Curtin University has teamed with Hitachi Data Systems to create a “data-gathering laboratory” that it hopes will improve the student experience.
By James Gallaway
While not the largest in terms of revenue, the world’s five most valuable listed companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple – demonstrate how clearly data collection has caught the attention of investors. They gather information on what we buy, where we go and what we share, in ways many of us hardly notice.
In the seven years since Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg declared the social norm of privacy was an outdated concept, the Facebook generation has become the most photographed and recorded ever. Now the administrators at Western Australia’s Curtin University are watching students and staff on the Perth campus like never before, with the installation of a system offered by Hitachi Data Systems.
In early 2017, Curtin installed the first phase of an array of cameras and facial recognition software that will monitor staff and student movements as they attend lectures and tutorials. Beyond this initial offering, the installation will move on to the library and other locations over the next 18 months, until the campus becomes what its promoters are calling a “data-gathering laboratory”.
For Keith Roscarel, Hitachi’s director of public safety and smart cities in the Asia-Pacific, the complete rollout will produce a situation where “we are not waiting for data to turn up, we are going out and finding it”.
“We are not waiting for data to turn up, we are going out and finding it.”
Currently focused on the doorway of every lecture theatre, cameras record students as they enter, matching their faces to university records. It’s a way of checking attendance, Roscarel explains. The university can identify students who may be falling behind, and present them with options for counselling or tutorial assistance.
In the future, the system will identify students who live only kilometres from each other and drive to attend classes around the same time.
From there, says Roscarel, the university can put those students in touch with one another for carpooling and study buddy reasons.
In other locations, cameras will track movements in hallways and walkways to improve security and access, which means that the university can identify a hall or walkway not used at night that may need improvements in lighting, along with lecture theatres that get more sunlight and don’t need as much heating or lighting.
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Curtin University chief operating officer Ian Callahan describes the installation as a living laboratory and “an open invitation to industry, to our own researchers, to external researchers in other universities to use our campus, to experiment, to collaborate, to join the dots”.
Its future uses are still to be proven but the promise of what is currently not much more than a surveillance system is wide open. It’s only a short leap, for example, for the university to monitor what URLs and addresses (including course materials) are accessed from devices, so eventually everyone attending will be working and studying in almost total transparency.
To Roscarel, the Orwellian concerns of previous generations about surveillance are still very real, but he points out Curtin complies with Australia’s privacy legislation in its handling of vision and data. Except where specific consent is given, data collected is not linked to an individual.
The system will be at its best, he says, when it compares real-world observations with what the university and its staff believe is going on. Checking these ideas against the actual data can help shape a more effective learning experience.
Keeping track of Curtin University
- 1600 cameras
- 60,000 students
- 4000 staff
- 300,000sq m of floor space
- Facial recognition software
- Data and video analytics
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