On the Move


Modern video and voice communication technology is now very powerful and increasingly commonplace. For some time now, there have been predictions that the need to travel for business meetings etc will diminish greatly – and there is some evidence that this is happening. But we still travel – a lot.

Like many organisations, RGU has a staff travel policy and of course there is a form to fill in (which at the moment is paper based), and a process to follow. It’s an important process to ensure that staff travel in the most economic way, that absences are properly authorised, that an appropriate risk assessment is carried out for travel to international destinations and that staff have adequate guidance and information for their travel.

It is not, however, the most loved process in the University and it is generally felt that it could be streamlined and improved. A key goal of the new staff portal, which will launch in a few weeks, is to be able to “e-enable” our important administrative processes – and the travel process has been picked as our first one.

The worst thing that we could do would be simply to e-enable the existing process as it stands. This is an opportunity to look at the whole process from the ground up and redesign it. We are planning to do this with a “Kaizen Blitz”, as part of “Lean Kaizen” thinking. You can find more about the Lean Kaizen process here.

Essentially, it involves bringing a team together from across the University – people who travel, people who book travel, people who authorise travel, and people who can challenge existing ways – for about a week. Against a set of clear objectives, they will look at the current process, the issues, what we are trying to achieve and by the end of the week will have proposed a new way for us to manage business travel. Some of the key objectives will be:

  • Minimising the number of steps – challenge each stage and the approval routes
  • Easing the user experience – make travel booking a straight forward process
  • Ensure that risk assessment and other health and safety considerations are nonetheless robustly carried out and audit trail kept
  • Ensure that the process is likely to minimise cost of travel
  • Enhance the availability of information to travellers, and allow feedback to enhance the experience for future travellers to same destination
  • Ensure that the University can quickly identify and respond effectively to unforeseen events and emergencies

Once we have that, we can then start to configure the new online process on the Portal.

We’re just at the stage of identifying the Lean Kaizen team – watch this space.


Green ICT

Hopefully you will have read the recent edition of RGU’s “Green Times” – if not you can read it here.

It includes an article which shows the environmental impact of PC’s being left switched on and what you can do to help – by turning your PC off when it is not in use. What is less obvious to our staff and students is the impact of “behind the scenes” ICT. Way back in 2007, the Gartner Group estimated that globally information and communications technology contributes to some 2% of total carbon emissions.

That’s about the same as the aviation industry. A quarter of the ICT related emissions come from data centres running servers, which then require further energy to keep them cool. . .

We have many servers running in our server rooms on Campus, and the rooms themselves are nothing like as efficient as modern datacentre standards. We expend much more energy on cooling than we need to. Aberdeen University is in a similar situation, so are Aberdeen College and Banff and Buchan College (although they have recently upgraded their server room), and at the moment we all run our data centres independently from each other. Over the past 3 years we have been working hard to see how we could collaborate to reduce all our costs and carbon emissions.

This culminated in an agreement earlier this year to move into a shared datacentre by upgrading space in the University of Aberdeen. It’s currently under construction, and will be ready by the Spring of 2013. Initially, it will become the primary datacentre for Aberdeen University, Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen College, with Banff and Buchan using the facility at a later date.

The environmental impact of this will be substantial. We estimate that the total power consumption of all the servers from the 3 institutions is 220kWh. In our own separate, old, data centres at the moment we probably use the same amount of power again just to keep the servers cool (220 kWh is roughly 22 electric cookers, with everything switched on, running all the time – just picture it). CO2 emissions from all that will come to 2030 metric tonnes per annum.

By packing all these servers into one modern datacentre we will slash the energy required for cooling. We estimate that our total power consumption will drop from 441kWh to about 264kWh. As an added bonus, much of the electricity will be generated by Aberdeen University’s combined heat and power plant with lower associated carbon emissions. In total, we anticipate saving 1061 tonnes per annum.

And into the bargain, the institutions will save £2.6m collectively over the next 10 years.

Is there a Washing Machine Available??

I organised an event this week for representatives of Scotland’s Colleges, Higher Education IT Directors Scotland (HEIDS) and the Scottish Confederation of University and Research Libraries on the subject of developing mobile “apps”. We had a good turnout – about 50 people from across the sectors. The main idea of the event was to hear from some real world examples how some institutions had approached the development of mobile services, and to see how we might share ideas, expertise, or effort as more institutions start to create their own mobile services. It seems that a number of institutions have made a good start in developing mobile services, whilst others (the majority I would say) are either on the starting blocks or planning their way to the starting blocks.

We had great presentations – they are all online, have a look at them for more detail. The presentations were from Edinburgh’s Telford College, the University of Edinburgh, and Stirling University, followed by some breakout sessions to figure out where we might collaborate in future.

Most institutions felt that enhancing the student experience and the online learning environment were their priorities. They want to avoid the trap of just putting online information that is already on the web. The experience of those who have developed apps is that students are looking for quick access, bite size, time / location sensitive information and services well suited to mobile access situations.

