« The academic community has been very quick to embrace the new digital tools »

In a very short period of time, thousands of people at UNIL have switched to home working. In this context, how has the work of the UNIL IT Centre evolved? What are its current priorities? Interview with the director of this service, Adriano Barenco.

What are the priorities of the IT Centre today?

We continue to support the university community, in order to enable it to have the best possible working conditions in this situation. As far as our staff and researchers are concerned, we have deployed most of the tools. We are currently focusing on students who do not have the tools to follow distance learning.

Which means?

We want to help students who do not have the equipment by lending them computers, within the limits of our available stocks. It is a question of responding to critical situations and not of equipping everyone with new computers! We also troubleshoot people who have difficulties with their wifi connection. In addition, we support the Teaching Support Centre (Centre de soutien à l’enseignement) and the « Teaching and Student Affairs » Dicastery in the context of preparing for this semester’s exams. What can we put in place to manage these exams, be it via online MCQs or more elaborate solutions? How can we measure student performance? Finally, there will be a number of exceptions to these exams. This will lead to changes in UNIL’s study management system, SylviaAcad.

Adriano Barenco, IT Center director. Photo Félix Imhof © UNIL

In what state is the helpdesk? Is it overwhelmed with requests?

The helpdesk team operates entirely remotely. We have four to five times as many requests as usual, because everything is done by e-mail or telephone. To take an example, we used to handle 1,000 interventions per month via the hotline (021 692 22 11). Today, we’re up to 1,000… per week. But we were expecting it: on the one hand, the whole community has switched to teleworking. On the other hand, we have closed our counters.

You’ve beefed up the hotline…

We now have seven phone lines, compared to one or two before. So the waiting time at the end of the line, for users, has gone from 90 to 40 seconds on average. On the other hand, the problems raised are more complex to manage remotely. For example, the average intervention time has gone from 5 minutes to 10 minutes. Moreover, we cannot solve everything: if your motherboard is burned out, you have to change the part … A mobile counter, in the reprography space at the Anthropole, will be able to accommodate students who need equipment. Finally, for staff and teachers, we provide machines and replacement parts at the Amphimax.

What are the most common questions?

At the beginning, they were about setting up the working environment at home, with the installation and use of tools such as Webex and Zoom. Today, the community has taken these tools in hand, and we are receiving fewer requests for them. We have reached a kind of cruising speed.

Who is still working on site at the Amphimax?

Every day, a member of staff from the IT Centre is on the Amphimax premises to process mail and invoices. As far as the datacenters are concerned, everything is done remotely. However, even though our systems have redundancies, one person physically intervenes once a week, on average, to change a hard disk or power supply, for example. In this respect, we ensure very good service continuity.

Have you noticed any new spam or phishing attacks?

We haven’t noticed any large-scale attacks on UNIL. A few months ago, the UNIL’s spam filter was changed. It protects the us well! For example, on April 7, we counted 664,000 incoming emails, of which 602,000 were spam or contained malicious URLs. This is a regular traffic, but users didn’t notice it, since these messages were filtered at the entrance. However, the MELANI and Switch warning centres are reporting an increase in viruses, phishing attacks and other scams, so there is no time to let your guard down.

What advice would you like to give to collaborators, researchers or students in order to facilitate the life of the IT Centre?

Now more than ever, it’s the right time to adopt good digital hygiene. This term, which is a bit vague, simply means being vigilant, for example with regard to the emails we receive or what we share on social networks. Be attentive, as in everyday life! I suggest taking a look at this page, which contains useful information about computer security. To make life a little easier for the helpdesk staff, I encourage the community to take some time to look for answers to their questions by themselves.

Do you see any areas where this crisis will allow you to innovate later, when the situation returns to normal?

This crisis is an accelerator for the digitization of our environment. In the rush, however, we have « cut » a few corners and taken shortcuts. For example, we very quickly deployed Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Webex, tools that we would have offered much more cautiously under normal circumstances. It’s the same with the cloud. This exceptional way of doing things is in line with the position taken by the Conference of Swiss Data Protection Officers.

But afterwards…

When the situation has returned to normal, we will revisit these shortcuts. For example, it is not useful to offer all the videoconferencing tools available today. We will work to consolidate these tools, and ensure that their use is compatible with the data protection and privacy standards in force in normal times.

This crisis is also a test for the IT Centre team…

Yes, our team has been flexible and has played its part, but we must also praise the agility of the university community as a whole, which has taken hold of the new tools and practices very quickly. The IT Centre has also been able to count on the support of the Rectorate and the collaboration of all central services.