Hamilton-based artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) specialist Aware Group has built a tailor-made system for Canterbury’s Lincoln University aimed at helping the institution keep track of classroom occupancy in real-time.
Drawing upon Microsoft offerings such as Azure and Power BI, Aware Group designed and deployed a system for the university that puts cameras in teaching spaces that take snapshots of the room every five minutes.
The solution’s ‘people counting’ module counts heads using a custom machine learning system, which can also track how people move through a space to show where they’re spending the most time.
To ensure information privacy standards are maintained, the cameras themselves are hardwired into the network and are secured with the same safeguards as Lincoln’s existing CCTV network.
Moreover, the images only sit in the university’s Azure environment for a few days before they’re deleted, and any access to the small archive is heavily audited to make sure that the images are only ever used for checking accuracy or re-training the model for edge cases.
The solution comes after the university decided it needed to replace the largely manual processes it had in place to gauge students’ usage of its facilities for reporting to the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association (TEFMA) and for the efficient management of its classroom resources.
Until 2020, however, the TEFMA reporting required a member of staff to walk around different rooms on campus, manually count how many people were there and report back.
Not only was this time-consuming and expensive, but it didn’t account for regular fluctuations throughout the semester or year.
“We were doing enough to cover our compliance needs,” said Fiona Taylor, director of information technology services at Lincoln University. “But the data had little use beyond that. It was very difficult to predict room occupancy and build timetables in an efficient way.”
Amid plans for a programme of new building work and modernisation, Lincoln University hunted for a way to create a more accurate picture of how its spaces were being used.
Ultimately, the university approached Aware Group to build a new system that would optimise spending, reduce the manual work involved in counting heads and allow for more informed decisions that would make the experience of being at Lincoln better for staff and students alike.
The solution Aware Group designed and built was trialled in three lecture rooms as a proof of concept in 2019 and has since been rolled out to 30 rooms at Lincoln’s Te Waihora campus.
Tests have shown that the new system’s accuracy is on par with manual counting – but counts happen 24,000 times more often, according to Microsoft.
“Our people counting solution is an improvement on a manual process in nearly every way,” said Jeff Brown, solutions manager at Aware Group. “It’s less expensive, much more frequent and just as accurate.”
Not only has the new solution taken all of the time-consuming manual work out of its TEFMA requirements, but the university’s team can also view all the aggregated data from the cameras in near-real-time. A dashboard built-in Power BI shows the occupancy of each room as well as trends over time.
With the system in place, Lincoln University is now in a position to start thinking bigger about the possibilities of its data.
As such, the university is now continuing to work with Aware Group on the development of a reporting system that allows them to make the most of the new information, with the next step being the integration of the data with the timetabling system.
Lincoln’s new wealth of data will also inform its 10-year facilities refresh plan, which commenced in 2019.