How sensors are helping colleges monitor occupancy

Through technology called Occuspace, institutions are able to track foot traffic in their buildings and make safe decisions about limiting capacity.
Occuspace monitors occupancy levels in high-traffic areas.

Baylor University and a number of other institutions across the country have turned to occupancy monitoring of buildings to ensure that staff, faculty and students remain safe and comfortable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Using technology from Occuspace, an internet of things (IoT) data solution provider, many colleges and universities are not only able to alert anyone on campus about potential crowds through a real-time app but also look at potentially opening up spaces previously thought to be off limits, such as library and dining hall areas.

“As the university was preparing for fall, we realized this was a tool that could help us keep our numerous study spaces in our libraries open safely during the pandemic and provide a valuable service to students,” said David Burns, associate vice president of library and academic technology services at Baylor. “It’s a convenient safety feature for our students given the times we are living in and an extra precaution that Baylor is offering.”

Developed by University of California-San Diego alums Nic Halverson, Linus Grasel and Max Topolsky, the technology works via sensors that can track “Wi Fi and Bluetooth activity from laptops, cell phones, wearables and other connected devices without storing any personally identifiable information.”

The occupants in each of the spaces are displayed through the app Waitz and through video monitors that can be placed at the entrances of each location on campus. Anything above the 50% threshold shows it as busy, while anything below registers as not busy. The company says that the monitoring is 90% accurate.

That piece of mind has helped the University of Rochester make more informed decisions about how its spaces are utilized and when to potentially step in for further social distancing in areas that become crowded. They have used Occuspace since August to track usage trends.

“Long before the coronavirus outbreak, staff at our River Campus Libraries have desired to get a better sense of how many students are using the spaces at any given time,” said Lauren Di Monte, associate dean, learning, research and digital strategies at the University of Rochester. “Each day’s data provides a chance to evaluate how spaces are being used and how they could be modified to make them safer or more accommodating during this precarious time.”

One concern about new tech implementation has been cost, but Jeffry Archer, the Dean of Libraries at Baylor University, says “Occuspace was a relatively minor cost compared to other precautions taken by the university.”

The technology is now monitoring nearly half a million students nationwide and in Canada. Amazingly, Occuspace was developed in 2018, long before the arrival of the pandemic.

“Before COVID, our technology was intended to help remove the element of surprise and frustration people felt when they headed out to a potentially crowded place,” said Halverson. “The pandemic has changed people’s comfort levels for proximity. We quickly realized the value our live crowd data could play in helping businesses stay open and promote social distancing while allowing visitors to feel more secure about the spaces they are planning to enter.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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