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UoE is watching you: how the University of Edinburgh will track students’ movements, behaviour and mental health

ByLouisa Well

Jun 28, 2019

Imagine yourself crossing Edinburgh’s Meadows on a sunny day. You happen to meet a friend; the two of you sit chatting on a bench, maybe your friend tells you how she feels low because exams are looming. You head over to the Main Library and find a study space. All this time, the University of Edinburgh has been watching. At least it will be, according to three new university projects currently in the works.

Earlier this year, ParkLife, a collaboration between the City Council and UoE (University of Edinburgh), decided to install sensors and microphones in the Meadows and 3 other Edinburgh parks to collect data on bats and to find out how people use the spaces. They plan to track people’s movements through phones connected to public Wi-Fi and scour social media to analyse how strollers feel about the park. The first sensor was installed next to the Meadow’s community garden at the end of May. The project is doing its best to be transparent: they use open source technology in the sensors and are building a platform where the data will be open to the public so that any interested party – sociologists, environmental activists and citizens – can access it. The Ethics Council ensured that the data will not be released in real time as they don’t want lonely walkers to be exposed at night. ParkLife is a pilot project and if successful, it will be implemented in many public spaces all over the UK. “Our ultimate goal is to help secure the future of the parks,” says Jonathan Silvertown, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology and co-investigator in the project. Are Edinburgh’s beloved parks under threat? That remains to be seen.

During the exam period, students often struggle to find a free study space in the Main Library. One problem is that students from all campuses use these facilities while study spaces at the King’s Buildings stay vacant. The university wants to tackle this problem by tracking students’ movements within the library, again through the Wi-Fi connection of the phone or laptop. Because students log with their ID into the university network Eduroam, it is possible to know a person’s name, year of study, subject and school. It is currently under debate, how much of this data the university should be allowed to collect. The library has 230 Wi-Fi access points, which makes it possible to ascertain the exact position of a device inside the library. With this information, the university can track which students use which space. Apart from relatively innocent questions such as “why are undergraduate students always occupying the postgrad floor?’’, the university will have to decide about how to respond if someone is assaulted in the library; should they store more detailed data to be able to give evidence in such a case? Workshops with student focus groups are currently organised by the ethics board to find out how students feel about being monitored.

The university has a duty of care and they are obliged to keep an eye on the mental well-being of students. In order to fulfil this position more effectively, the university is looking into tracking interactions with the LEARN platform, where students access to course material. “Students who usually interact with LEARN and then suddenly stop visiting the homepage could be struggling with mental health issues,” says James Stewart, lecturer in Science Technology and Innovation Studies and member of the Ethics Board of the University Internet of Things program. “The university wants us to check on students before something happens.”

The pressure to save money is an important driver behind all three projects. In times of austerity, the City Council seeks to cut the £ 50 Million that go into public park maintenance. Finding out how people use the parks can be used to argue that groups using the space for events such as the Meadows Marathon or the Meadows Festival should pay a fee. Will this extend to charging the Quidditch team for having a game on their broomsticks? The university, too, doesn’t want to pay for more study spaces. Instead, they would like students to use existing resources in a more efficient way. Monitoring interactions with LEARN might be a way to find out if students are withdrawing from their studies but real help will come from the university’s counselling services. They are struggling with high demand and waiting times of up to four weeks. It seems that monitoring students online is simply cheaper than hiring more counsellors.

While some may find the prospect of being tracked on so many levels daunting, James Stewart argues that the three projects can also be a chance to negotiate rules for data collection. “Private companies collect huge amounts of data in an opaque process according to standards they set themselves. We have the chance to develop ethics guidelines on data collection in a transparent process that can provide a blueprint for institutions and policymakers who want to do it right.”

Whichever way students feel about the projects, now is the time to make their voices heard, and with more information, the continually climbing levels of surveillance and data collection should be clear to all they will effect.


Image: Mike Pennington via geography.org.com

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