Take charge of your data

May 5, 2006

How do you design efficient, flexible, Data Protection Act-friendly, institution-wide storage systems for the ever-increasing amounts of information you gather? Electronic administration is the way to take the devil out of the details, says Steve Bailey

Compared with the established twin leviathans of e-learning and e-research, e-administration is very much the new kid on the block. Traditionally viewed as backroom activities, administrative functions and systems are, however, playing an increasingly central role in university life. In the face of internal pressures and external forces, e-administration is finally stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Universities and colleges are large, complex organisations, facing ever-increasing pressures to achieve more for less, and engaged in a range of commercial and professional activities extending far beyond their traditional teaching and research remits. It is no wonder, therefore, that the administrative infrastructure supporting these endeavours is moving centre stage.

This increased importance brings with it bigger challenges. The first annual report of the Higher Education Regulation Review Group in June 2005 drew attention to the "atmosphere of regulatory inspection, lack of trust and a compliance culture" that was emerging "with the potential to inhibit confident and innovative university management". In addition, a survey undertaken by the Joint Information Systems Committee, Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals shows that 34 per cent of all requests received by universities under the Freedom of Information Act refer specifically to matters relating to managerial, administrative and financial affairs within institutions.

While the IT revolution of the past two decades has led to a proliferation of information and information systems touching every aspect of the institution - from virtual learning environments and research grids to student record systems and intranets - one of the effects has been significant duplication of material. Data relating to an individual student, for example, can exist in dozens of different systems ranging from the central student record system to paper student files, alumni databases and dossiers kept by university support services and individual academics. There is seldom a department within an institution that has not developed its own database to help it do X or designed a system to achieve Y.

It is tempting to ask "so what?" After all, storage is cheap in this digital age where Moore's law for the rate of technological advance reigns supreme. What this ignores is the considerable risk associated with the uncontrolled duplication of data. This is particularly true when it comes to personal data because there is a direct legal obligation under the Data Protection Act to keep such information accurate and up to date. Think of the distress that could be caused should a student undertake a gender change operation but information regarding his or her new gender is not updated across the institution. Lack of consistently applied management controls is another related risk. The Act again requires that personal data be retained only for as long as it is required for the purpose for which it is obtained.

Given the numerous isolated systems that a university is likely to have, can any institution really say with any degree of confidence that it can comply with this legal obligation?

This issue and its resultant risks are not restricted to personal data. Under the Freedom of Information Act, there is a general right of access to all information held by an institution. To comply fully with the Act, institutions need to know exactly what information they hold and the reasons for destroying any information. What mechanisms are there for ensuring that all relevant data can be located, reviewed, updated or deleted when appropriate? The more copies of a piece of information that exist, the greater the risk of sensitive data being leaked, management controls being applied inconsistently or decisions being made according to outdated and obsolete facts. Awareness of the risks associated with information "silo systems" (those that do not communicate with and work with other systems) is not new, nor are attempts to integrate them to facilitate data exchange. The concept of the managed learning environment undertook very similar objectives in relation to the fusion of learning technologies and the management information systems that support them.

E-administration builds on these objectives but places a greater emphasis on achieving consistent management controls over information throughout its lifecycle, regardless of the system on which it is stored. By understanding the processes that create or use a piece of information, it is possible to consistently define the appropriate management controls for that information, such as the format in which it should be created, the metadata that should be captured about it, who needs access to it, how long it should be retained and what its ultimate fate should be.

Critically, this should be applied once to the master source of a piece of data and then applied consistently wherever an instance of that data then occurs. Such an approach allows data to exist on multiple systems but also gives the consistent centralised control required for all institutional information to be verifiable, authoritative and trustworthy.

The challenges involved in achieving this are numerous, but the potential benefits are considerable: administrative efficiency; improvements to the accuracy, reliability and usefulness of an institution's corporate data; and enhanced accountability and legal compliance. All of these factors are vital for the success of today's institution.

E-administration may be a relatively unknown concept at the moment, but watch this space, for it is definitely here to stay.

Steve Bailey is records manager for the Joint Information Systems Committee.
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