4 tips for using data visualization in a board presentation


Knowing how to convey your message in a presentation is key to helping a board understand why your pitch is important. Here’s how to do it.

Image: yucelyilmaz, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Whether you’re dealing with big data or standard data, a picture is worth a thousand words. With data visualization techniques, data can be formulated into bar charts, pie charts, graphs, and other kinds of visuals, helping your audience visualize the important facts you’re trying to convey. 

According to Mordor Intelligence, a market intelligence and advisory firm, the data visualization market is expected to grow by a 9% compound annual growth (CAGR) between now and 2025. “The emerging nature of data visualization is encouraging a shift toward analytically driven businesses, where users can explore data in various forms of graphical representation, which were initially only available in tabular reports,” Mordor said in a study: “Data Visualization Market–Growth, Trends, and Forecast (2020-2025).” 

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

These data visualizations are indispensable for high-impact board presentations. However, for anyone who stands before a scrutinizing board with a presentation that tries to sell an investment or an idea, it’s imperative that the data analytics staff, the big data miners, and everyone else working behind the data scenes is also on board and on target to develop the best visualization of the data.

A good way to describe a well-prepared board presentation that uses data visualization is to think of it as a story. 

The story consists of four components: The visualization of the data; the backup or drill-down data that supports the visualization; an abbreviated narrative of the story in print; and the narrative of the story that the presenter tells in real time.

When I advise companies, I encourage them to think about all four of these components and to make sure that not only the end presenter, but the entire data science and IT staff behind the presentation addresses these components.

SEE: How to create your first Tableau Software data visualization chart (TechRepublic)

From the standpoint of a data project, here are those four components with their action steps:

  1. Data visualization

What message does the presenter want to get across to the board, and how will the data support the message? The assumption here is that there already is data that supports the message, so the emphasis is on finding the best visualization of the data. 

For example, if you’re addressing a science-oriented board with an engineering project, the best data visualization might be in a graph form. If the project is marketing and you’re proposing a change in product mix, bar or pie charts might be ideal. If you’re talking about the infection distribution of a pandemic and offering an attack plan, a map-based data visualization might serve you well. There are myriad choices for data visualization. The job of the presenter and others assigned to the project is to find the optimal one.

2. Data drill-down

For every summary data visualization, the board is going to ask detailed questions about the underlying data. 

The presenter should have a good idea about the questions that are likely to be asked. He or she should work with the IT staff to ensure that a drill-down application for the summary data visualization is available so that with simple point and click during the presentation, more detailed supporting data can be displayed.

3. Abbreviated narrative in print

It is good presentation practice to include a brief written description on each data visualization that you present. This helps the board focus.

4. In-person narrative

Most important, it’s not good enough for presenters to just parrot the words written on data visualization slides. The presenter must be prepared to give a more detailed explanation of what each data visualization speaks to and what it means for the business. This personal narrative should flow naturally, and it should be in the presenter’s own words. This lets the board know that the message is authentic and that the presenter believes in it.

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Using embedded analytics in software applications can drive your business forward


Analytics in your tools can help users gain insights that can help move your clients and the organization to the next level.

Image: Mykyta Dolmatov, Getty Images/iStockphoto

More than two years ago, Edsby, which provides a learning management system for educational institutions, began embedding analytics into its software that enabled teachers and administrators to detect student learning trends, assess test scores across student populations, and more, all in the spirit of improving education results. 

The Edsby example is not an isolated event. Increasingly, commercial and company in-house software developers are being asked to deliver more value with their applications. In other words, don’t just write applications that process transactions; tell us about the trends and insights transactions reveal by embedding analytics as part of the application.

“Software teams are responsible for building applications with embedded analytics that help their end users make better decisions,” said Steve Schneider, CEO of Logi Analytics, which provides embedded analytics tools for software developers.” This is the idea of providing high-level analytics in the context of an application that people use every day.”

SEE: Microservices: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Schneider said what users want is transactional apps with built-in analytics capabilities that can provide insights to a variety of users with different interests and skill sets. “These are highly sophisticated analytics that must be accessible right from the application,” he said. 

With the help of pick-and-click tools, transaction application developers are spared the time of having to learn how to embed analytics from the ground up in their apps. Instead, they can choose to embed an analytics dashboard into their application, or they can quickly orchestrate an API call to another application without a need to custom develop all of the code.

“You can just click on the Embed command, and the tool will give you a Java script,” Schneider said. “In some cases, you have to do a little configuration for security, but it makes it much easier to get analytics-enriched apps to your user market faster.”

Getting apps to market faster

Here’s how an embedded analytics tool can speed apps to market.

A marketing person is tasked with buying ads and organizing campaigns. He or she gathers information and feeds it to IT, which periodically issues reports that show the results of ad placements and campaigns.

SEE: How to overcome business continuity challenges (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Now with an application that contains embedded analytics, the marketing person can directly drill down into the reporting information embedded in the app without having to contact IT. This can be done through a self-service interface in real time.