Location based information is popular, so maps figure a lot. One of the most popular services seems to be information on where the nearest available PC is – ironic as we look to mobile technology to displace PC’s for some uses! Edinburgh University have tall buildings, so they are looking to future devices to have altitude sensors as well as traditional location indicators. Don’t laugh – where you have tall library buildings this is a real issue.

One of the tricks is to think about how services that we might not have imagined with traditional technologies. Students at Lancaster University halls of residence were frustrated because half the time when they went to the laundrette all the machines were in use. So, as part of their mobile app development the University hooked up sensors on washers and dryers to their network and published availability on their app. The students love it!

Extending the online learning environment also featured strongly. Access to learning materials, and also the ability to look up library catalogues, check availability, reserve and book online.

Some institutions are looking at exploiting other features of mobile technology, including their potential uses for cash payments and to act as an ID card for attendance monitoring. Attendance monitoring is a real challenge for many institutions. With automated card-based systems, students might be tempted to give their card to a friend so that the friend can swipe them in and it looks as if they have attended the class. However, when asked if they would part with their mobile phone for this devious purpose – no way!

At the end of the event, we agreed a number of ways in which it should be possible for institutions to collaborate – more on this in a future blog as things start to take shape.

Andy McCreath


Mobile Phone Signals Indoors

One of the issues that we have inside some of our buildings, particularly on the Garthdee Campus, is that the strength of mobile phone signals varies and is quite poor in some places. We’re not alone in having this problem – it affects other Universities as well although I am sure it varies hugely depending on the types of building and their location.

Just about everyone uses a mobile phone, so early on in looking at the Estates Masterplan, we decided to see what we could do to improve the signal strength inside our buildings. This turned out to be anything but a straight forward exercise. First of all, OFCOM regulations mean that only a licensed mobile telephony operator can legally operate the equipment that we would need to install inside our buildings. So, before we could do anything we had to find a mobile operator willing to help. We did find one of the big operators who was willing to take a look at this with us, but it was very unclear whether or not we would be able to reach an agreement with all the main mobile operators.

There are significant costs for the mobile operators to install their own equipment on campus, and they have their own cost/benefit calculations to go through before they will make any commitment. On top of that, there are also significant costs for the University and complete high quality indoor signal strength across the Campus, even for one operator, was starting to look very expensive.

So, faced with a situation where (a) a total coverage solution was very expensive and (b) we had no guarantees that we could persuade all the main operators to come on board, we went back to the drawing board:

Most people today have a “smartphone” as their mobile phone. This gives:

i) Ability to make and receive phone calls (!)

ii) Ability to send and receive SMS messages

iii) Ability to access the Internet for web browsing, web-based services such as e-mail, Facebook, etc

iv) Maps and location based services

v) Personal communication media including voice and video conferencing across data networks using services such as Skype, instant messaging and Twitter

(iii), (iv) and (v) can all be done on the University wireless network. SMS messages can usually get through even where signal strength is very low, and that just leaves voice calls.

Interestingly, from around 2010, data traffic carried across mobile networks had exceeded voice traffic, and is forecast to grow significantly. Some figures suggest that by 2015 95% of mobile traffic will be data related and all of that will be accessible inside our buildings on the wireless network.

So for the time being, we have concluded that it is not cost effective to implement a complete indoor signal solution for mobile phones across the Campus, as the wireless network will cover most uses. There are still other ways to make voice calls over the wireless network (e.g. Skype) and our new “Unified Communications” system will also allow members of staff to install “apps” on their smart phones to access the University telephone system.

We won’t completely lose sight of indoor mobile telephony, and we may yet put some small, low cost, solutions in particular areas if there is a real need for mobile voice access. We’re working with other Universities to see how best to do that.


New PC’s for 2012-13

From the University wide IT budget every year we set aside approximately £400k for our “access strategy”. It used to be called our “desktop replacement” budget, but the nature of the “desktop” has been changing over recent years. Increasingly, University provided IT services and software can be accessed through a Windows desktop PC, and Apple Mac, Windows laptops, netbooks, Apple Macbooks – and now tablet PC’s such as iPads and Androids. In recognition of this change, some of the annual £400k is also now used to support some of the server infrastructure which ensures that software can be accessed across this range of devices (see “MyApps – the Foundation of Future Desktop). Hence the term “access strategy”.

We have around 3,000 of these devices in use across the University and our current policy is in overall terms to replace these over a 5 year cycle. In some areas, because of specialist requirements, we replace on a 3 year cycle.

This is the time of year when we look at what is due for replacement and we are working through that at the moment. This is a big exercise and not just a question of buying a bunch of PC’s. For example, when we replace the 3-year old computers in specialist areas (e.g. School of Computing), these 3 year old ones will still be absolutely fine for many other parts of the University – so there is a domino effect as we refresh one area and cascade their PC’s into other areas. The PC’s that have truly come to the end of their life then have to be properly disposed off, complying with environmental legislation and ensuring that all confidential data has been wiped off them. All of this involves IT staff in IT Services, Schools, Library and external suppliers.

