Good practices in data and information management in universities

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Speech at the 11th ASEAN University Network Rectors’ Conference, 11 July 2019, Siem Reap

By Professor Lily Kong, SMU President

Introduction

The topic today is about data and information management and good practices in universities. I will be the first to admit that I am not a data expert nor do I have the information management knowledge to prescribe security protocols. But I do know two well-quoted lines.

The first is popular on the Internet – ‘There are some things that [hu]mankind was never meant to know. For everything else, there’s Google.’ That speaks to the power of technology and the change it has wrought in all our lives.

The second is by former CISCO CEO John Chambers. He says: ‘There are two types of companies: those that have been hacked and those who do not know they have been hacked’. This speaks to the dangers that technology has introduced into all our lives.

Mindful of the power and pitfalls of digital technologies, what I would like to share with you this morning are four key thoughts on data and digital technology and its implications for universities, using the SMU experience.

  • First, what has been our experience in mitigating risks and overcoming challenges in this digital age;
  • Second, how has SMU leveraged technology in our decision-making;
  • Third, how is SMU contributing to knowledge creation that enhances the ways in which the world may better benefit from data and digital technologies; and
  • Fourth, how has SMU sought to prepare our students for the world of digital technologies, where data and information management is fundamental to their future-readiness.

First, mitigating risks

Last year, Singapore experienced what was called its worst cyber-attack, when hackers stole the personal details of 1.5 million people from healthcare group SingHealth.

In this Age of Hacks, as CNN calls it, universities need to be conscientious about data security even as we embrace new opportunities with technology. At SMU, we adopt a layered approach in cyber defence centred on People, Processes and Systems.

Phishing attacks, or attempts to obtain sensitive information by disguising electronic communiques as trustworthy entities, are on the rise and are more sophisticated. This is why SMU undertakes to educate all our staff in cyber security awareness and good practices, ranging from workshops during staff orientation to mandatory online exercises to test and refresh knowledge. We focus on ownership and accountability for data, and take a hard stance on the protection of personal data.

We referenced the US National Institute of Standards and Technology’s cybersecurity framework to develop SMU’s cyber defence processes around the five pillars of Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond and Recover. We employ machine learning to identify and detect anomalies in our digital environment that indicate possible intrusions, and hold regular tabletop and penetration-testing exercises to improve our capabilities and robustness of our IT systems.

We also have in place a system of controls that protects institutional assets and data privacy. For instance, we practise classification of all data, including emails, with automated restrictions for access and sharing of sensitive documents. We also have data loss detection and prevention systems.

Second, let me turn to the positives. Beyond mitigating risks, I will now focus on my second message, and that is, how we can leverage opportunities for the university using digital technologies in our decision-making

Let me illustrate with a few examples.

We are scaling the use of technology for personalised learning within the university through a Competency Analytics System, or CAS. It allows students to track their own learning outcomes and competency levels using an SMU-developed web application that would provide prescriptive feedback to help students address their learning gaps. Further, the CAS generates heat maps that instructors use to identify and address competency gaps, monitor learning progress and detect areas in their courses for improvement.

We have also used data analytics to inform our admissions decisions. We do not simply go for grades, and use instead a more holistic admissions framework and criteria that recognises other qualities of students. We therefore track data on leadership in school, entrepreneurial activities, and assessment of aptitude, attitude, critical thinking and communication abilities, which inform admissions decisions.

Beyond academic decisions, to run the university more efficiently, we also rely on tech-driven executive management analytics. For instance, our library continuously monitors its occupancy through a Wi-Fi heat map, which measures Wi-Fi usage across the library to show how crowded a specific location is, in real time. This system, developed by the SMU LiveLabs research centre, allows our librarians to consider and optimise factors like opening hours, utilisation of facilities and crowd management.

Now, let me turn to the third key message I would like to share, and that is, how we contribute to knowledge creation in the area of data and digital technologies for the betterment of society.

I have time to share just one example.

As digital economies develop, trusted ecosystems are necessary for governments, business and industry to benefit from tech innovations like AI while still preserving consumer and citizen confidence and understanding. These ecosystems require policies that ensure accountable and responsible governance.

We have thus set up last year Singapore’s first research centre: the Centre for AI and Data Governance, to promote complementary and ground-up thinking and practices in AI, data policy and regulation. Its research programmes are in three main streams: AI and Society, AI and Business, and AI in specific industries, whether it is in transport where issues of autonomous vehicles are examined, or in dispute resolution and the financial industry.

Finally, let me share how we prepare our students for the world of digital technologies.

At the undergraduate level, we have revamped our core curriculum, and include within it courses like computational thinking to equip our students with a foundational knowledge. We have also included technology and society with courses like Digital Cultures, and Technology and World Change, so that they can learn to critically appreciate the digitalisation of society. Within our majors, we have also introduced analytics, such as a Data Science and Analytics major, and courses like Marketing Analytics within the Marketing major, or Accounting Analytics for accountancy majors.

We have also co-created courses with Google Singapore in an SMU-Google Squared Data and Analytics programme. For six months a year, students work for four days a week with a Google partner, e.g. Grab, Carousell, and return one day a week to take the courses. Of course, we also offer a cybersecurity track for our students in the School of Information Systems. Further, we have introduced a Bachelor of Science in Smart-City Management and Technology, and have an upcoming Computing and Law programme.

At the Masters level, we have refreshed our Master of IT in Business programme with specialisations in Fintech, Analytics and AI, and worked with industry to blend curriculum with new developments taking place in the real world. This is to address the phenomenon of disruptive technologies in various domains and industries, including banking and finance. Beyond Singapore, we have partnered universities in China, Australia and Europe to enrich MITB through complementary dual degree programmes.

I am heartened to say that our efforts are paying off. This year, QS ranked MITB as the top in Asia and 11th worldwide for Business Analytics courses.

Conclusion

Let me conclude.

According to biologist and educator Paul Ehrlich, “To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer.”

And to paraphrase business and tech writer Ferenc Mantfeld, “Failure is not an option – it comes bundled with your computer.”

In the information age, danger surrounds, as digital technologies increasingly get into every aspect of our lives and work. In such a context, how successful organisations are, is determined by how well they leverage and manage digital technologies.

At SMU, we believe that the key is to embrace digital technologies and all the opportunities they afford, integrating them into our teaching, learning, research and management, while being conscientious and vigilant in managing the dangers that accompany. We look forward to learning from and collaborating with you in this journey.