Building Bridges

Environment

In 2016, the concept of federated identity — slowing users to access online resources by using their home organization’s account rather than creating a new one for each and every resource they accessed — had been around for over 15 years. It was an ecosystem designed and managed by extremely technical individuals who had the experience, because they were the ones that developed the standards and tools, or were the early adopters who had to understand the gory details to make it all work. And as with any early technology, the initial focus had been more on making it work, not on making it pretty.

By 2016, organizations that provided online services to academic institutions and research-focused organizations were beginning to take the concept of federated identity seriously – but there was a problem. The user experience, that “making it pretty” aspect, was sorely lacking, and a group of scholarly publishers came together to form a project called “RA21: Resource Access in the 21st Century,” to figure out how to improve that aspect of the federated authentication workflow. I learned about this work while attending the annual meeting for the International Association of STM Publishers, and asked to get involved.

With my experience as a standards publisher to provide insight on the publisher model along with my years of experience in the federated identity community as one of the two coordinators for the R&E Federations group, REFEDS, and my master’s degree in library science, I was perfectly positioned to act as a bridge between worlds. My role would be to make sure that RA21 involved stakeholders from the scholarly publishing, federation operator, and campus communities, flavoring it all with an understanding of the needs of the library world.

Skills

While serving as the RA21 Academic Pilot Coordinator, I brought in the skills to:

  • Bridge communication between very different communities
  • Draft best practice documentation
  • Present (in person and in writing) back to the different stakeholder groups
  • Build consensus among the volunteer participants

RA21 started with some ideas, and over the course of the next two and a half years, these communities came together to develop best practices, technologies, and new relationships that will see powerful and positive changes in support of end-users with how they use federated identity. 

Results

The project was successful beyond the original expectation of the group that started RA21. The original expectation was that we would publish a best practice document and hope it was adopted. And we did indeed publish that document through NISO, the National Information Standards, Organization, called “Recommended Practices for Improved Access to Institutionally-Provided Information Resources: Results from the Resource Access in the 21st Century (RA21) Project.”

But we did more. Through a great deal of open communication and enthusiastic participation, we found the new technologies we were prototyping purely to inform our best practices were in fact mature enough that we created a new project called SeamlessAccess, the operational successor to RA21. My role in all of that brought in the federation operator community as an active participant in RA21, encouraged ongoing dialogue between all stakeholder groups, and found me holding the editorial pen on the final document through its consultation phase and publication. 

My role has transitioned into an even broader one with the new SeamlessAccess service: now I am the Program Director, overseeing all aspects of the service as we “kick the tires” and see how well our ideas in RA21 fit being in the real world. More information on that in a future case study!

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