Procurement Scotland have negotiated national deals for buying desktop computers and laptops and wherever possible we buy from their contracts as we get great prices on the equipment.

This year, we are conducting that exercise with a large new building due to open within the next 12 months. One of our aims will be to ensure that as much as possible of the IT equipment going into that building is new or nearly new. This will include using large numbers of low energy workstations as part of the “Future Desktop” project. We might hold back some of the new purchases until nearer the opening of the new building so that they can go straight into the new building.

We are also very aware that we are buying equipment for a desktop world which is changing rapidly and where it is hard to predict what will be the “norm” in 5 years time. We have not yet brought iPads and the like into this annual upgrade process, and only this week Microsoft have announced their latest offering for the tablet computer world. But our “Future Desktop” strategy is very much about future proofing our whole approach and precisely what we buy in our annual refresh is going to change over the next 5 years. Interesting times!

We must have an app . . .

With the explosive popularity of the iPad and Android tablets, there is a great deal of interest in the development of “apps” to allow staff and student access to University information services. A number of Universities have already gone down this route. If you have an iPad and want some fun, go into the app store and do a search on “University” – you’ll see a few listed there, and of course being on the app store there is feedback. One of the apps listed has the following feedback:

“Still useless with no functionality”
“Surely the University can put more money into hiring a better company to create this app?”
“This app is clearly a failed student project”

Another app by contrast has the following:

“Such a useful app! Makes life so much easier” Fab idea!”
“Really helpful!! and Super!”
“Really useful for when around campus. Downside, can never have an excuse to miss a lecture again . . . oh man.”

We are getting a number of requests in from various Schools and Departments expressing their interest in having an app developed – that’s great. What we plan to do now is to create a clear guide on the criteria we should apply to decide when to create an app, and to guard against developing an app just to make some kind of fashion statement (and risk being the subject of ridicule on the app store). We also need to ensure that the University branding is protected and that anything launched into the app stores has been properly approved.

If we are developing apps for students, it will be essential to hear from them what they are really looking for and what they will value in an app. Many services which are web based will be accessible anyway from smart phones and tablet computers. The trick is to work out where the development of an app makes a compelling difference and to focus our energies on that.

Developing an app has all the challenges of any other software development. We would wish to ensure that it is multi platform (at least IOS, Android and Windows Phone), and we will need to have in place good support arrangements so that any glitches can be fixed rapidly, and if necessary we can release new versions quickly when operating system upgrades are released.

So, we’re on the case and will be working particularly with the School of Computing who have some experience of app development and will be able to help and advise on our options.


IT Strategy – The “Personal Environment”

In February 2012 we prepared a revised IT Strategy for the University, and since then we have been consulting with Schools, Departments and Students. It has still to be formally approved, but it has been well received and I’d like to start sharing it more openly. I’ve put a copy here if you want to look at the whole thing, but I thought I would do a few blog entries on specific topics. The strategy is based on 3 “drivers” – (i) The University’s strategy “A Clear Future” and key priorities from that (ii) External public sector drivers and (iii) technology drivers. From these, we have defined 4 key areas of priority for IT: 

1. The Personal Environment

2. Key Elements of the Service Portfolio

3. Infrastructure

4. Governance

 The “personal environment” is a new concept for us. By this we mean the whole technology environment that our staff and students will directly interact with in their day to day lives. This includes the University provided workstations, services and infrastructure, but also devices owned by our staff and students and the services they run on these. “Consumerisation” of IT means that for many people, their personally owned environment is important to them and they would like to be able to use this at work. So, like many organisations, we will be looking at ways of helping our users to do this, and to do it safely within clear guidelines that protect our information and services. 

We’ll develop a “bring your own device” policy, or “BYOD” as it is referred to. This takes us into some interesting territory – what should the University provide and what should we expect staff and students to provide for themselves? More about that in a future blog, but I am thinking along the lines that for many people if you want to use an iPad or similar, it should really be your own one and our job is to make it as easy as possible for you to connect to our services on it. I say that because inevitably, anyone with an iPad, or Android tablet computer will almost certainly end up using it extensively in their personal lives anyway. However, there will be some situations where a tablet computer might be an essential tool and we’ll have to look at a University provision to some extent. Your views are welcome! 

As well as personal devices, there are personal services. Staff and students are using facilities such as Dropbox, Google Apps, Evernote and many other widely available facilities. We don’t want to ban their use – the opposite in fact, but there are some important issues to think through and we will be issuing guidance on these – probably along the following lines: 

  • Personal data should never be stored in these services no matter how secure they appear. This might break the law and expose you and/or the University to penalties; 
  • We should not use these services to deliver facilities that duplicate what the University provides – that should be unnecessary and will confuse our staff and students; 
  • Important University documents, records and other information resources should always be kept on University provided storage where they are secure; 
  • But if you want to use these services for your own work or study that’s fine.