“In one case, a manufacturer was trying to improve operational performance through the use of an application and set of stated metrics,” Schneider said. “Everyone had to log in to the application to record their metrics, but the overall goal of improving performance remained elusive. The manufacturer decided to augment the original application with an embedded analytics dashboard that displayed the key metrics and each team’s performance. This provided visibility to everyone. This quickly evolved into a friendly competition between different groups of employees to see who could achieve the best scores, and the overall corporate metrics performance improved.” 

For most developers, embedding analytics in applications is still in early stages—but embedded analytics in apps is an area that is poised to expand, and that at some point will be able to incorporate both structured and unstructured data in in-app visualizations.

Best practices for embedded analytics

Companies and commercial enterprises interested in using embedded analytics in transactional applications should consider these two best practices:

  1. Think about the users of your application and the problems that they’re trying to solve

This begins with asking users what information they need in order to be successful. “Application developers can also benefit if they think more like product managers,” Schneider said. In other words, what can I do with embedded analytics in my application to truly delight my customer—even if it is the user next door in accounting who I see every day?

2. Start simple

If you haven’t used embedded analytics in applications before, choose a relatively easy-to-achieve objective for your first app and work with a cooperative user. By building a series of successful and high usable apps from the start, you instill confidence in this new style of application. At the same time, you can be defining and standardizing your embedded app development methodology in IT.

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Using the Pomodoro technique to become your own boss


The method helps people structure daily workflows in a more efficient, personalized way. So what is the ’80s technique and how does it work?


IMAGE: iStock/GaudiLab

In the era of big data and omnipresent metrics, a time management technique made in the 1980s is trending.

Time management methods are designed to give people an edge in their daily routines by incorporating structured approaches and philosophies into standard workflows. Over time, these various strategies provide people with a greater understanding of their executive functions to help maximize productivity and more. 

Across industries, the Pomodoro method is one of the more popular time management techniques and for good reason. The Pomodoro technique leverages a beautifully simplistic framework, which means there’s no need for lengthy how-to tutorials or prerequisite knowledge before jumping in. So what is the Pomodoro technique exactly?

What is the Pomodoro technique?

Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro method in the 1980s. The word “Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato” and the name itself is a nod to the tomato-shaped timer Cirillo used while developing this method. The Pomodoro method itself involves a recurrent framework of balanced work and rest cycles.

As part of the method, people divide their workday into 25-minute intervals; each known as an individual Pomodoro. After each Pomodoro, people then take a short break of approximately five minutes. After completing four Pomodoro work intervals, individuals take a longer break of approximately 25 minutes.

At the core of the philosophy, time management techniques like Pomodoro encourage people to gain a better understanding of their mental processes and procedures surrounding planning, multitasking, and the art of self-regulation. 

“When I’m working with students, whether it’s a sixth-grader or a Fortune 50 executive, I often say that working on these skills, these executive functions entails really learning how to become your own CEO,” said Rebecca Mannis, learning specialist and founder of Ivy Prep.

Sequencing and strategizing

Effective scheduling is one of the core components of the Pomodoro technique. Rather than approaching a task as one colossal undertaking, the method encourages people to step back and assess the individual components of the larger project.

“People naturally tend to focus on completing tasks, as in “I’ve got to finish this report by Monday!”  But tasks can often be formidably difficult and time-consuming—like staring up at Mount Everest and being intimidated by the sheer size of the thing. But all that really matters is that you put in the time, bit by bit, to complete the task.  

Break the climb up Mount Everest into step-by-step walks and climbs, and it’s doable,” said Barb Oakley, a professor at Oakland University.

As part of the overall approach, people often create a list of the individual tasks required to complete the larger project. This creates a chronological workflow of the processes necessary to complete a particular endeavor. This enhances a person’s knowledge of the amount of time it will take them to accomplish their goals in a more realistic way.

“When you see it, it enables you to then think through the sequence, both the sequence of what needs to come first, second, or third, as well as we know that being able to anticipate the amount of time to do something also taps into that same visual part of the cortex, of the thinking part of the brain,” Mannis said.

Overall, the system asks individuals to become more attuned to their own processes and to adjust the approach as needed. In the long run, the Pomodoro technique allows people to look back and reassess workflows in hindsight. The lessons learned retrospectively can then be applied proactively to future projects.

“It’s one thing to set aside time to do something, it’s another thing to be able to step back and evaluate what about the use of that time worked well? How could a person continue doing that? Why my certain tasks or situations lends themself better to approaching the task differently?” said Mannis. “So Pomodoro is one method of helping us try to use the best of what we have that makes us unique as humans, that metacognitive awareness, that self-awareness.”

SEE: Budget planning tool (TechRepublic Premium)

Stress and systematic procrastination

Over the course of a workday, there’s always potential for stress to arise. People are routinely managing tight deadlines and last-minute projects alongside the rigors present outside of the workplace. While not all stressful situations are avoidable, the Pomodoro method attempts to help people eliminate undue stress by first assessing the project, understanding their limited time and energy before jumping headlong into a project.

