’ of GeoCUP so that incoming students to the pathway will always be working with the most up-to-date system possible. In addition, should a student lose a USB drive or suffer some other type of data loss, we will be able to quickly provide them with a fully-functioning and up-to-date version of GeoCUP from which to recover. We will also be able to enforce data-protection requirements such as the use of encrypted partitions to ensure that the USB flash drives are unusable and inaccessible without the student’s password.
- GeoCUP will be configured with the full set of programming support tools needed to ensure the development of computational (spatial) data analysis skills, including not only Enthought Canopy and QGIS, but also open collaboration and development tools used by technology firms such as PayPal and Google. Many of the required tools are not available at all through managed IT systems, these include: the GitHub versioning tool; the Postgres+PostGIS spatial database; the routino routing application; the RStudio IDE; Dropbox; and the Slack collaboration tool, amongst others. Our intention is to promote students’ employability by grounding their experience in a realistic computing environment as used by commercial and other organisations.
As a result of the ‘real world’ environment GeoCUP will provide, incidental – but by no means insignificant – benefits to student experience, including:
- The ‘Slack’ collaboration system functions on all computing platforms, including all major mobile ones, and creates a series of ‘channels’ across which students and staff can communicate in a way that more closely mirrors student preferences: content (including code) is ‘pushed’ in real-time to all devices, can be categorised using hashtags, and serves as a instantly-searchable archive of interactions. This complements the 1-to-1 and 1-to-many format of email and the KEATS ‘broadcasting’ tool, and is expected to encourage dynamic peer support and collaboration, while avoiding repeated “Can you tell me…” messages to staff.
- The GitHub version control platform is now the de facto standard for collaborative programming projects in all sectors. It also brings the additional benefit of mitigating data loss in the event of corruption, loss of a USB flash drive, or other unforeseen events. We will therefore be reinforcing for students the importance of integrating code-management into their workflow.
- Students will also be able to take advantage of more open, platform-independent cloud-computing resources such as Dropbox and Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is not possible on the existing Microsoft-based SharePoint solution.
Selected researcher will be paid in accordance with King’s College London guidelines. Project work can begin immediately and must be complete by late-August.
For more information about the project timeline and for expressions of interest (by Thurs 25 June), please contact Jonathan Reades or James Millington in the Department of Geography.