Small sensors, big impact

A major change will make its way to The Union; one that will involve every student entering and leaving the building. Chances are, most students won’t even notice it’s there. Infrared sensors, or People Counters, which will track how many students are in The Union at any given time, are in the installation process.

The People Counters will be installed in all of the major entryways of The Union, including the north, east, west and the Volstorff Ballroom entrances. The sensors use active infrared 3D video tracking technology to count the number of people entering and leaving the building during service hours.

Sensors similar to the People Counters have been around the union industry for several years, Director of The Union, Jenn Novotny said.

“We’ve looked at this in the last five years, but there were not enough testimonials about it … I’ve attended webinars and heard more and more about them,” Novotny said. The discussion of installing a sensor to track usage of The Union started last spring, and is the response to feedback from an advisory group made up of students, staff and faculty.

The People Counter was selected as a result of it’s 95-97 percent accuracy rating. The sensor has the ability to track as people enter and leave, and can sense if a person walks all the way in or simply paces back and forth in the vestibule, “this is a little bit more automatic and a little more dynamic,” Technical Manager of The Union, Mark Venhuizen said.

Other considerations when selecting a specific sensor included the climate and entryway light at the location of the sensor.

Previously, the only data available to determine the usage of The Union came from room reservations, which were tracked by Union Managers, and Dining Services registers. These could not be considered highly accurate because an individual could make a purchase at a variety of food locations, and be counted each time, Novotny said.

Having sensors installed eliminates the error of double counting an individual, as well as the human error of having someone miscount the amount of people in the building by hand, Novotny said.

The data retrieved from the sensors will be useful for a variety of reasons. “It’ll give us a better idea of when there’s a lot of people in the building … and this will help us have an idea for how many people are around in terms of safety,” said Kaylee Wegner, student manager of event services and former Union manager.

Authorized faculty can access the data collected by the People Counters at any time. All data will also go into an archive, so reports can be printed to track trends and usage. This information can help to determine necessary expansions and changes in service hours, as well as track how long it takes materials or fixtures in the building to wear out Venhuizen said.

A final expansion on The Union and an expansion to the Multicultural Center are two possible projects that could utilize the information collected. “Having the system means you can build justifications … it can give you the real hard data,” Venhuizen said. 

The data will serve as the base for justifications as well, as far as service hours of the building. The Students’ Association has previously worked to get later hours in The Union, and with the People Counters, “it’s not just somebody saying they want it, but there is compelling evidence,” Novotny said.

If the sensors read a large amount of people entering the building right at 7 a.m. for example, then Union administration can use that data as support for an earlier opening time, Novotny explained. Other universities have adjusted hours after monitoring the data from sensors for a semester.

“Last year when it was hot, for example, we were open 24/7 to provide a cool space for students, and we counted how many people were in the building by hand,” Wegner said. With the installation of the sensors, this information will not have to be collected by hand, therefore with less human error.

Other facilities on campus track usage in a variety of ways, the Wellness Center swipes student ID cards, and academic buildings can track class enrollment if necessary, Venhuizen said.

“[The Union is] the heartbeat of campus,” Novotny said, “[the sensors are] telling us things we didn’t even know we needed to know.”