“When a person or an animal is overwhelmed that starts tapping into what we call the subcortical system, the more basic part sometimes called the reptilian brain, probably because reptiles have them too, that’s how they survive and what happens then is that there’s an increase in cortisol, the hormone connected to stress response. And very often people or animals will go into what we call fight or flight. That we either run away and withdraw and think about what procrastination is, or they’ll lash out to keep away the danger,” Mannis said.

Procrastination is another productivity quagmire altogether. If a person is feeling overwhelmed with a project they may be more inclined to hesitate or delay. Dithering may also appeal to individuals who have hit a snag with an ongoing task and may need to start from scratch. In this way, stress and procrastination can effectively compound each other in a self-perpetuating cycle. Interestingly, there’s an underlying physiology to the human art of deliberate procrastination.

“When you even just think about something you don’t want to do, it activates the pain centers of the brain. But when you switch your attention to something more entertaining (Facebook! Instagram!), the pain goes away instantly. You’ve also just procrastinated.” Oakley said.

The Pomodoro method effectively implements short stints of structured procrastination into the daily workflow. Rather than distracting yourself from a new or overwhelming task, the Pomodoro method rewards people with small breaks peppered in following small periods of work. It’s in essence a self-implemented Pavlovian approach to efficiency and task sequencing.

An overwhelmed workforce

Although the Pomodoro technique was created decades ago, the basic philosophy is particularly timely in 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations have been forced to quickly transition from the traditional office to the digital workplace. Needless to say, this transformation hasn’t gone swimmingly for everyone. An already challenging situation is only compounded by the outside stress many employees are feeling as the pandemic continues to take its toll on communities around the globe.

“Nowadays we’ve got so much going on in our lives and we need to juggle so much that people can understandably feel quite overwhelmed by needing to juggle those two realities and so that can contribute to people either not doing as comprehensive or complete a job that they know they must meet or they feel they must meet,” said Mannis.

The Pomodoro technique allows people to add structures to new tasks that can be physiological stressful in a particularly chaotic and stressful time. Situationally, this time management technique acts as an instrument of personal empowerment, enabling people to better assess the storage and use of their limited time and finite energies.

“It gives them the tool to both manage those resources with an eye toward being effective and efficient. It also serves as what educational psychologists or neuropsychologists might call a scaffold, right? It’s an instrument. It’s a tool in which you can engage in some of that self-assessment,” Mannis said.

SEE: Video teleconferencing do’s and don’ts (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Fine-tuning the approach

Overall, the Pomodoro technique is an adaptable time management method. This encourages individuals to tweak the instrument to better fit their learning style and nuanced approach to new tasks. The underlying philosophy is focused on understanding your cognitive functions and creating healthy strategies based on this knowledge.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Pomodoro or a Post-it, what’s important is that you’ve got a tool. You’ve got an instrument. And the trick is to use that instrument and practice it to make it your own, and to develop that heightened awareness, metacognitive awareness,” said Mannis.

In general, the Pomodoro technique is a tool; an enabler of an end result. The same tool can be leveraged in innumerable ways. This particular tool allows people to harness their time and energy in a more focused deliberate way. What this tool allows someone to create is wholly up to them. Mannis likens the method and the possibilities to other instruments.

“You can take a Stratocaster guitar, the Kinks could play a song or Keith Urban could play a song. The beauty is in their mastering the basics and then making it their own,” Mannis said.

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Universities are using clever tech solutions to prep for the fall


Tech companies partner with administrators to offer solutions from apps with geofencing to unique scheduling software to prime classrooms for the fall amid the pandemic.


IMAGE: iStock/Mark_Breck

Due to the coronavirus, educational institutions have been forced to reinvent their entire operational models. In a matter of days and weeks, many institutions had to transition their entire classrooms online. Needless to say, this sudden adjustment hasn’t been exactly seamless for students or faculty members.

Currently, many graduating seniors with college ambitions are left with difficult decisions surrounding their academic futures. The thought of paying premium tuition costs for online higher learning or attending on-campus courses amid a modern plague has many students considering a gap year. In fact, about one-in-six students reported that their college plans had changed due to the pandemic, according to a recent ARTSCI poll.

For institutions, there are both public health concerns and monetary considerations at the forefront of the conversation. To help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in the classroom and on-campus, schools are unleashing a host of technologies. Below, we’ve taken a look at some of the cutting-edge approaches to public safety schools are implementing around the country.

Online learning has proved to be challenging

The ongoing e-learning experiment has had mixed results around the US. At the collegiate level, one student has taken legal action against Harvard University for “inequities posed by online learning” and plenty more. In Los Angeles, approximately 15,000 students were absent from online courses and had failed to complete any homework whatsoever, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.

“The verdict is out and the judgment is that the online homeschooling didn’t work, so they have to do something to get their kids back and fast,” said Cognize CEO Lars Nordenlund.

