Fall of a HERO

So it seems as if hero.ac.uk – a website that was once a shining beacon of higher education collaboration, and one that still ishot-6generates enviable traffic and Google rankings – is being allowed to quietly wither and die.  As far as I know there has been no announcement but a quick look at the staff organisation chart 8 out of 13 positions vacant and Chris Harris the Executive Director since day one is retiring sometime this summer so I think we can assume the site will be completely shuttered sometime before then.

The site has struggled to find a niche in recent years and pressures from central government services like Directgov as well the increasingly distributed nature of the social web didn’t make life easy.  HERO was very much initially built as a portal (in the old Yahoo sense) and over time evolved into an editorially driven site that sought to be a destination in and of itself.  It had a team of talented writers and editors but I didn’t think it really kept up with the changing web environment in a technical sense nor did it embrace the softer, community elements of the social web.  To be fair it wasn’t easy for the HERO team to be agile – the governance structure had to be seen to be believed.

I hear on the grapevine that a version of HERO may rise up under the UCAS banner and if so I hope they find a way to make it a success – it would be a real waste to let the recognition and pagerank be squandered not to mention the fact that it maintained the support of just about every organisation with a stake in HE right til the end.  Even if it became a Netvibes style start page for HE making use of free tools like Yahoo BOSS search for instance and taking some of Tony Hirsts’ less insane Pipes experiments to aggregate content from across the sector it would be a useful site (and a nice sector led bookend to alot of the work Steph and team are doing at DIUS).  I think the cost of a content generating team would be too much these days but a small, agile team with a remit to use innovative web tools to communicate the best of the HE community driven to that community could be a real winner and using the HERO name would help lessen the pain of building an audience in the first place!

4 thoughts on “Fall of a HERO

  1. Interesting post, Matt. I’m not directly involved in the future of HERO but I’d be interested to hear more about your suggestion for a collaborative source of information for the sector, which is exactly what I’m mulling over at the moment.

    Any ideas on:

    – relevant feeds/sources
    – formats: i.e. a ready-made dashboard, or something more modular assuming a bit more technical nowse?
    – how to keep it current, responsive and useful?

  2. > not sure finding sources of information would be a problem (though filtering it might be) you could info from HEFCE, Universities UK, the NUS, UCAS, Russell Group, HE Academy, Unistats not to mention the HE unions etc and the HEIs – as well as the growing number of blogs etc..

    > I quite like the idea of a ready made dashboard (almost like alltop.com) that takes the need away for any techy knowhow – but then have the whole thing open via an API or something so that those with the skills and the willing could reshape all the data gathered into what they needed

    > current should take care of itself with a little management and pruning and adding of the sources. Useful would be down to the person/people running the service – I’d like to see a genuine agile, user led approach with the site being constantly tweaked based on analytics, feedback and research. I read something about 4iP recently that said they put aside like 70% of funding for post launch iterative developments – i like that.

    Responsive is the toughy – doing something like this distributes the conversation even further (though many of these sources don’t have the ability to comment at source) and for it to be a success you’d want contributions from the community on all sides. That might still be a tough sell some places.

  3. One way of populating HERO pages on a Netvibes like dashboard would be through feeding off news from the HEIs themselves; only they seem resistant to publishing it in a syndication loving way?!

    For example, I picked up on the “percentage uptake” idea MashTheState uses and tweaked the page that displays HEI’s autodiscoverable RSS feeds [
    http://ouseful.wordpress.com/2008/07/24/back-from-behind-enemy-lines-without-being-autodiscovered/ ] to count how many have taken up the challenge… Currently it reports that less than 30% of UK HEIs have autodiscoverable RSS feeds.

    The research councils too are a possible source of information – how about a feed of recent grants from EPSRC for example [ http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/ListGrants.aspx?mode=Latest ]. Ah, no RSS… sigh… Here’s a spreadsheet version of that info: http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=p1rHUqg4g420XUjaJKolJLw etc etc etc

  4. I’m willing to bet that for alot of HEIs the RSS issue has something to do with the CMS they are using. When I was at JISC we had to have a fair bit of custom work done to get anything near usable RSS feeds out of the CMS – something that I had (wrongly) assumed would be straightforward.. It certainly should be more of a priority than it is at the moment for people but sooner or later the message will get through..

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