This story first came to me, as most do, in the form of a Facebook message. This message, in particular, went something like this,
“Hello, have you guys been given the heads up about the uni implementing student tracking IT?”
No, we definitely had not.
And as you do, with any story with the words ‘student’ and ‘tracking’ nestled together, you investigate. Over a series of chats with academics, highlighting key words of reports and fine combing the terms and conditions for websites, we finally found the answers we probably should have known a while ago.
So, let’s start at the beginning. So what is this “UWA App” and what is CMX?
Firstly, the UWA App, first publicly announced on March 20*, is an app built on an already existing app from a company by the same name, Involvio. A US based company launched in 2015, Involio is an app that was designed, as per their website, “out of our frustration that keeping track of events happening on campus”. Essentially, it’s an all in one stop for students to keep track of their timetable, events on campus, direct contact with campus security, readings, menus and a much more sophisticated map than we have seen in the past. It will be re-skinned into UWA type branding, similar to what we have seen with the revamping of StudentConnect. It is not a compulsory app, and by what we can ascertain, you can still operate as a student in the normal way without using it, this just makes it more streamlined than using all the other platforms you use to stay in touch with campus life (Facebook, LMS, Instagram etc). From what I can tell, those involved are very keen to see it up and running. According to Grace Kovesi, Student Communications Advisor, who spoke to me in a recent interview, “It’s been on the cards for quite a few years now… [and has] been requested by the Guild a few times. She also mentioned that “IT has been leading the App, and there has been lots of consultation with stakeholders including working groups with the Guild”. The first instance we could find of this being brought up to students was the February 2018 Guild Council meeting, in which the minutes are as follows:
It was also recorded in the 2018 May Guild President’s report that Megan Lee (Guild President at the time) had a meeting with CISCO and the INVOLVIO founder regarding the UWA App on the 7th of May 2018.
The UWA app is a sexy app, I won’t lie. I was apart of the focus group testing run by the University, and it is something I would genuinely download. As someone who walks these sandstone grounds a fair bit and likes to be involved in the goings-on of Uni life, it looks like something that would make my life a little bit easier. It has menus of all the outlets, a much more detailed map than what is already available and every link I would need at my disposal. I just don’t know if other students are going to be making the same kinds of jumps from their usual, already ingrained way of doing things to make it a worthwhile investment, perhaps. The majority of on hand development was by students who are involved in the Guild, a group of students who are already disproportionately invested in campus life vs the ‘average student’ (I should note being invested in Uni life isn’t a bad thing), and I don’t know if this would attract people who aren’t already invested in ways that can make their experience ‘easier and increase wellbeing’.
As an executive member of a club with an already established Facebook and wider social media presence, I’m not sure if my committee would jump on board in a way the developers hope we will, as it just feels like one more straw to add to our backs.
In my chat with Dr David Glance, Director UWA Centre for Software Practice, he seemed to agree.
“My centre created a student app a few years ago and student services asked students to download it, the average of people opening it after that was once.”
“Student use of apps is pretty low as well… not many students use or know about the LMS/ Blackboard app”
“There is no evidence to say that people would use it”
However, as Grace said to me, “students will engage as much as they want to engage”. Essentially, this app just makes it easier to do just that, if you are willing to. Another benefit is that it’ll also provide international students (especially those from China) with a level platform to engage with students given the possibility of them not already having a Facebook account.
Which then brings us onto CMX, the one which has been causing the most controversy. At its core, CMX is an incredibly powerful data acquiring and tracking software owned by the company Cisco. It is capable of acquiring fine-grained data (for example, it would be able to tell you that me, Sophie Minissale with the student number 22234969 is in the right side of the Pelican Office, two floors up from the Ref) but the University has stated is not going to engage with this level of capability. Instead, it will only be collecting aggregate data (combined, not individual or specific data) in regards to the flow of student traffic and the density of students in particular rooms and campus buildings. When I asked Chief Digital and Information Officer of UWA, Warrwick Calkin about it, he said,
“to get real stats to then work out how do we best manage the workspaces more effectively. We have finite capital funds when it comes to upgrading certain rooms, and take labs for example, we know what upgrading needs to be done, but this will tell us where to go first”.
He also stated that other Universities across the country do similar things and even use CMX. he also told me that, “ECU uses a camera based system”. Which to be fair, does seem a little more invasive.
Initially, it was thought that the two pieces of technology would be deeply connected with each other, which caused a lot of worry from staff. While this isn’t entirely true, there is still a decent connection. When I asked Warrwick about this, he responded saying,
“The connection between CMX and Involvio is that Involvio has the capability to take information from CMX and actually track and create some sort of findings on individuals movements, we are not turning that on, we don’t have any use for it… the data in CMX is stored for a 90 day period, after 90 days it gets blown away. It is also encrypted data. The intent for it was not to go to anyone except IT and Campus Management to identify room utilisation. The storage of the data is local an encrypted in two phases. We own the data and are the custodians of it”.