Cognize specializes in leveraging a host of technologies, including artificial intelligence, IoT sensors, surveillance cameras, and thermal imaging software, and bringing this information into an interactive dashboard. A biometric scanner can determine if a person has an elevated temperature, a potential signifier of an infection. The facial recognition systems can monitor social distancing throughout a given environment and ensure masks are worn.

“If they have an already upgraded video surveillance infrastructure, we can snap into that and use some of the basic infrastructure, but we will add our own specialized sensors on top of that to complete IOT coverage,” said Nordenlund.

Some smaller companies have created entry parameters relying on person-by-person temperature checks performed by human gatekeepers. However, as the systems become more complex, the margin for error also increases.

As population density increases, using human beings to monitor manual temperature checks and enforce compliance becomes a logistical quagmire, if not outright Sisyphean. For this reasoning, Nordenlund believes these AI systems are necessary components of an effective virus mitigation strategy at scale as students return in the fall.

“The human mind and the human attention span is just not there. It’s not efficient enough. Studies have shown that after 20 minutes people start to flicker, do something else, they look at phones, and can overlook stuff. The attention span for people, the manual human mind just can’t keep up with the complexity of these situations,” Nordenlund said.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) 

Apps for contact tracing and symptom checks

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a number of universities roll out apps to help enhance public safety on campus. For example, the University of Alabama recently announced it had developed a coronavirus app in partnership with the state’s department of public health. Students on all three of its campuses had been encouraged to download the app which works as an all-in-one symptom tracker and contact tracing tool.

The University of Central Florida has added new features to its existing campus app to help with symptom screening on campus and assist contact tracers. UCF is currently evaluating other parameters to better leverage this app data. One such approach under consideration would look at the number of individuals logged on to UCF campus Wi-Fi at a given time. The university could then use this network information alongside the number of screenings submitted via the app to better understand usage and data quality.

UCF has also added geo-fencing capabilities to send out alerts to app users. If a student is en route to an area with typically heavy foot traffic, the individual could be prompted to wear a mask via notification.

Universities leveraging their existing systems

While these apps are popular solutions, they also come with major drawbacks and privacy concerns. Apps are reliant on user compliance and the quality of the data submitted. If a large portion of the student body doesn’t want to submit this personal health information or misuses the platform, the overall utility is significantly diminished. Many people are not onboard with submitting their personal privacy and location data.

Rather than urging students and staff to download an app they may not want or will not use appropriately, other universities are maximizing their existing networks to enhance public safety.

The University of Louisville, for example, is leveraging its existing technical infrastructure and making the most of it.

Throughout campus, there are numerous devices in constant communication with the university’s networks. Based on this, information the university can then more aptly estimate the number of devices and thus, people in a given area. As an added benefit, the information is also inherently anonymized as the university does not know who a given device belongs to.

Next, the university hopes to apply machine learning to the approach to pull some of the noise of the dataset. This information could then be used to schedule regular cleaning of high traffic areas or rearrange layouts in high-density areas to encourage social distancing.

SEE: UofL using IT know-how and lots of tech to prep campus for the fall amid pandemic (TechRepublic)

Digital scheduling systems

The pandemic is also highlighting the importance of smarter scheduling solutions. Throughout campus, many students and staff regularly need to reserve spaces in conference rooms, media labs, many systems rely on classic pencil and paper signups or perhaps clunky spreadsheets.

The scheduling software company, Robin, enables students and staff to digitally reserve a given space at a certain time and system administrators can adjust settings to limit the number of occupants allowed in a room. The paired app allows users to look at a digital twin of a given area and then select a space.

“You can basically see a map of the building you’re in, see what’s available, and grab a seat wherever you need to, and then cycle those spaces out to be cleaned afterward. So that way you can not only keep tabs of which spaces are used, but also which spaces need to be cleaned before they can be used again,” said Sam Dunn CEO of Robin.

It’s important to note that this system is not available for use in classrooms, as there is a risk for the technology to be used as an “attendance tool.” So far, Robin has rolled out its scheduling systems with partners at the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and Rutgers.

Creating healthier building environments

In May, Honeywell introduced a series of Healthy Building platforms to help organizations meet new social distancing guidelines and better understand their real-time operations via a digital dashboard. In one such package, staff members can oversee and manage their indoor air quality. This could involve controlling UV sterilization in HVAC filtration systems or adjusting the ventilation and pressurization of these systems for optimal airflow in indoor environments. 

Other packages allow companies to more aptly monitor and manage traffic flows inside of buildings, ensure social distancing protocols are being followed, and enable contact tracing if necessary. Overall, these solutions provide organizations with a Healthy Building score which helps organizations gauge areas where these systems could be improved to reduce exposure risks.

