Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Towards the Digital Aquifer: Introducing the Common Information Environment

Paul Miller discusses current efforts by UK agencies to collaborate on a Common Information Environment that meets the diverse needs of current and future consumers of digital content and services.

aquifer n
underground bed or layer yielding ground water for wells and springs etc

Nisus Thesaurus 1.0.1. All rights reserved.
Using the WordNet 1.7 database, © 2001 Princeton University

Google [1] is great. Personally, I use it every day, and it is undeniably extremely good at finding stuff in the largely unstructured chaos that is the public Web. However, like most tools, Google cannot do everything. Faced with a focussed request to retrieve richly structured information such as that to be found in the databases of our Memory Institutions [2], hospitals, schools, colleges or universities, Google and others among the current generation of Internet search engines struggle. What little information they manage to retrieve from these repositories is buried among thousands or millions of hits from sources with widely varying degrees of accuracy, authority, relevance and appropriateness.

How can the creators and curators of high value, authoritative, information ensure that their work is found and used? More than that, though: how can we work to build associations and relationships between these aggregations of world-class content such that the user with an interest in ‘The Titanic’, say, can move in a structured fashion from photographs and documents in The National Archives to objects in museums, to learning resources from Curriculum Online, to multiple media context from the BBC? How do we achieve all of this in a manner that is adaptable to the varying needs of our users, whether they are school children, undergraduates, teachers, researchers, or members of the general public with an ongoing thirst for knowledge? And how do we maximise the value of the current and ongoing investment in creation, curation and delivery of this information and the range of services built around it?

This is the problem area in which many organisations find themselves, and there is a growing recognition that the problems are bigger than any one organisation or sector, and that the best solutions will be collaborative and cross-cutting; that they will be common and shared. The Common Information Environment (CIE) [3] is the umbrella under which a growing number of organisations are working towards a shared understanding and shared solutions.

The CIE in 454 words

There’s a notion in business of the “elevator intro”; chancing upon a potential client/customer/backer in the lift, you have as long as it takes to reach your floor to make the pitch. Here, then, is the Common Information Environment’s elevator intro.

Museums, Libraries, Archives, educational establishments, the health sector, and various facets of central and local government together create, manage and deliver a wealth of authoritative online information alongside their physical offerings with which many may be more familiar. Currently, the full value of this information is far from being realised, as it can be difficult to find and, once found, will often appear fragmented unless the needs of the user happen to fall squarely within the remit of a single institution or Web site.

Working under the umbrella of the Common Information Environment, a number of UK agencies are cooperating to nurture an open environment in which information and information-powered services may be disclosed, discovered, embedded, used and reused in a manner that meets the needs and aspirations of the user, rather than just the originating organisation. Underpinned by a shared vision and widely accepted standards, guidelines and procedures, the Common Information Environment unleashes information into new markets, and creates opportunity for CIE partners and for others in building a wide range of value-added services on this information for markets new and old.

Information has a crucial role to play in meeting the needs of the UK’s population, in fulfilling their desire to understand where they come from, where they fit within the world of today, where they might go, and of what they might be capable. Additionally, Government priorities for the Knowledge Economy, Education, e-Skilling, aspiration-raising, e-Government, provision of compelling content to drive take-up of broadband and more are all clearly met.

The CIE is not a new search engine to compete with Google. Nor is it a portal onto all of our knowledge. Rather, it is collaborative work towards a culture in which existing and future organisations presume the need to be joined up - to be part of the digital aquifer of national interest information - from the outset, and work for that, rather than continuing the trend of building multitudinous silos of data, each fronted by a different Web interface, and each ignorant of related data in neighbouring silos.

When realised, the vision is one from which everyone benefits. The end user, for whom this content has been produced, is able to find it, and to work with related offerings from very different organisations. The information-holding organisations are better able to meet the needs of their existing users, have access to a wide range of comparable material from their peers, and are visible in new ways to a whole new set of potential beneficiaries.

