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Planner: the journey so far

April 5, 2019

EventMAP’s CTO Dr. Paul McMullan discusses the evolution of EventMAP's new activity and resource planning tool.

At a packed ARC conference last May in King’s College London, I presented an outline vision for a proposed software tool (Planner) which would aim to provide a one-stop application to allow university administrators, timetabling staff and academics to answer strategic and operational questions related to their educational activities and resources. The software would provide these answers via scenario modelling, planning and ‘what if’ projections, presenting information such as quality measures and impact of potential change, without heavy reliance on fine-grained, detailed data or – importantly – any major timetabling expertise.

As I pieced all the considerations and components together for the Planner whitepaper (available here) on which the presentation was based, one big existential ‘what if’ question still loomed large. Is it actually possible to create a single software tool which can answer a range of varied strategic questions, for an eclectic range of sophisticated users, involving multiple data sources of varying quality? I finished the presentation with the honest admission that I did not know, but it would be an interesting journey to find out.

Since that time, we have engaged with the Education Data and Insight Team at the University of Bristol to investigate and address a number of projection and modelling challenges and along the way help define and develop a working prototype of the Planner software vision. As part of this journey we have modelled the impact of projected multi-year cumulative student increases, removal of key teaching spaces (including entire buildings) and the introduction and impact (travel time) to the student experience of a new proposed campus. These scenarios are layered on a broadly practical constraint backdrop of staff and student preferences and time/resource restrictions.

As a result of this engagement, we have benefited from very valuable input from the Bristol team and have been able to create a working prototype of Planner on which the overall goal can now be much more clearly realised. Initial data gathering was straightforward, with very structured and complete data imported from the University’s timetabling system Syllabus Plus. We built a rich and flexible reporting system for data calibration, quality assessment and impact analysis. The modeller itself was optimised and refined to handle the scheduling required for up to 30,000 multi-week teaching activities, 400+ rooms, 5,000 teaching staff and 25,000 students, with each scenario-based schedule produced within just a few minutes, allowing for practical and speedy experimentation. The framework user interface for creating (high-level or low-level) rules/preferences and defining varied ‘what if’ scenarios was carefully designed to provide a modular, scalable system on which to build in provision for all possible future modelling questions.

It has been a creative challenge, but has been extremely rewarding and forms an important part of our ongoing product development strategy. There is still much to be done and our valuable relationship with the University of Bristol will also continue, with the hope that as we progress we can work with further institutions in a similar manner. We will continue to add more scenarios and provide further powerful analysis capability. Complex scenarios such as dynamic creation of building/room profiles based on projected activities are planned for the medium term. Work will also begin on creating a fully functional cloud-based version of Planner. Longer term, powerful visual tools such as real-time simulation will also be added and, from our experience outside the world of academic clients, it’s very clear that’s there’s a similarly huge appetite for a solution like Planner in the public and private sectors – where there simply isn't anything available with this combination of power, detail and ease of use.

So, the journey continues… The strategy for Planner will continue to be inspired and informed by the needs of engaged users and institutions, to enable a shared vision and allow everyone to plan for the sometimes unpredictable road ahead.

Dr. Paul McMullan



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