from the because-we-can,-they-explained dept
People come up with some really strange stuff to do when they have a modicum of power and apparently no idea how to utilize it responsibly. Such is the case at Northeastern University, a research university located in Boston, Massachusetts.
A few days ago, students and faculty noticed a new addition to their desks: motion sensors. These were apparently attached to the underside of desks, something that seemed extremely odd to those who noticed them. The whole sad, stupid saga was recounted by student Max von Hippel in his excellent Twitter thread, which describes not only the installation, but the reaction — both by students and the administrators who didn’t really have an explanation for this in-room tracking effort.
At first, the university claimed these under-desk motion sensors were put in place to “study” lab usage. But, as von Hippel points out, students have assigned desks and use key cards to enter the room. So if the school wanted data on room usage, it already had plenty of data points it could have used.
Instead, it introduced something new without informing students it would be put in place. Students fired off a letter to the school’s Senior Vice Provost, David Luzzi, asking for an explanation and an end to this unexpected surveillance. The letter noted the new surveillance served no purpose (scientific or otherwise), intimidated students, and altered their behavior by causing them to choose other, unmonitored workspaces, thus resulting in a bunch of useless data that didn’t really say much about normal lab occupancy.
In response, the provost first ignored the letter, then held an impromptu meeting about the sensors — one in which he told those who attended that trust was key here, but only trust in the university, rather than vice versa.
Students protested the unwelcome additions and lack of adequate response by moving the sensors out of the lab and into the lab kitchen and break room.
After this protest, the provost called a second meeting, again without informing students. Von Hippel and other lab users passed out fliers to inform the students the school apparently wished to keep uninformed.
This meeting didn’t go much better. The vice provost insisted the sensors were not there to track students, but rather just “sensed heat,” which suggested they would simply produce data any time anything generating heat went near them. Because the sensors would not just sense students at desks, the provost claimed it was exempt from school policies requiring prior notification of students before putting devices like these into use.
But they’re quite obviously motion sensors, rather than heat sensors. And the devices formerly installed in the lab are now part of an ad hoc art installation currently on display in the lab building’s lobby.
After this second session went just as badly for Vice Provost Luzzi as the first, the school has backed down. The sensor project is now officially dead, rather than simply practically dead due to the students’ removal of the offending sensors.
Vice Provost Luzzi still insists this was only done to determine occupancy and see if the school could route other researchers and grad students to unused desks. But, as is pointed out in this Reddit thread about the sensor rollout, that short-sighted take on the issue — that any unused lab space should be filled — will cause problems for those currently utilizing the room for research.
The university says that they want to do this to increase their research output. In the town hall, David Luzzi claimed that 30% of undergraduate students want to participate in research. Given that the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors of ISEC are considered to be the prime office location on campus, they would like these spaces to be fully occupied at all times by people who might or might not actually be contributing to an increased output of good research. To start, they have mentioned a hoteling system, where graduate students would have to compete with undergraduates for office space through a reservation system.
Overall, it just seems like some folks in the administration would like to keep the ISEC labs at capacity 24/7 to “wow” parents and prospective students that are touring the building with the amount of “research” being done in the ISEC labs. Maintaining this image to the public will most likely come at the cost of research output (the exact opposite of what the admins claim to want). The collecting of sensor data is pseudo-scientific way to justify this to the rest of the administration and student body.
Even if this was the point of the sensor installation and even if it would possibly result in a net gain in research output (the latter of which seems unlikely), why weren’t students informed of the school’s intentions? It seems like a very simple step to take that would have saved the university several headaches and without alienating the school’s many researchers, who also happen to be paying customers. Even if it would have resulted in the same outcome — zero surveillance of students and their desk usage — the university would have retained far more trust and, perhaps, a customer base (so to speak) a bit more receptive to further ideas about maximizing lab output.