In the Knowledge Economy, ready access to high quality, high value information must become a right and an expectation for all. The CIE is a large part of the process by which we all get there.

Scoping the problem

Within the purview of organisations such as the JISC or the NHS Information Authority, much work is being undertaken to ensure that online resources are created, described, curated, and delivered in a manner suitable to the requirements of the organisations’ core audiences. The task is by no means complete, but at least the processes are in place and the need is recognised at a sufficiently high level such that strategic decisions are being taken informed by the realities of delivering useful - and often mission-critical - content and services to real end-users.

The problem occurs when you consider the real-world plight of the vast majority of our users. Rare, admittedly, is the user who needs to search simultaneously across learning, research, and curatorial data from museums, libraries, archives, universities, colleges, the health sector and beyond, but users with a need to interact with any two (or more) of these appear far more common than we sometimes pretend.

It is for this majority that the activity of the CIE is important, as we work to agree appropriately common approaches to common problems across rather than merely within domains. In seeking to agree common approaches we must, of course, remember that some of the differences of language, approach and culture are wholly valid reflections of the context within which organisations and domains find themselves. These differences are not threatened by some CIE drive to homegenise and “dumb down”, because there is no such drive. The CIE seeks not to make everything the same, but to make things no more different than they need to be.

Engaging with those for whom we work

Significant sums of money are being spent in the UK and around the world on the piecemeal creation of digital content. Much of this is new, but the majority is some form of digital surrogate for a physical original; scanned photographs of buildings and museum objects, for example. Over recent years, a sizeable body of high quality content has been created in this way, but relatively little effort has been devoted to exploring the uses made of this online information, or questioning whether or not the choices made as to what gets digitised actually meet the requirements of current users or do anything to address the reluctance of non-users.

Except, perhaps, in cases where digitisation is explicitly being used to preserve an at-risk item, surely we have such a body of content that there can now be no excuse for embarking upon large-scale digitisation work without first doing something to gauge need?

Within the cultural sector, the Cultural Content Forum [4] last year commissioned Alice Grant Consulting [5] to look at work done to date within the sector. This produced two reports [6, 7] examining a body of - mostly ‘grey’ - literature, and offering a different perspective on use of Heritage resources to that illustrated in an earlier report [8] by the Cultural Heritage Consortium [9] for the Historic Environment Information Resources Network (HEIRNET] [10]. Similar work is being undertaken elsewhere, but there appears to be a growing interest in funding a single significant piece of work to engage with both users and non-users in a meaningful fashion, and to shape an effective strategy for moving forward in the online environment.

Demonstrating ways forward

Figure 1 screenshot (66KB) : The HEIRPORT demonstrator

The HEIRPORT demonstrator

As part of illustrating the potential offered by a Common Information Environment, a call [11] was issued during 2003 for two small demonstrator projects. The Health Demonstrator was built by Adiuri Systems Ltd [12] of Bristol, and demonstrated the power of their WayPoint technology and its “Adaptive Concept Matching” to guide users through a mass of existing medical information (nearly 30,000 documents) drawn from seven repositories such as the Cochrane Library and the National Electronic Library for Health’s Guidelines series. The Place demonstrator, produced by a consortium led by the Archaeology Data Service [13] showed the power of geographical location as a means to gather diverse content (some 2,000,000 existing resources for the demonstrator) from 13 very different databases, and also began to explore the role of personalisation in offering the same content to different groups of people in ways appropriate to their needs.

The two demonstrators adopted quite different approaches, but each clearly illustrated the value of combining resources from multiple sources, reinforced the message that the technical standards underpinning activities such as the JISC Information Environment [14] or the New Opportunities Fund’s Digitisation Programme [15] really are capable of doing what we want them to, and pointed to areas in which we need to continue to work.

On the basis of this success, the CIE is currently scoping an enhanced demonstrator that is intended to build upon the existing work and result in something more robust and comprehensive, suitable for use in illustrating the Vision to a wide and diverse audience.

