UBC Science IT Review: Recommendations

December 2013


In late 2012, Dean Simon Peacock requested a study of IT service delivery within the Faculty of Science. A Working Group was formed consisting of eight members (a faculty member, IT people from the Faculty, the top IT person from Forestry, and administrative helpers). This Working Group gathered information via an online survey, interviews with the groups of stakeholders recommended by each major department, interviews with ‘visionaries’, a technical survey distributed to each IT unit, a technical interview with the IT manager of each unit, and extensive cooperation from department heads and administrators. The Group then had the departments verify the information gathered about them and created the synthesis presented here. These findings can be used to inform decisions regarding the future of IT in the Faculty and to ensure IT facilitates teaching and research excellence.


Twenty years ago UBC made the deliberate decision to decentralize computing services. Funding that had previously gone to central IT was distributed instead to faculties. Central IT was made ancillary, and was to earn its funding by providing services that found a market. The rationale was that resource allocation decisions could be made better closer to the end-users. In the Faculty of Science the decentralized funding was distributed to departments. Although a few departments already had their own IT units, the funding change boosted the prevalence of department-level IT service. That signal can be seen in the hiring dates of IT staff currently working in the Faculty. To our knowledge, no FoS-wide study has been made of IT service since that time.

Currently there is a trend in the other direction, toward the centralization of computing services. Some other universities, and some other faculties at UBC, have already partially centralized. Would it be beneficial for the Faculty of Science to centralize to some extent? Central pooling of IT people and equipment may appear efficient at first glance. But embedded IT provides substantial benefits (described below) both in service quality and in IT service per UBC salary dollar. Understanding these benefits is essential for designing the best IT infrastructure for research, teaching, and administration. Service is about meeting needs. After characterizing the nature of IT service within the FoS, we describe the great success at meeting current needs and outline the remaining unmet needs. We identify potential vulnerabilities and inefficiencies in what is currently delivered, and constraints on meeting unmet needs. Recommendations made will address how the currently met needs can be made more robust or easier to deliver, and how to facilitate the resolution of unmet needs. We note that several of the unmet needs uncovered by this study are beyond the purview of FoS IT support.

Current satisfaction

At the end of February 2013 an on-line survey was sent out to 18 units within the Faculty. Among the questions was a request to rate level of satisfaction across 13 IT service categories. The surveys showed that there is a very high level of satisfaction with current IT support in the Faculty of Science. The lowest mean is for response times, still impressively high at 4.62 (1=poor, 5=excellent). As part of this review, we investigated the basis of success.

Key Recommendations

Our study has shown that embedded IT can produce a close match between service and user needs, leading to high levels of satisfaction. This is accomplished without committing financial resources to management IT staff because management of embedded IT staff is done by users, user committees and Heads

  • Maintain the current ‘embedded IT’ model. Consideration of any other model needs to demonstrate the ability to maintain current high levels of satisfaction and make effective use of total UBC salary dollars.

With a few exceptions, there is sparse communication among the departmental IT units within the Faculty. This has led to some separate development of solutions to common problems (e.g., departmental workflow apps) and to variation in solutions apart from that needed to match variation in needs.

  • Increase communication among departmental IT units to facilitate solution finding, solution sharing and problem-solving.

A source of stress among FoS IT staff, and a vulnerability of FoS IT services, is the difficulty in securing coverage in case of absence of IT personnel (e.g., sickness, vacation). Coverage is currently arranged in an ad hoc manner.

  • Determine a mechanism by which departments within FoS can obtain coverage in case of absence of IT personnel.

IT needs fall into the two classes of ‘evolving from within’ and ‘coping with those being pushed in from outside the Faculty of Science’ (examples, respectively, are the need for shared `Dropbox-like’ storage for admin/teaching and the need to implement policies related to privacy). Generically, the biggest problems are coming from the external forces (examples: Connect, privacy policies, CFI HPC-funding policies) rather than problems arising inside the current structure. For example, a few departments were stalled on implementing data privacy and security measures because local IT staff felt they needed the teeth of policy created at a higher level before moving to constrain users. Within the ranks of the Faculty’s research IT there is a great deal of alarm about IT policies at the level of granting agencies. How can research faculty influence the country-level decisions about funding their IT needs? The previous three recommendations deal with communication across departments. There is also a need to facilitate vertical communication. Embedded IT people would like to be able to recommend policies and services that are most efficiently implemented at the faculty level, at central IT, or beyond.

