Software glue holds cool key to future

December 11, 1998

As rival smartcard technologies prepare to lock horns in the struggle for a lucrative academic market, Laurie Burbridge celebrates the potential diversity and flexibility such systems offer while Tony Durham (right) visits a model campus of the future A doorway in a mews just north of London's Liverpool Street station leads into the campus of the future. Crunched Tardis-style into the floorspace of a two-bedroom flat is a working exhibition of the electronic equipment that now controls and monitors the comings and goings of staff and students at more than 120 colleges and universities. Here is the machine that prints out identity cards complete with an instant digital photograph. Here are the car park gates, library turnstiles and hall of residence doors that wave through the bearer of a valid card while barring the unauthorised. Cameras bulge from walls and ceilings in implausible profusion, feeding a wall of video screens. Hard disks so big they still cost serious money record all channels, compressing the longueurs of the night into a few megabytes, then grabbing the hi-res action as a door opens and people stride into view.

The Facility - the name is deliberately nondescript - welcomes visitors from many economic sectors. One day it becomes a university, the next an airport, the next a hospital. But in this business, education is at the cutting edge. Security is important to institutions that house valuable books and computers next to dangerous chemicals and germs. But a place of learning cannot be run like a prison: people have to come and go with the minimum of irritations or delay. An office or factory might have to issue security badges to a few new employees each week. A university has to register thousands of new faces every autumn, and many more around the year if it offers short or part-time courses.

The Facility, however, is not just a security exhibition. Further education colleges come looking for systems that can clock students into lectures, as a college's income is based partly on the number of students who continue their courses and complete them. Students are carrying loyalty cards, and all the reward points go to the college. While storecard holders are mailed with Christmas wine offers, students may get a call asking why they have missed three economics lectures and urging them not to drop out of the course.

The retail connection is not just metaphoric. At a few pioneering institutions a student card is also an electronic purse holding real money. The Facility's canned drinks vending machine, card-operated, perfectly demonstrates the kind of small purchase for which a credit card would be overkill but a smartcard is perfect. A cola machine or a laser printer can wire money to its owner a few pence at a time over the same network that staff and students use for email and internet access. An unwired machine can store the cash on its own smartcard until someone comes to collect it.

There is no visible clue as to whether the Facility is owned by a turnstile manufacturer, a camera maker or the people who make safety pins for security badges. In fact, all the other companies are the guests of Public Access Terminals, whose software provides vital glue between their products and the client's management information systems. In higher education that would include systems used to register students, keep track of the courses they take, manage the finances and administer the buildings. Add to that the payroll and personnel systems.

These comprehensive, integrated systems involve students and staff alike. Staff cannot just breeze into buildings where students require a card to gain entry. Nor can they assume that their movements go unrecorded. You lose some privacy, you lose some control, you lose your alibi for that mid-term flit to Umbria. You gain convenience, one card to carry. You gain the comfort that a stranger is now less likely to walk into your building and steal the laptop on which you carelessly left three years research data. It has even been argued that students regard a smartcard as a cool, high-tech accessory and, other things being equal, will apply to an institution where they can get their hands on one.

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