Data is king

Data is king

Using data to manage current challenges and prepare for the future by Dr. Mike Entwisle, Education Sector Director, Buro Happold

At the end of February, the UK breathed a sigh of relief when the Prime Minister unveiled his four-stage roadmap out of lockdown, revealing a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel, explaining how and when the restrictions are expected to be lifted.

Even as restrictions lift, the impact of the pandemic will still be noticeable throughout universities, with continued social distancing, reduced learning and workspaces, and a combination of online and in-person teaching for some time to come. While many students and staff are keen to return, others may be nervous of doing so until after the summer, by which time the vaccination programme will have reached a majority of the population.  A Public Health England (PHE) study estimates that 17.8 per cent of university students in England had Covid-19 antibodies and a substantial proportion of students were still susceptible to Covid-19 infection in December 2020 – so, universities will need to continue ensuring they’re managing this huge, ongoing issue, while also making sure they’re prepared for any similar circumstances in the future.

Challenging times

Managing Covid-19 on site has continued to present facilities management teams with many challenges, as they implement social distancing measures and other precautions to maintain the safety of staff and students, while managing the day-to-day running of the estate – but the key to tackling these challenges is to look at the campus as a whole, rather than simply the individual capacity of lecture theatres, seminar rooms or break out areas and implementing social distancing in each of these spaces, for example. Before the outbreak, estates teams would focus on maximising the use of each space; this challenge has become massively more complex as we look at the effect that social distancing and virus transmission has had on this key metric. Universities are now focused on working out the capacity of their buildings and campuses.

For example, the wider picture requires us to consider how students travel to campus, explore whether universities will timetable longer lectures with fewer students, assess how many people can access welfare facilities like toilets and factor in cleaning programmes for lecture theatres between each teaching session. Will we see students based in one room with changing lecturers throughout the day – risking fatigue and a lack of concentration – or will lecturers teach numerous groups in the same location? And importantly, how can facilities management teams support this process?

Data is king

With data, we have knowledge; we have the power to make changes.  At a time when adaptability is the key to survival, using data and analytics will be even more important to facilities management teams as they manage the large-scale return of staff and students back onto campus, and adjust to a new way of learning.

Our analytics team is working with a number of universities to help them unravel this complex set of interrelated issues and to look to a future where teaching, learning, research and work environments may be used very differently from before the pandemic.  Analytics and dashboarding tools provide powerful ways to help to understand and demonstrate how social distancing works.  For example, data that maps how people move provides unprecedented insights into how people flow around a campus, where they congregate and where the unused space is, which can enable facilities management teams to make more informed decisions to make changes, which are backed up by analytics.

Sensors can be installed into overhead smart lighting systems that connect directly to the cloud and make real-time data available for analysis.  They can monitor how and where spaces are being utilised, and assess users’ behaviour; for example, how often people leave their desks for a break, where they start conversations and how long a ‘one-hour seminar’ actually lasts. A complete picture can then be built to demonstrate how effective an area is in terms of its space utilisation, environmental and energy efficiency, and, most importantly, connectivity, productivity and wellbeing of its people.

During 2020, we saw how our work allowed universities to operate at greater capacity than they had feared.  This helped them to improve the student experience and reassure students and staff that they will remain safe while having a meaningful presence on campus.

More than just managing space

It’s not just space utilisation and managing social distancing measures that can benefit from data. It can also be used to support mental health – and now has never been a more important time to address this.

It’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that the state of our mental health is intrinsically linked to our environment; living and studying in sub-standard buildings with unpleasant external surroundings has a negative impact on student wellbeing.  Conversely, universities that have invested in high quality facilities are reaping the benefit.  As our own global research has found, something as simple as improving visibility or ease of movement within or between buildings, or improving temperature, noise and air quality can be directly linked to positive wellbeing outcomes.  40 per cent of students studying in the UK consider their environment to be “very important” to the quality of their student life, yet this is surprisingly not acknowledged in any of the key metrics used in university rankings.

At Buro Happold, we’ve surveyed over 5,000 students globally and found that 44 per cent considered the design of university facilities to be average or poor, with issues of physical connectivity called into particular question.  Many university estates are in a difficult predicament and suffering from a chronic lack of investment, which the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate.  Further surveys of nearly a hundred University estates professionals have demonstrated the keenness to embrace the use of data to improve efficiency and outcomes, including staff & student experience, space utilisation, and working towards a Zero Carbon future.

So, how can data help to address the impact of the university estate on mental health?

Techniques are now available which enable us to use data to help universities see how design decisions impact factors that influence health and wellbeing outcomes, whether environmental conditions such as air quality, comfort and noise, or more complex issues such as access to nature, people flow and interaction.  This approach can inform high-level decisions to deliver spaces that offer the best possible experience for learning, creativity, social interaction and – ultimately – mental health.

A beneficial consequence of creating a campus that promotes mental health is that it will, by definition, be a more appealing place to live, work, and study. In turn, this can attract more students, researchers, and investment – key drivers of revenue and reputation. In one of the most challenging periods that universities have faced in many decades, the ability for an institution to continue to attract students, staff and funding and operate cost effectively is more important than ever, and the quality of the environment plays an important part in achieving this.

Looking ahead

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has taught us that learning and working environments need to change.  The biggest lesson of all has been that we need to learn and adapt as we go, rather than waiting for the next major hiccup to give us a wake-up call.  Through the better use of data, facilities management teams can be empowered to prepare for whatever the future may hold, all at the touch of a button.

The importance of the physical environment as a place to meet, interact, socialise, and work together has been reinforced by people’s experience during the pandemic, when this was not possible. It is imperative that we learn from this and ensure that buildings can enable, rather than inhibit, this interaction.

Similarly, giving reassurance to students, staff and parents is going to be crucial over the next few months.  Universities need to establish their post-lockdown plans now, so they can be shared with students, in order to prepare for a more reassured return to university – and data can play a big part in helping to rebuild confidence.

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