Higher Education Surveillance Observatory: some initial thoughts

At our first ‘after surveillance’ meeting in March, some of our discussions were about ways of better understanding the landscape of surveillance and privacy across the higher education sector. We know about examples of good and bad (or perhaps ‘mixed’) practice in some institutions, companies and organisations, but we thought that a contribution this international group could make would be to find a way to gather more of this information in an organised and centralised place. With more data, new forms of analysis, research and activism might become possible.

After that meeting, a few of us agreed to take this forward and explore in more detail what such a centralised resource – which we’re calling an observatory – could look like and how it might work. We identified some possible elements of the Higher Education Surveillance Observatory: 

  • A crowdsourced database of things that are happening in different institutions, countries, systems. This might include troubling developments, successful strategies for resisting surveillance, examples of good institutional or community practice.
  • Forms/surveys that people can fill out to add information to the database.
  • Reports on trends or activities, successful interventions.
  • Data visualisations of key information from the database.
  • Resources to support local initiatives to gather and use information.

With a robust process for gathering data, and the help of higher education and edtech communities, we might be able to learn useful things about: 

  1. The extent to which higher education institutions have implemented different forms of surveillance.
  2. The extent to which higher education institutions have put in place guidelines / policies in this area (and mismatches in 1 and 2).
  3. The extent to which commercial companies (edtech and beyond, eg student record providers) are collecting student data. 
  4. An understanding of where financial and other support for projects/work in this space is coming from.
  5. Examples of good practice. Collections of constructive responses to surveillance.

Jen, Anne-Marie, Brian and Tom (in various configurations) had a number of discussions between March-September, aimed at exploring the design and development of the observatory. We came to the September meeting with a set of questions for the group:

  • What (if any) geographical limits do we want to impose?
  • How should a database be designed to be both easy to add to, and easy to get data from? 
  • What kind of fact checking do we need?
  • Should the observatory be located somewhere?
  • How would we publicise it and encourage submissions?

In discussion with the group, we identified some other questions that need to be addressed, too – about how to allow submissions anonymously and through other channels like Twitter, how to capture sector-level and vendor activity and issues, how to manage rights to the observatory data so that information is not misused, the level(s) at which curation should take place, how to connect with other groups doing related work, and how to resource the creation and maintenance of the observatory. Importantly, we discussed how the project could be protected and its integrity ensured if it becomes controversial. 

Another important part of the discussion was around how we could use the observatory data to produce powerful and effective stories about harms, marginalisation, and hopeful directions. We know it can be hard to envision and articulate the harms that come from even seemingly well-intentioned monitoring and surveillance practices. We’re extremely lucky that the group includes a lot of people who are very good at telling stories that need to be told about education, and we will look for ways to make this central to the work of the observatory.
Our next steps are likely to be around doing some co-design work to determine what would be most useful, developing a pilot of some kind building on group members’ work on faceted search, SPLOTs, twitter analytics and more, and considering how we can resource the development of the observatory. We warmly welcome comments, questions and suggestions!

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