We enter into the foyer of the main school building. This space has low ceilings with various school paraphernalia on the walls (honours boards, framed photos, a plasma screen scrolling through photos of the footy team). Everything is overseen by a reception desk and small open-plan back office. Two iPads are mounted on walls either side of the reception desk – the screens are lit up and boasting the school’s SinePoint Pro visitor management system.
It quickly becomes apparent that any visitor, contractor, delivery person or tardy student needs to sign into one of these iPads. As first-time visitors we are asked to enter a lot of different personal information – all of which are ‘required fields’. This includes email, mobile number and a finger-drawn signature. Despite my best efforts, my own signature ends up looking like a child’s scrawl with only room for my first name.
The system demands a photograph, and then helpfully asks if you want to use or discard it. My first photo catches me with my eyes fully closed. The second attempt at least has me with my eyes open. At this point the visitor is asked which type of entry/exit option they wish to use – ‘Face Scan’ or ‘QR Scan’. I opt for the ‘Face Scan’ entry and a paper sticker is spat out with my name, time, photograph and a QR code.
Having stuck the stickers to our coats we get on with our initial meetings with the school management team.
Sixty minutes later when we leave the school we instinctively go to the same iPads to take another photograph. This time the system simply waits for a few seconds and then bids me farewell by my first name. I am immediately interested to see if the iPad remembers me when I next visit the school. [… two weeks later I discover that it does!].
This visitor management system represents one of the first instances in which digital data will have been generated by our research in the school. Despite this being the first time that I have ever knowingly engaged with a facial recognition system, perhaps the most surprising aspect was how utterly mundane the whole process felt.
Schools have made use of computerised visitor sign-in systems for many years now – first in the form of expensive clunky kiosks, and more recently via iPads and other tablet computers. As such, I am well used to having to pose for headshots and then having inky name-badges and photo IDs being printed out onto paper stickers.
As such, nearly every stage of the SinePoint facial recognition process felt utterly familiar and routine. It wasn’t until we had left the school and the system recognised our requests to check-out that I fully registered what had taken place.
Just before leaving we briefly chatted with the receptionist about the set-up. She said it was ‘pretty good’ but would sometimes be flummoxed when people’s faces were shaded or obscured. She jokily said that the receptionist staff were regularly having to assist people who were not recognised upon departure. This might involve advising people to recreate their original photographed pose, or perhaps rearrange their hair to cover their face in the same way as the initial face scan.
There is a lot to think about here. For example, I had rapidly clicked through a lot of initial agreements and terms of service, so I was not sure exactly what these data were being used for. However, when I next opened by work Gmail I had received two automatically generated messages – one from ‘Clearpass’ informing me of my visitor account having been created, and other from Sine.Co providing me with details of all the personal data that I had unthinkingly entered into the system (including my photograph and finger-scrawled ‘signature’). This email also included confirmation of what I had agreed to, along with a couple of school evacuation floor-plans and links to five relevant school policy PDFs (‘health & safety’, ‘child safety’ and one file named simply by a string of 17 digits).
The email (and indeed the QR code on our stickers) take you back to the website of Sine.Co. This details a wide range of possible features and configurations of the system – including ‘unlimited data storage and useage’, the option to ‘force repeat Photo ID on each check-in for added security’ and the option for geo-fencing if visitors check-in on a mobile device. It turns out that the ‘Face Check’ feature that I selected to use in the school foyer is an optional feature that the school can choose to have running or not. The product also details a range of auto-reporting and analytics that the school can access – including the option for the school to “Export data into CSV and see the full picture”.
Interestingly, while the .CO suffix gives the impression of a multinational company, it seems that Sine is a company based in South Australia. Their business originally started with school visitor apps, and has since branched into visitor management systems for all manner of corporate sites and public venues.
This relatively basic visitor system and couple of wall-mounted iPads is an excellent example of the integral importance of digital data in terms of how schools now function. I am sure that this process will become routine after a few visits to this school – especially as I no longer have to input all our personal data for repeat visits when the system can now recognise and ‘remember’ me.
So before we become inured to this minor feature of the datafied school, here are few concluding questions to reflect on:
- Exactly what data is being generated by each visitor’s engagement with the SinePoint system? Where is this data being stored, how is it being processed?
- How accessible is this data to the school, or is it only being used by the Sine company? How is Sine reusing this data – for example, for training their algorithms, or providing elements of the data to third parties?
- How this is system altering the work of the two human receptionists still working on the desk? Certainly, we all felt obliged to talk with each other, and the receptionists are clearly still having to trouble-shoot any instances where the relatively low-tech system fails to process a visitor.
- How is this system altering the conditions of visiting the school, or arriving late as a student?
- How might this system be extended in the future now that the initial use of facial recognition has been established into day-to-day routine of school life? For example, how might facial recognition be extended beyond the reception area and across other areas of the school campus?
- Perhaps most importantly in terms of the ambitions of our research project … how might this data be re-used by the school for additional purposes – as Sine put it, “to see the full picture”? What policies, guidelines or procedures might the school community want to develop about the use of the system and its data?