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Digital assistants and other cloud-based benefits

There are lots of great features you could be using.

If you could patent a one-size-fits-all tool guaranteed to make every employee and student happier and more productive, you would, right?

So would Microsoft, Box and other cloud service companies, which is why they regularly offer products with these goals in mind.

“The University of Utah is always striving to leverage the benefits provided by our cloud service providers because they can assist our users and support them in their daily work, studies, and research,” said Mike Ekstrom, director of Communications Infrastructure in the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) organization.

There isn’t any one digital tool to rule them all for the simple fact that our work and learning processes differ. The sprinkle of pings throughout the week from cloud service providers may distract some, and keep others on track.

That’s why Clayton Norlen, product manager in the CTO organization, said it’s imperative to “use whatever platform your team or class is using, and choose only the add-on applications and notifications that complement the way you work.”

Regardless of the communication technologies you use, U community members are encouraged to think about data security and privacy implications, including the university’s strategic decision to move to cloud services when practical and cost-effective.

“Everybody should be thinking critically about their relationship with technology,” Norlen said. “The same scrutiny we put on technology in our personal lives should be applied to the resources we use at the U.”

The IT industry’s trend toward cloud services isn’t waning. In fact, Gartner’s annual report of top strategic technology trends predicts IT organizations will increasingly create new services specifically for the cloud, rather than migrate existing applications to cloud platforms.

In the broad and individual sense, cloud services can provide a host of benefits. At an institutional level, they can reduce IT infrastructure costs, reduce staff hours needed to maintain on-premises systems, and offer greater flexibility and scalability. Cloud-based digital tools used for work and education, meanwhile, offer real-time collaboration, file-sharing, and access to applications anywhere as long as a device is connected to the internet.

Cloud services and protecting user data

UIT has received a handful of questions about how cloud services in use at the U handle and protect the user and university data.

As an example, Microsoft Viva, previously branded as Cortana, is a “user experience platform” that’s part of the Office 365 suite and integrated with Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Teams. It’s a component of Microsoft’s Project Cortex—an artificial intelligence-based O365 offering that analyzes documents, conversations, meetings and videos.

Viva uses data available to you in your Exchange Online mailbox to present you with insights, such as a daily briefing email that arrives in your Outlook inbox every weekday morning, MyAnalytics digest emails and Insights Outlook add-in. Viva became available when UMail accounts were moved from Microsoft Exchange Server (hosted on campus) to Microsoft Exchange Online (hosted online by Microsoft infrastructure).

Viva is designed to keep actionable, privacy-protected data from falling through the cracks. Entities like the U continually strive to make sense out of countless data stores, many of which invariably end up unused or forgotten. A Forrester survey found that 60% to 73% of all data within corporations is never analyzed for insights or larger trends.

If, for example, you’d like to remember all the commitments you made to colleagues, students, classmates or your instructors in the past week, you could manually review each individual email or anything you’ve flagged for follow-up and turn system notifications off. Or you can lean on Viva Insights to surface that information for you.

Some Viva modules act like virtual check-ins on an employee’s well-being. Viva Insights, for example, addresses findings from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index that show 30% of workers say the pandemic has increased their sense of burnout. Viva Learning, meanwhile, responds to feelings that workers have about company culture, for instance, LinkedIn’s 2021 Workforce Learning Report that finds “upskilling and reskilling” as the top priority among learning and development professionals.

Regarding data privacy, Ekstrom said the U is continuing its long history of instituting business associate agreements (BAAs) and developing vendor software contracts with large companies like Microsoft with the intent to protect U data.

“We take concerns about data privacy very seriously,” he said.

Addressing the latest campus agreement between the university and Microsoft, Ekstrom pointed to data privacy statements from Microsoft about Cortana, specifically that the cloud product meets “the same enterprise-level privacy, security, and compliance promises as reflected in the Online Services Terms (OST).” For further details on Microsoft’s commitment to protecting user data, you may access the company’s full privacy statement.

More cloud-based applications, of course, mean more direct messages from vendors. If these messages or features are unwanted, Ekstrom recommends that you adjust your default settings to best meet your needs, for instance, selecting the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of Viva digest emails. Additional communications settings can be adjusted in an individual’s O365 portal.

No matter how a cloud service provider advertises itself as meeting the industry standard data security measures and complying with regulation requirements, the responsibility to meet applicable laws and regulations rests with the end user, and, institutionally, the U.

In other words, the use of cloud services doesn’t absolve the university, or faculty, staff, students, and affiliates, from the obligation to ensure that data is properly and securely managed in accordance with the U’s 4-004: Information Security Policy.

“The university is very careful to enter into agreements that protect user data, but there’s an onus on the user community to do their part, too,” said Chief Technology Officer Jim Livingston.

Laurent Lecointre, a data security analyst for the Information Security Office’s (ISO) Governance, Risk & Compliance (GRC) team, said one benefit of established relationships with vendors like Google and Microsoft is that campus agreements are reviewed by the Office of General Counsel (OGC) and vetted by the ISO “to make sure we’re doing our due diligence to protect the data of our employees, students, and patients.”

On a policy level, the university must abide by international, federal, state, and local laws to protect privacy and personal data, like the European Union’s (EU’s) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which impacts any entity outside of the EU that offers goods or services to EU-based customers or businesses. Other examples include the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for students and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for patients. The U also has its own regulations, too, including policies and rules that govern information security and data encryption and classification across the university.

You can learn more about the information technology and IT security policies that govern proper use and protection of U resources and data in this Node 4 article.

The concern with unvetted cloud products, Lecointre said, is “the more widespread our data becomes, the more challenging it can be to meet legal requirements.” Lecointre provided the example of an individual college that purchases an open-source cloud product that doesn’t go through the type of vetting that larger contracts do, or U employee “‘’ who starts to use a cloud service because it makes his life easier, but is also using it for work.”

“That potentially puts university data out there in some completely unknown cloud environment, without any kind of legally-binding contract,” he said.

In summary, online digital assistants are intended to provide personalized and actionable insights. Viva is just one example of cloud-based features and applications that the U enabled to help faculty, staff and students stay organized and productive.