“First, we can come in and do an assessment to help you figure out what are the gaps between where you might want to be and where you are today. Second is we provide a package to upgrade existing infrastructure without requiring a rip and replace to add sensors, to add filters, to add UV, to add thermal screening, that basically upgrades the capability to be more ready for the scenarios of buildings opening,” said Himanshu Khurana, VP and CTO of Honeywell Building Solutions.

SEE: The new normal: What work will look like post-pandemic (TechRepublic Premium)

Following guidance and planning for the future

In recent weeks, lockdown measures have lifted and businesses have reopened for operations amid a strange new normal. There remains no vaccine or cocktail of treatments for the coronavirus. While many universities and schools are planning for in-class learning in the fall, nothing is certain at the moment. For the time being, preparation is imperative as we plan for an unknowable future.

“Whenever organizations incorporate technology early into that process and that thinking, we find that we can all work together and find a solution in a timely manner. If we think about technology as [an] add on or something later in the process, it tends to be a little bit slower to figure out how an element fits in,” said Khurana.

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Ohio using AI to cull old laws and streamline regulations


An AI tool developed by Deloitte is helping Ohio eliminate redundant and unnecessary regulations and rules that cost businesses and taxpayers time and money.

Image: Blue Planet Studio, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Every election cycle starts the same way, said Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Hustead. Politicians promise to weed out and eliminate waste, streamline processes, and make government leaner and more responsive to the needs of its citizens and business owners. What is usually lacking, however, is specifics. 

“Everyone says that but, when you dig down a little deeper, they can’t tell you what that means,” Hustead said. “They have some big-picture ideas but, as we know, the law and regs are about the details.”

SEE: Robotic process automation: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

After 20 years in Ohio politics including eight years as secretary of state, Hustead has seen a lot of these efforts come and go. Most are not successful because, as of 2018, the state had 240,000 regulations on the books. These regulations are enforced through a Byzantine system of rules that often overlap from department to department causing confusion and wasted effort, said Carrie Kuruc, director of the state’s Common Sense Initiative (CSI), which is aimed at improving Ohio’s regulatory climate.

“When you are trying to comb through regs at different state agencies it takes a long time,” she said. “When you have tech that can do it quickly, you take it in a heartbeat.”

Even though Ohio’s state agencies are required to review rules every five years to eliminate overlap and waste, as technology advances and people change their behavior in response (like shopping online versus going to the store) state agencies are hard-pressed to keep up.

This is why, according to Hustead, Deloitte’s RegExplorer tool is designed to do more than just find outdated and conflicting laws and rules. It also can uncover process improvements. 

“Identifying duplicate regs, yes, we want to do that,” Hustead said. “But I am thinking about it from a higher-function level. You can ask it how many functions in state government require you to show up at a state office or fill out a form. I’m confident that we’re going to find untold numbers of those kinds of experiences.”

The tool, which uses artificial intelligence (AI), can also serve as a digital mentor of sorts, Hustead said. Because Ohio is a term-limit state that does not allow legislators to serve more than eight years in either the House or the Senate (although they can serve eight years in both), a lot of institutional knowledge is lost when older legislators retire. RegExlporer can help fill those knowledge gaps by presenting legislators with contextualized search results that help them avoid duplicating rules that are already on the books.

SEE: Hiring Kit: Computer Research Scientist (TechRepublic Premium)

“In the future, as [RegExplorer] learns, it can inform the drafting of legislation because you can better understand what exists in the code and how it applies,” Hustead said.

The major downside of the tool is putting its recommendations into practice. People in government don’t like change. They are used to doing things a certain way. Also, technology tends to eliminate jobs. During his tenure as secretary of state, Hustead digitalized the state’s business formation process, eliminating 40% of the office’s jobs in the process.

“People don’t like change,” he said. “If you are just used to showing up and doing the same thing everyday…there’s always going to be resistance. They are going to fear-monger and say, ‘This isn’t going to work’.”

With tax revenues expected to be down sharply this year and next because of the COVID-19 shutdown, budgets and services will need to be cut. A tool like RegExplorer can help find the efficiencies agencies will need to function with fewer dollars and staff.

“If you are going to have a smaller budget and customers need the same services you are going to have to be more efficient,” Hustead said. “Just think about how much better off we would [have been] if we fast forwarded a few years and a lot these services were available online.”

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UofL using IT know-how and lots of tech to prep campus for the fall amid pandemic


Rather than inventing a new safety application, the university is utilizing the full potential of its existing technical systems to ensure student privacy.

college students on campus

IMAGE: iStock/kzenon

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many universities have been forced to switch their entire educational models online on short notice. Aside from these logistical challenges, higher learning institutions are also facing economic uncertainty due to the pandemic. Many students are considering a gap year when forced to choose between online higher education or traditional in-person college courses during the pandemic. One think tank analyst estimates residential colleges could see a nearly 20% drop in revenue this fall if these institutions do not offer traditional on-campus classes.

To help safely bring students back to the classroom amid a modern plague, universities around the globe are using a host of technologies and lots of data. We recently spoke with the University of Louisville’s executive director of IT operations, Katherine Talia Stevenson, to learn more about the school’s tech-savvy plans for the fall.

