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Data and the return to campus

[Update: a recording of my talk is now available]

When I submitted my proposal for a talk at the EUNIS 2020 conference, I was planning to talk about the need to work with staff and students to agree why and how to use intelligent campus sensors and data. That was intended to be looking into the future, but in the past three months it has become much more imminent. As campuses re-open after COVID-19 lockdown, data and sensors seem likely to play a significant part.

Most universities seem to be planning to use a hybrid model, where most students and staff are present on campus but use on-line tools for large-scale activities such as lectures that may be unfeasible under social distancing requirements. That combination is likely to give institutions an unprecedented amount of data: they may well have access to data from both the connectivity layer (wifi, logins, etc.) and the application layer (VLEs, video-conferences, etc.). Under normal circumstances they would have application data about remote students and connectivity data from on-campus ones. During the return to campus stage of the virus there may well be additional purposes for which institutions might consider using that information: from planning and managing social distancing to supporting those who may need to self-isolate on campus.

However it is important to remember that both staff and students are likely to be highly stressed during this period. Wikipedia defines “technostress” as the “result of altered habits of work and collaboration that are being brought about due to the use of modern information technologies at office and home situations”. That’s exactly what most of us have been experiencing for three months or more. Additional uses of data could easily be perceived as surveillance, rather than support. Even before the virus outbreak, student and staff wellbeing was a concern in many countries. We must be particularly careful that anything we do (or might be perceived as doing) does not make that worse.

In such an environment, it seems particularly important to achieve consensus among all those involved before taking action that, if misinterpreted, might do more harm than good. In particular, we must agree which uses are temporary measures that will be regularly reviewed and terminated when they are no longer required by a medical emergency.

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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