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Checking in should check out

Location based check-in systems are beyond problematic

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Image Credit: Nouse

How we use technology is changing at an ever-increasing rate. That seems like a surprisingly uncontentious statement to start a piece with but the University doesn’t appear to have noticed it, so maybe not. If you haven’t heard yet, the University is trialling their new app over a range of departments. It’s been developed over the past six months and aims to unify a range of services the University provides such as bus timetables, library access and teaching attendance measuring. That last bit has been raising a few eyebrows.

The pilot scheme for the app includes trialing a so-called “checkin” system using Bluetooth access on your mobile phone to sign into teaching sessions. The University hopes that this will allow them to more accurately measure attendance for legal obligations such as visas and help student wellbeing. If as you read this, you immediately thought of some concerns of your own, you certainly would not be alone. Tracking tier 4 visa students even more than they already are raises significant concerns of overcompliance with the regulation and forcing students to use their personal phones for a system like this raises a significant number of privacy issues.

A smartphone is an increasing necessity to keep up with all aspects of life and from friends and family to work to current affairs. It’s not surprising therefore that we are increasingly attached to our phones. I can understand the University’s reasons for wanting to unify the systems for attendance recording and measuring. Different departments use all sorts of different solutions from website sign-ins to paper registers and depending on your department you may receive an email every time you miss a seminar, or you might hear nothing until your supervisor is concerned you’ve died. It’s fairer and more manageable for everyone if this system is standardised.

It’s probably a safe guess that you haven’t (willingly) been more than a few metres away from your mobile phone in a few years. Having the entire sum total of human knowledge just seconds away has huge advantages to accessibility and learning in general, but it means that increasingly we feel very personally attached to our phones. You might even view your phone as an extension of yourself, like a hand or a foot.

If given the choice between getting your mind or your phone read by someone else, you might sooner choose your mind. We may be a very clever species, but you (probably) can’t remember with any detail where you were at 4:32pm on 22 February 2017 in nearly the same way that your phone can. Our phones know more about us than we do. It’s no surprise that we’re more than a little protective of their contents.

The University’s disconnect from its students was especially clear when I finally met with the team involved in developing the app. The project managers were strangely quite surprised to find that students aren’t very happy about a system that requests mandatory location and storage access to their mobile phone. You may have already seen posts springing up from sabbatical officers or on the many Yorfess posts decrying the app’s issues, so it does lead you to wonder why none of these people were consulted at all prior to the app release.

If the University is serious about students having input on how the University is run, they need to make more of an effort to listen to what students actually have to say. It is simply not good enough to find an app that has been developed for six months, is pretty much finished and ready to launch, and is sitting on the app store all before anyone has actually spoken to our student representatives and heard our student voice.

A system like the one being proposed in the pilot requires a lot of trust from students for them to willingly use this on their personal phones. The lack of commitment to transparency from the start until the moment they could no longer keep it quiet bodes very poorly in this regard. I am also disappointed in the lack of a strong stance on this from YUSU given the potential issues future policy decisions could cause for students. A clear line is essential for ensuring this app fiasco develops into a system that’s right for everyone.

In the future, if the University considers students’ actual opinions to be anything more than an afterthought, students need to be involved more often and much earlier in the process when big decisions like this are made and the University must be more transparent before we can be expected to put our trust in them to do the right thing by us and our privacy.

Want to learn more about the app? Read Nouse's report "MyUoY app causes University-wide concerns" here

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