  • Determine a formal way for policy and IT needs identified at the department level to be transmitted upward for input into decisions at the UBC level and beyond.
  • Review how privacy and data security of data is implemented and managed locally and establish a strategic plan to include using faculty-wide tools and best practices for storing and sharing private data (e.g., student files) and the encryption laptops and/or mobile devices when needed.
  • Add a second stream of helpdesk support at UBC IT - one stream for individual users and second stream for IT Staff representing department business. The Faculty of Science needs to push for a more effective means of interaction with UBC IT so that FoS IT staff are given direct access to level two helpdesk or above.

Many of the administrative functions of the departments in the FoS are already centralized via web-apps. There is a substantial need to share files and a secured sharing facility will also help the teaching mission as well (see the Research Section for comments on shared research storage).

  • Implement a secure file-sharing system for the Faculty of Science which can at least meet administrative and teaching needs.

The needs of high-performance computing are heterogeneous. Many researchers express concern that significant needs will not be met by CFI and Compute Canada’s current plans, which will harm both our current research competitiveness and our ability to hire world-class researchers.

  • Ask the Dean of Science to engage the UBC VP Research in a dialogue about how to reverse the current CFI policies (in which essentially all computing hardware needs to be housed in Compute Canada centres).
  • Make available additional resources to support embedded high-performance computing (HPC) personnel. As the prevalence of HPC continues to grow, it cannot function effectively in the long term at a centralized level. Centralized (at the university level) support for ‘emergencies’ may be of limited use, but only in the short-term and only if handed off to skillful embedded long-term support personnel.

It is clear that several young research fields (e.g. genomics/bioinformatics) are currently in a transition phase where computing has become more of a needed skill than in the past. Positioning the FoS to train the next generation of scientists is an important goal aligned with the University’s mission.

  • Encourage curriculum development in FoS departments that targets training students in computing skills, and encourage the Department of Computer Science to participate with service-oriented courses. Explore the introduction of brief targeted workshops to provide missing knowledge.

The transition to Connect and other initiatives related to Flexible Learning has generated many issues in the Faculty of Science. Although this was not intended to be a major portion of the review begun in early 2013, the departmental interviews uncovered a host of concerns. It is clear that the various Flexible Learning initiatives (which are broad in their range and thus difficult to lump together) will require additional financial support to flow down into the units in addition to centrally provided resources. This has not been happening.

  • Ask CTLT and UBC IT to work closely with instructors to understand their evolving teaching environment and engage instructors in a strategy for tool replacement using Connect as a portal. It is important to fit the tools around the teaching rather than teaching around the tools.
  • Address issues with Connect and guarantee uptime especially at critical times like the beginning of term. Given the current investment in Connect, it is critical that a comprehensive set of resources, to better support faculty, are made available and communicated effectively.
  • Provide instructors access to a Canadian version of popular tools they are familiar with, like Dropbox and Piazza. Collaboration, peer review, plagiarism checkers, video streaming and mobile apps are a few of the tools that should be made available to support flexible learning.
  • Ensure UBC IT provides a consistent wireless classroom infrastructure across campus and that the Wifi is working effectively with enough bandwidth not just for today’s usage, but for potential usage created by flexible learning initiatives in the near future. Encourage departments to develop an undergraduate computing committee of Faculty, Instructors, TAs and technical staff interested in developing a financial and strategic plan for the governance of undergraduate facilities. The chair of this committee should consult with and report to the head.

Based on our findings, the current committee believes that the vehicle to solutions for many of the identified needs involves the creation of several committees that will serve to share information and provide feedback. This strategy maintains the strength of the embedded IT support but improves the ability to share/manage resources inside the Faculty of Science while simultaneously providing linkages to receive and distribute ideas with bodies outside the FoS.

  • Create a new model, including a Steering Committee and a Working Group, to nurture the community of IT staff and encourage key IT staff and faculty members to work together to identify IT needs (for administration, teaching, and research) and communicate information into and out of the Faculty of Science.