Pandemic tech and data privacy

In recent weeks, organizations across industries have incorporated state-of-the-art technologies to combat the spread of the coronavirus. This includes leveraging a full suite of solutions ranging from facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence to thermal imaging software.

These systems can monitor crowds to ensure mask compliance and social distancing protocols are being followed. However, these platforms also come with a slew of privacy concerns. At the moment, there’s certainly no shortage of suitors willing to entice universities with these offerings.

“I’m finding lots and lots of solutions that would make absolutely perfect sense if I were a private sector employer, but become a little more problematic when I am a public sector institution of higher ed with a strong position on privacy and individual rights,” said Stevenson. “So one of the most challenging things is, in my opinion, is asking someone to give me the ability to track them in real time to a really fine level of detail throughout the day, because that’s a lot of data. There are lots of ways that could conceivably be misused.”

Third-party development and privacy concerns

Earlier this month, the University of Alabama announced that it had developed an app in partnership with the state health officials. Students across its three college campuses have been encouraged to use the app this fall, according to local reports. Depending on development, these apps often bring third-parties into the fold, placing university partners and students in a precarious privacy situation.

“It’s very, very easy in putting together one of these tracking apps to accidentally share very sensitive end user data like their location throughout the day with third parties that you might not have intended to share their data with or even realized you were doing it,” Stevenson said.

“So we’ve been very cautious about hanging our virtual hats on any application which relied too strongly on being able to say that Katherine Stevenson was on the first floor of Grawemeyer Hall at 10 AM on Tuesday, then she went upstairs to Room 201, and that sort of thing, the privacy implications of holding on to all of that data where it’s a little more than we wanted to bite off on,” Stevenson continued.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF)

Coronavirus apps and compliance

The utility of a coronavirus app is wholly hinged on user data and compliance. The output information is only as good as the data these systems are capable of leveraging and not everyone is on board with serving up their private information on a silver platter. In fact, according to a recent survey, more than 70% of respondents said they would not download a contact tracing app with privacy being the predominant concern.

“Given the public opinion seems to be very mistrustful of these sort of location tracking apps, at least in the hands of an entity like ours, we’re not convinced that that’s a good investment for us to make in light of the limited funds we have available to pursue this,” Stevenson said.

Even if the university developed an app, the institution does not believe it would have a high rate of compliance based on public polling and university internal polling, according to Stevenson. Instead, the university is taking an innovative approach to on-campus public safety this fall. Rather than inventing a new application from the ground-up, the university is utilizing the full potential of its existing technical systems without compromising users’ privacy.

“Our campus wireless network already has a great deal of data on all the devices that are communicating with it. I don’t know who those devices belong to, but I know roughly how many are in a given volume of space for how long. And I can track a given hardware ID as it travels around campus, I just don’t know who that hardware ID belongs to,” Stevenson said.

Next, the university is considering adding machine learning to refine the model and further maximize this data. These adjustments will clarify some of the noise in the data and paint a clearer picture of real-time events.

“When I’m walking around campus, I probably have at least three different device IDs on me, sometimes more. So we’re having to do a little bit of normalizing to account for the fact that, OK, there’s three devices that are sitting within the same cubic meter of space. That’s likely only one person. That’s part of what we’re doing with the algorithm training right now, is trying to get a better understanding of how to collapse that into a more realistic figure,” Stevenson said.

This could help identify high-density hot spots or congregation points across campus. If an area amasses large numbers of students at given times of the day, staff members can restructure the layout of the room to affect social distancing parameters. This data could provide insights into more efficient cleaning schedules for frequently used areas.

SEE: The new normal: What work will look like post-pandemic (TechRepublic Premium)

A cautious approach with flexibility at its core

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has completely reshaped the way we work, learn, interact and more. While lockdown-in-place measures have slowly lifted and companies have reopened for business in a surreal new normal, there’s no telling what the next few months will bring. If coronavirus cases surge in the fall, everything could change at a moment’s notice. The university is using the lessons learned in the spring with an eye toward an unknowable future.

“I know our teaching and learning people have been furiously working with faculty to help them design a hybrid learning curriculum in order to be able to pivot a lot more seamlessly as situations change,” Stevenson said. “We know our students want to be on campus and want to interact with their faculty, and we want to make certain that should that no longer be possible at some point in the fall, we have a lot more well-planned and thought out transition to more online learning than we were able to do in the spring during the emergency.”

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Many people using email to share files despite lack of security


Those polled by Nordlocker also use cloud services, messaging apps, and external drives to share files.

Image: iStockphoto/Suwaree Tangbovornpichet

Sharing sensitive or confidential files with other people can be a challenge. Email is typically the most convenient option. But by default, email is not secure. On their own, your emails are neither encrypted nor authenticated in any manner, which means that people beyond you and the recipient can potentially access and read them. Despite this lack of security, a survey conducted by encryption security provider NordLocker found email the most popular way to share files.

