Technology and big data AIding campus life

Written by News

Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart tech and big data were all once buzzwords thrown into scripts to spice up otherwise uninspired science fiction films; now, though, they may be behind major real-life changes to the typical on-campus experience. Less than 150 miles from Newcastle University’s campus, the University of Glasgow is working with Future Cities Catapult – a non-profit that receives government funding – to invest £800 million to “transform and expand” the campus, according to Future Cities Catapult’s website. To the delight of science fiction screenwriters, the organisation’s description of the expansion is awash with buzzwords: “human exchange and interaction” are at the centre of their vision, which involves “horizon-scanning” and identifying students’ “painpoints”.

While it’s easy to be cynical, the process has yielded results: students at Glasgow may one day enjoy 5G coverage, smart parking and a greater focus on renewable energy, just some of the ideas being explored as the university looks to turn itself into a ‘smart campus’. Among the more ambitious plans are waste-to-energy initiatives and an on-campus AI able to interact with students. At both ends of the project, optimism abounds; the University of Glasgow’s Director of Estates speaks highly of the impact of Future Cities Catapult, saying that the organisation has “made us realise that it’s not the responsibility of just one department, we need to re-evaluate how we operate to deliver a Smart Campus”. Meanwhile, one of the designers on the smart campus project enthused that universities were the perfect venue for smart tech initiatives, explaining that “smart cities are kind of slow-moving. Cities are so big, and there are so many players and stakeholders, it can be difficult. But universities have control over their estates. They own all the buildings, they own all the networks and they have a captive audience in terms of the students, so they can become like a living lab”.

This appetite for change appears to be infectious, with Manchester Metropolitan University now labouring over no less than six smart campus plans. The IT portfolio manager for the university – Tori Brown – talks of ‘wayfinding’, which sees technology navigate users through an environment – in this case the university campus – and enhance their experience of that environment. Brown gives the example that notifications could be used to remind students of upcoming lectures, to which they are then given directions. Like in Glasgow, though, these plans aren’t set in stone, with Brown adding that the plans they do have are “continually evolving”.

Meanwhile, in Nottingham, data is being used to analyse how students use the campus. Andy Nolan – one of four Director of Estates at Nottingham, with Nolan’s purview being sustainability – has detailed plans “to use things like the Wi-Fi network to monitor the presence of people as a proxy for footfall in different areas of the campus”.

Back up north here in Newcastle, the Urban Observatory is setting up over 1000 sensors in Newcastle and Gateshead to monitor over 60 environmental metrics. Their website proudly informs visitors of the current wind direction, noise level and solar radiation, which is just a fraction of the data recorded by the organisation, which is run by Newcastle University, from the Urban Sciences Building.

It is often suggested that such schemes are new, but often this isn’t the case: the term ‘artificial intelligence’ has been in use since the 1950s, and Manchester Metropolitan University’s vast collection of smart campus plans is only big because of organic growth, with its first project beginning back in 2016. Just as these plans are nothing new, neither are their detractors: the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at Birmingham, Kathleen Armour, said that, in being enamoured with the trend for big data, “It’s easy to be carried away. Instead, we need to use anonymous data intelligently to ensure our campus, support and systems are made as effective as possible to meet students’ needs”. Armour is joined in her opposition to the move towards hoovering up and hoarding data on students by her opposite number at London South Bank University – Shân Wareing, who is also the university’s Chief Operating Officer  – who posited “we should be really wary of universities owning that data, and making judgements and adjusting their provision in relation to that data. It is part of the kind of surveillance society we don’t want to sleepwalk into. It’s paternalistic and not a true partnership, not enabling the students as adults. It’s not that the data isn’t useful, but we don’t know enough yet about how to use it carefully”.

Last modified: 15th March 2019

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