Tommy Hor
Chief IT Officer
NUS Information Technology
Powering up a university

They are the ones you run to when you desperately need to recover that file that mysteriously disappeared or when your computer just won’t power up (despite rebooting). Without them, our lives on campus would be that much more difficult. Yet for a department so integral to the functioning of our daily lives, how much do we really know about NUS IT? NUS Chief IT Officer Mr Tommy Hor, who has been with the University for 15 years, shared about the team’s major accomplishments in recent months and what the NUS community can look forward to in the near future.

“One of our key strategies is to use technology to innovate, to integrate processes that cut across multiple departments, and to differentiate NUS from other players in the higher education landscape. We strive to build a single connected community,” said Mr Hor.

Among the pioneering initiatives NUS IT has recently launched to achieve these objectives is ALCA, an artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted service desk which currently supports two main subject areas. There are plans to extend this further to make it more comprehensive. “Of course, when we interact with the chatbot, it is constantly learning and getting more intelligent,” explained Mr Hor.

AI was also deployed for the new 3D patient avatar created for the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies at NUS, which incorporates both verbal and non-verbal cues to enhance students’ communication skills in challenging healthcare situations. Known as The Virtual Patient Counselling platform, it has benefitted more than 330 nursing students thus far.

To reduce administrative efforts, the new NUS Wi-Fi Guest Portal allows visitors to NUS to access Wi-Fi on their own via their mobile devices and a one-time password. Some 10,000 visitors have used the service each month since its launch.  

Facial recognition is also doing away with the need for manual passes to access certain facilities, with the technology already being implemented in several buildings across campus, with more to come.

For staff, file-sharing platform nbox was introduced earlier this year and has accumulated close to 2,000 users and 30TB of data storage in under six months. The dropbox-like application is hosted on the cloud, providing greater security features, automatic updates and virtually unlimited storage capabilities. For this reason too, NUS IT kick-started the process of migrating all staff email accounts to the cloud – no mean feat considering the number of accounts and size of data involved! In addition, all staff have been migrated to a unified communications platform through Skype for Business. In all, close to 65 cloud solutions have been adopted across campus, enhancing efficiency in areas ranging from event management to marketing and career services.

And who can forget the panic-inducing phishing drills we’ve received (and guiltily almost fallen prey to)? The emails were part of a concerted effort by NUS IT to raise awareness about the potentially disastrous consequences of scams and cybersecurity attacks.

Ultimately, technology is only as good as the people who implement it, so we are actively developing the talent pool in NUS IT by providing avenues for our staff to acquire new knowledge and skills in order to keep abreast of the latest market and technology developments.

NUS IT has also worked closely with several offices throughout the University in its efforts to power up a connected campus. This includes partnering the Office of Privacy and Compliance and Office of Human Resources to consolidate conflict of interest declaration exercises; the  Office of the Deputy President (Research & Technology) to establish a way for principal investigators to manage their research grants; the Office of the Senior Deputy President & Provost to launch the My Academic Programme platform to aid faculty members in their yearly academic planning; as well as the Office of University Communications and Registrar’s Office on the NUS Alert mass notification system to communicate with the NUS community in case of an emergency.

“In essence, the aim of all these initiatives is to modernise many of the legacy systems and to go beyond the traditional keyboard and mouse approach,” pointed out Mr Hor.

The department has its work cut out with a slew of new initiatives in the works guaranteed to keep the staff busy. On the cards is a next-generation learning management system developed in collaboration with the NUS Centre for Instructional Technology to allow students to consume study materials easily through their mobile devices, as well as an institutional repository of information that will enable researchers to better mine and cross-reference data from multiple sources for more informed decision-making.

Tommy 2

Mr Hor and his team at a staff appreciation dinner this year

Another work-in-progress is a unified digital workspace. “People are consuming services through various channels and very often the interface is different, so we want to replace this with a unified workspace that will maintain the same user interface whether they are travelling with their notebook or using their computer at home,” said Mr Hor.

To accelerate the building of a smart campus, NUS IT will partner researchers and industry to testbed solutions on campus, which has already begun to show promise in areas such as cashless payments, virtual classrooms and even automated lighting and air-conditioning.

The team is also transforming the University’s IT infrastructure to be more software-driven, rather than hardware-driven, in order to increase agility. To this effect, the department is upskilling its workforce.

On the cybersecurity front, there will also be enhanced efforts in behavioural analytics to enable a quicker response to suspicious activity in order to protect the University’s resources.

I’m not sure about you, but now that I know a little more about just what goes into powering up a world-class university, I’m definitely going to be more diligent when it comes to remembering my passwords. But if I forget…hello ALCA!