How this device saved the University of Alberta money, time, and staff

A few years ago, the University of Alberta installed its first people counter in one classroom. Today, Alberta boasts over 300 people counters in its centrally booked classrooms across its 200-acre campus. People counters have enabled Alberta to reduce custodial costs and save staff time, as well as provide information on utilization patterns.

EAB sat down with Tony Maltais, director of infrastructure information and analytics for facilities and operations, for an exclusive Q&A about people counters and the technology-enabled future of facilities management.

EAB: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Tony. Let’s start with the basics: How do people counters work?

Tony Maltais: At a basic level, people counters are small devices that sit at a room entrance and track movement in and out of that space using their thermal energy. We first piloted people counters in one room of one building and have subsequently rolled out several hundred. People counters can be wired or wireless, depending on the application, location, and use.

What successes have you seen so far with the people counters?

The data has a number of applications. We use it to determine if custodial staff should clean each classroom. Normally, we would clean classrooms every night, without knowledge of whether or not it was used. Now, if we have data that no one was in there that day, we don’t have to clean it. Supervisors get an automated email an hour before shift begins listing out classrooms they can bypass.

That means custodial staff have fewer rooms to clean and their supervisors can manage the assignment of staff based on need. We can actually complete semiannual or annual cleaning activities (like stripping and waxing the hallways) because we have opened up more resources. It’s enabled us to stretch our limited custodial resources farther—getting higher value in the work completed. Our leaders are excited to complete tasks without increasing costs.

There are also broader applications for energy management and utilization that we’re exploring. As an example, these sensors can feed occupancy information into the building automation system controlling heating and cooling. We can use the data to prioritize classroom upgrades to the most highly used rooms. So, we are looking at many possible uses for the data, beyond just improvements for operations.

Did you face any challenges getting your custodial services team to adopt this data?

While the people counters indicate use, they do not indicate whether the room actually needs cleaning or not. We had a lot of discussion about what the tolerance should be and how many people accessing the room triggers cleaning that night. It takes as few as one person to mess up a room—but alternatively, 30 people could use it and not mess it up. So we built in and tested a tolerance.

Now, if four people or fewer use a room, then we don’t clean it. If there are more, then we clean. The number of occupants is a good indicator of potential cleanliness of a classroom. Realistically, a single visitor could have gone in and spilled their Big Gulp. We would then expect a phone call from someone entering the classroom the next day. And then we’ll spot clean it with day staff. But this rarely happens.

The people counters aren’t perfect. Sometimes the data will indicate a small negative number. This can be caused by not picking up an entrance of a person, for example. When you see anomalies come through, you need to have methods to correct or adjust your algorithms to take out outliers. You need to look at it from a statistical approach. We understand that even if the counter reports two occupants in a certain room during a certain hour, it may not be that exact number. But it’s in the ballpark—you know it wasn’t 20 or 100 people!

Who else at Alberta is making use of the people counter data?

We share the data with the vendors responsible for custodial services in some buildings, so they know which classrooms haven’t been used as well. We’ve also provided usage information with IT because they only have a certain amount of money for technology upgrades, and they wondered which rooms would make sense to invest in. So, we’re able to provide the most and least used classrooms to inform that decision.

What’s next for Alberta?

We’re looking at deploying people counters in more general areas, so we could watch how many people are accessing a building (not just the classrooms). What’s really cool is we’re trying to overlay that with wireless data. You can then look at people traffic patterns—you could potentially put advertising in the right place or service in the right place where it will get maximum exposure.

On a macro level, we’re also looking at real traffic patterns on the road. There are a lot of different opportunities here and we’re excited to see where this data takes us.

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