“The owner of the data on Involvio is actually you as an individual. At any point of time, you can wipe it away and all your history will be gone”.
Grace also echoed these sentiments stating to me that, “(CMX) is not going to be integrated into Involvio”.
However, while there is a connection between the two products, it is worthwhile to think about the two separately in the way of presentation and purpose.
Despite this, it puzzled me as to why the University would invest in this CMX technology that was capable of such powerful data collection when only intending to use a small part of its capability. Warrick answered this to me by saying,
“We (UWA) have an enterprise licensing agreement with Cisco, so we purchase things and we get a whole bunch of tools in there. Think about it like Microsoft Office, you have a whole range of products but you most likely don’t use them all. In CMX’s case, it’s feature rich in what it can do, and we are excluding about 20 percent of the capability in what it can do. From our perspective, it’s trying to solve a particular problem (space utilisation) and we simply don’t need that richer information. But that would have to go through the appropriate process to be turned on”.
“Teaching and Learning (following the acquisition of data) will then be working with this data to best utilize the workspaces”.
On the topic of changing the policy surrounding the CMX capability and additionally the updating of policy regarding such, Warrick said that, in addition to working closely with IT to make sure the policies are up to date, that in general,
“The policies are very tightly managed, any changes will need approval from the VC (Vice Chancellor) or Head of IT”.
Despite not collecting this fine-grained data that has the majority of people following the story worried, ones participation in CMX will be working around the “opt-out” model. What this means is that you have to actively decide not to be tracked by the software. This is problematic because it ultimately undermines the ethical model of consent when it comes to acquiring this data. I spoke to Assoc. Professor Meredith Blake, Deputy Head of School (Students) Law School, in the hope to understand this better.
“[The] Opt out model of consent is problematic because unless you actively register your refusal to participate in this, then it is assumed that you are consenting. So it reverses things. The robust model of consent is a model that actively seeks out your permission for participation… and it also involves the provision of information to the thing you are participating in. Consent is about exercising your autonomy and making choices, and you can’t properly exercise this autonomy if you don’t know what it is you are consenting to”.
Essentially, when people are adequately informed about the state of affairs they are consenting to, the risks and benefits, the scope and circumstances of the situation, and they have the full autonomy to bring themselves into this situation, only then it is meeting the requirements for proper, ethical consent.
When I asked Warrick about the practical way that a student would opt out he responded with the following,
“There will be four or five ways to find out to opt out of (CMX) …one of them will be a prompt to opt out… you’ll probably have to go to a web link to then completely opt out”.
For me, it’s this idea of “the provision of information” which I find the most interesting about this whole discussion. The underlying issue that has become apparent through all of this, the report, the staff outrage, the focus groups and everything in between is this feeling of a lack of consultation. The first instance that staff heard about this was through media releases from Optus (the service provider to Cisco) and UWA. This then caused great staff backlash primarily due to lack of information. When I spoke to Dr David Savat about the tech, one of the writers for the ‘Background paper on Cisco technologies, CMX and Involvio’ – a response paper by staff expressing concerns about the tracking capabilities of the technology, he expressed to me that a lot of staff just felt in the dark about the whole thing due to lack of information and consultation. The paper mentioned went to the Academic Board a couple of weeks ago and the response more or less reaffirmed that UWA is “already the custodian of sensitive and private data” and that these new tech ventures are nothing to be concerned with or anything that it too out of the ordinary.
When I asked Warrick as to why misinformation occured in the first place he said,
“I wish I had this problem all the time… we went to great lengths to get representation all across the board… but the biggest take away from me was that you can’t assume that those people will go back and communicate with their own organisations”.
Sure. However, I worry greatly that if that some governing bodies later down the track decided that they would turn on these capabilities of fine-grained data, that if the consultation and method of making people aware is anything like it was for what is already happening, that we will be running into the same, perhaps more detrimental problems. There is evidently a real disconnect when it comes to the access of information of new tech ventures at the University. The first instance of most people knowing about this should not really have been media releases about the implementations. Transparency is key with this, and I hope that in future that is what we see. I also hope that in addition to resources being given to tech innovations to increase engagement and welfare, we also see some resources into departments and services.
Excitingly enough in the world of tech ventures, the University is also currently upgrading its wifi technology in certain black spots on campus, namely around the Barry J library and the Music Library. In addition to this, we are also working with Telstra to get three new cell towers to fix the cellular blackspots on campus.
Whatever you do, or choose not to do, us here at Pelican will be eager to hear what comes of it all. Who knows, perhaps we’ll get our next tip-off from a private message on Involvio.
More to come.
Words and story by Sophie Minissale
Additional reporting by Bridget Rumball and Susannah Charkey
The UWA App is set to be released for iOS and Android on July 22. It is unknown as to when CMX will be begin to be implemented.
* The Editors would like to make an apology to the UWA Communications Team for the incorrect announcement date published in the original version of this article. Originally, the article was written to say that the UWA App was announced earlier this week, however it was announced much earlier on March 20.