As with the original demonstrators, this new piece of work is in no way intended to compete with or replace existing online services. Rather, it is meant to advance community understanding of possibilities and obstacles and to act as a visible example of the types of service that might be possible were more existing sources of information to be re-engineered along the lines of the CIE Vision. It is far easier to relatively quickly build something that demonstrates aspects of the Vision than to fundamentally re-engineer a number of production services and their underlying data and processes. Once demonstrated, it is for others to build - or rebuild - the next generation of real services.

Hearts, minds, and wallets

If the Common Information Environment is to be realised, it requires a significant degree of collaboration amongst those who wish to participate. There will be a need to agree on certain core standards to facilitate interoperability, and there will be a need to build new content and services in new ways; as part of a greater whole, rather than solely as discrete web sites. More than this, though, there is a need to engage with senior policy makers in order to affect a significant shift in the definition and realisation of Government objectives in this area, and to afford due credit and worth to contributing a piece to the greater whole. We need action that cuts across Departments and agencies, we need realignment of existing budgets, and focussed injection of new funds at a small number of key points outside the direct influence of current CIE partners in order to maximise the value of the work being undertaken.

In short, we need to engage Hearts with a vision that is compelling and exciting, we need to persuade Minds with an argument that is sound and relevant, and we need to spend from our own Wallets to re-engineer what we already do whilst finding new sources of funding to permit leaps forward and to aid the introduction of our Information to new markets. We have begun on all three fronts, but there is much still to be done.

Staying informed

There is no public mailing list specifically for the CIE. There are, however, several mailing lists, web sites and Blogs related to discussion of issues relevant to the building of a Common Information Environment. One list that is less domain-specific than most is interoperability on JISCmail.

To join this list, send a message to


with the body of the message reading

join interoperability Your_Firstname Your_Lastname


join interoperability Paul Miller


  1. Google is at: http://www.google.com/
  2. I think this term for our archives, libraries and museums entered common usage following publication of the following article in an earlier Ariadne: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue22/dempsey/
  3. The Common Information Environment Web pages are at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/cie/
  4. The Cultural Content Forum Web pages are at: http://www.culturalcontentforum.org/
  5. Alice Grant Consulting is at: http://www.alicegrant.com/
  6. Evaluation of Digital Cultural Content: Analysis of evaluation material is at: http://www.culturalcontentforum.org/publications/audience/audience_analysis.pdf [Adobe PDF format]
  7. Evaluation of Digital Cultural Content: Initial survey results and research agenda is at: http://www.culturalcontentforum.org/publications/audience/initial_audience.pdf [Adobe PDF format]
  8. Users and their Uses of HEIRs is at: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/HEIRNET/users.PDF [Adobe PDF format]
  9. The Cultural Heritage Consortium Web pages are at: http://www.cultural-heritage.org/
  10. The Historic Environment Information Resources NETwork (HEIRNET) Web pages are at: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/HEIRNET/
  11. The ITT for the CIE’s 2003 Demonstrators is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=funding_0203
  12. Adiuri Systems Ltd. are at: http://www.adiuri.com/
  13. The Archaeology Data Service is at: http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/
  14. The JISC Information Environment Architecture is at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/distributed-systems/jisc-ie/arch/
  15. The NOF-Digitise Technical Standards & Guidelines are at: http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk/content/technical.asp


Organisations currently working to shape the Common Information Environment include Becta, The British Library, Culture Online, the Department for Education & Skills’ (DfES) e-Learning Strategy Unit, the e-Science Core Programme, JISC, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA, formerly Resource), The National Archives, the NHS’ National Electronic Library for Health (NeLH), the Office of the e-Envoy and UKOLN.

Author Details

Paul Miller
Common Information Environment Director

Email: p.miller@jisc.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/cie/

NB: For readers aware of these, the cross-agency work to build a Common Information Environment (CIE) should not be confused with the similarly named JISC Information Environment (IE) or JISC’s Committee for the Information Environment (JCIE). These JISC-specific activities are somewhat different in scope, although their work has done much to inform the emerging Common Information Environment.

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