SEE: Encryption: A guide for business leaders (free PDF) 

In a survey about file sharing and security directed toward 1,400 adults, NordLocker discovered that 58% of those in the US and 56% of those in UK use email as the most common method of sharing files. Some 35% of the respondents use cloud services to share files, 27% of people in the US and 46% of those in the UK use messaging apps, and 14%-15% use external drives. Only 10% use file transfer services such as WeTransfer.

“Even though email is one of the most popular targets for cyberattacks, people still trust it with their personal information,” Oliver Noble, an encryption specialist at NordLocker, said in a press release. “If your email gets hacked, all of your attachments, such as sensitive documents or private photos, can fall into the hands of criminals.”

Cybercrime is something that’s affected many of the people surveyed. More than half of the respondents (67% in the US and 55% in the UK) said they’ve been the victim of a malicious cyberactivity at least once. Some 46% of people in the US and 33% of those in the UK has been hit with a virus on their computer.

Further, 32% of US users and 20% of UK users users have clicked on a link in a scam email. Some 7% of users from the US and 8% of those from the UK were asked to pay a ransom to regain access to their own files. Plus, 23% in the US and 14% in the UK have had passwords stolen.

People who’ve been victims of cybercrimes are more security conscious. As an example, 39% of people in the US and 32% of those in the UK who haven’t been hit with malicious cyberactivity don’t protect their files. But for those who have been victims, those numbers drop to 16% and 19%, respectively.

Still, a full 75% of those surveyed said they do protect their files in some way. Among them, 46% opt to use passwords, 16% use encrypted cloud storage, and 12% said they manually hide files on their computer. Only 10% protect their files with dedicated encryption tools.

“Even though the safest way to protect files is encryption, NordLocker research shows that only 1 out of 10 people uses an encryption tool to protect their files,” Noble said. “The results indicate that cybersecurity is still murky waters to some computer users, and public education on the matter needs improvement. There’s a silver lining to this, as half of the respondents (50% of US users and 56% of those from the UK) have heard about the possibility to protect their files with encryption.”

People naturally value certain types of files more than others. In the US, medical records and tax records tied for the No. 1 spot, each considered the most private and valuable types of files by 72% of the respondents. Some 67% of US users cited photos as the most valuable, while 65% pointed to work-related files. In the UK, photos were seen as the most private and valuable file types by 70% of those polled. Some 69% of UK users pointed to medical records, 60% to work-related files, and 60% to tax records.

“Although users consider photos as the most valuable, these types of files don’t hold any sensitive information that could be used in a scam,” Noble said. “On the other hand, various documents, tax information, and medical records contain Social Security numbers and bank account details, which could cause people financial harm or pose a risk of identity theft.”

If email is considered an unsafe way to share files, what other options are available for people?

“The safest way to share your files is by encrypting them first,” Noble told TechRepublic. “If you use a reliable encryption tool, you can securely share them in any way that suits you. After you encrypt files on your computer, you can transfer them anywhere, for example, send them via email or instant messaging apps, upload them to your favorite cloud provider, or put them on a removable drive. Only you and the recipient, who you share access to the encrypted file with, can safely see its contents.”

If people still want to share files via email due to the convenience, Noble urges them to take the following steps:

  • Password protection is key. People need to enable two-factor authentication where possible or use password generators to create complex passwords.
  • Some email service providers allow you to set an expiration date on your email, so that after a certain date, it will no longer be readable by the recipient or anyone else.
  • Before signing up for an email provider, users need to familiarize themselves with its terms of service. The latter should explain what kind of security is offered, how the data is being processed, whether it passes through automated scanning, etc.
  • Cybersecurity experts recommend using privacy-focused email providers like ProtonMail or Tutanota that feature built-in encryption, which automatically secures the entire mailbox and address book.

Finally, cloud-based file sharing sites that use encryption are another option.

“File encryption is the safest way to store data both on your device and in the cloud,” Noble said. “If taking your own care of encryption sounds like too much of a hassle, the easiest way then is to look for providers that offer automatic encryption to the data they handle.”

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This project is using fitness trackers and AI to monitor workers’ lockdown stress


Times are tough and employee wellbeing is more important than ever. PwC is harnessing AI and fitness-tracking wearables to gain a deeper understanding of how work and external stressors are impacting employees’ state of mind.

Employee wellbeing has become a central focus for businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, with the pandemic putting the spotlight on the need to promote healthy working habits and ensure staff are provided with
the support they need
to maintain good mental health while working far from the office and colleagues.

While many companies may have attempted nothing more sophisticated than regular team catch-ups on Zoom to keep an eye on things, some have turned to more novel approaches to gain insight into
how staff are faring
during difficult times.

SEE: Managing AI and ML in the enterprise 2020: Tech leaders increase project development and implementation (TechRepublic Premium)  

For the past three weeks, professional services firm PwC has been running a pilot scheme that combines machine learning with wearable devices to understand how lifestyle habits and external factors are impacting staff. The project involves volunteers using fitness trackers that collect biometric data around the clock which, when combined with a series of cognitive and biometric tests and fed through an AI algorithm, aims to help staff better manage stress.

The key to this initiative is observing how factors such as sleep, exercise and work diary load play a part in how PwC staff perform at work. Eventually, it is hoped workers will gain a better understanding of how they can structure their approach to work and home life in a way that benefits their
mental health
and wellbeing.

It’s a theme that resounds with many of us currently, which perhaps explains why the initiative has proved so popular with PwC employees: the company saw 2,000 applicants sign up within four hours of posting the project on its internal intranet for a trial with only 1,000 spaces.

“I think if we went higher profile, we could have had a multiple of that number, which starts to get up to a pretty high percentage of the organization in the UK,” says Euan Cameron, PwC’s UK artificial intelligence lead.

“What is says to me – and it’s really the first learning from the exercise – is that there’s really no shortage of interest… we would never do this if an organization tried to compel people to do this. I think you’d be in different territory, frankly.”

The pilot scheme at PwC came about following discussions between Cameron and associates at IHP Analytics, a boutique analytics firm that specializes in human performance in elite sports. The firm, which has worked alongside professionals in Formula 1 racing and Olympic cycling, is aiding the development of the underlying platform, which it eventually hopes to offer to external clients.

“One of the areas, even before COVID, that we knew was developing fast was a deeper understanding of human performance and human wellness,” Cameron says. “We want to marry these two together to do something positive for our people.”

Vicki Broadhurst, a senior manager at PwC, volunteered for the trial in order to help her understand how her physical activity linked to her cognitive performance and how she felt.

She tells TechRepublic that her participation in the trial stemmed from her own interest in the role of artificial intelligence in psychometric testing, as well as wanting to remain active during lockdown.

“I wanted to take part in something that would challenge me to be more active whilst I was at home all the time, as well as give me targets to work towards,” she says.

“As a morning person, it’s made me realize that if I don’t get my steps in early in the day I’m less likely to do them later. This means that I now structure my day around regular early breaks to do exercise, which makes me much more productive overall.”

Crucial to the fitness tracker – a Garmin Vivosmart 4, in this instance – is that it can capture heart rate variability, or HRV. Cameron refers to this as “the Rosetta Stone” in biometrics, insofar as it is able to record changes in the wearer’s pulse rate associated to stress, energy and recovery – “which is really important for what we’re looking at here,” he says.

In addition to wearing the fitness tracker 24/7 (Cameron stresses that participants are allowed to take them off to shower), employees are asked to perform a series of cognitive tests, either delivered via online games or short questionnaires.

Performed daily, these 10-minute assessments have been designed to evaluate individuals’ short-term memory, concentration, and task-switching ability, to help them understand how on the ball they are, from a cognitive point of view, each day.

This is combined with a one-off set of more in-depth baseline tests, which aims to provide insight into “some deeper personality traits”, Cameron explains, including risk appetite and working preferences.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

Finally there’s the contextual data. This looks at factors such as how heavy an individual’s workload is on any given day, how many hours they’re working, and even their home working environment: “How fast is your broadband, have you got a dedicated space where you can work, are your kids at home, things like that,” says Cameron.

“It’s quite a rich dataset, which will help us understand what’s driving performance at an aggregated level. But primarily, [it’s] to help individuals understand a little bit more about their mental and physical response to the world of work, and the different stimuli that exist.”

This in turn provides an opportunity to learn “something about how we cope as individuals, and as an organization,” says Cameron.

Cameron isn’t in a position to share any data insights from the trial yet – it’s early days, after all – and the data needs to be “stress-tested, poked and prodded,” he says. However, he does suggest that early insights point to an “inflection in energy and stress levels” when staff have more than seven appointments in a day.

For Broadhurst, the most interesting insights have been those into her sleeping patterns, as well as the more subtle nudges the smartwatch delivers to encourage her to move around or stay hydrated.

“Stress levels are not something that I have been particularly focused on as I am generally quite a relaxed and calm person,” she explains.

“I’m more interested in things like my sleep patterns, and the device can help with that as it breaks them down to light sleep, REM sleep and deep sleep. I discovered that I’m getting more sleep in general than before, but not as much deep sleep.

“I have also done some baseline cognitive tests, and we should get the results soon, which I’m looking forward to.”

Equally interesting for Cameron is the variation in individuals who underestimate or overestimate their stress levels, accordingly. “Some people are exceptionally good at being in-tune with their bodily response, whereas other people who find it quite difficult,” he says.

“It’s prompted me to look at alternative ways to manage my energy levels, manage my stress levels and think about relaxation, other than sleep and exercise outlets. I think a lot of the benefit of this from an organization… comes from a thousand small changes that come from the grass roots, on the basis of the information and insight you put in peoples’ hands.”

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