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Universities & colleges / Service redesign

University uses mapping technology to plan physical distancing into classes

By Andrew Sansom 01 Jun 2020 0

The University of Oregon (UO) is taking advantage of homegrown technology and ingenuity in planning for in-person classes and teaching to begin on campus in the autumn (fall).

One of the big issues is how to reconfigure space on a nearly 150-year-old campus that was designed to bring people together to learn, not keep them apart.

Physical distancing, the concept of staying at least six feet from other people and not gathering in large groups, is one prescribed way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. That means the university has to think differently about how it uses every kind of space on campus, from classrooms and offices to residence halls.

“The world has changed and every college campus has to figure out how it’s going to use space differently, how it can bring students back safely following public health experts’ physical distancing protocols,” said Andre Le Duc, chief resilience officer and associate vice-president. “When it comes to space utilisation we’re ahead of the curve at the UO in that we have comprehensive mapping technology in place and were able to figure this out quickly.”

Ken Kato, director of the UO’s Location Innovation Lab and Campus GIS and Mapping Program, has spent years with his team building software applications and data systems that create maps to highlight information useful to the campus community; examples include: the location of current construction projects; lead testing and mitigation efforts; and storm damage.

Kato’s team was drafted in to help with the planning efforts led by Le Duc and the UO’s incident management team. Based on guidance from health authorities, the UO is creating appropriate physical distancing protocols that follow state and federal guidelines in classrooms, labs, residence halls and other campus buildings.

Teams at the UO, armed with a mobile mapping app created by Kato’s team, have already evaluated and provided preliminary adjustments for the seating capacities for 300-seat-plus classrooms, identified non-traditional classroom options and provided that information to the provost’s and registrar’s offices. That means the university can begin rescheduling 3350 classes and looking at classroom modifications to meet certain criteria, such as physical distancing.

The custom software from Kato’s Location Innovation Lab, which is a division of Safety and Risk Services, enabled staff to complete this work in a matter of days. This information is critical in developing scenarios and course schedules for the autumn.  - University of Oregon

Janet Woodruff-Borden, executive vice-provost for academic affairs, said the university’s planning task force is taking a hybrid approach to scheduling, which allows classes with fewer than 50 students to happen in person and larger classes to be taught remotely. Sufficient core classes will be available online to accommodate students who want to carry a full course load and continue studying remotely.

“It’s been a lovely team effort to make this work,” Woodruff-Borden said. “People who may have never met before are working in unison to develop a thoughtful plan for fall that takes into account the needs of students, faculty and staff. The community that has come together is an amazing and truly resilient group.”

Room-level apps linking to other campus data

But the ability to do this type of work at the UO didn’t happen overnight.

“We’ve been honing room-level information across campus and developing a number of apps over the past few years, apps that can drop a pin in any of the 25,000-plus rooms on campus and hook into other data,” explained Kato.  

The team has developed a range of apps with partners such as facilities services, where the application can track service calls at a room level and give maintenance crews an exact location the moment a work ticket is submitted. It is the same system that is used to help students map their classes.

That technology was modified over the course of one weekend to help the university examine how rooms could be used for classes in the autumn while allowing a six-foot diameter space for each student.

“Where rooms once had a fire-code occupancy or instructional occupancy, the UO is building a COVID-19 occupancy,” Le Duc said. “Spaces that don’t meet the threshold for physical distancing are not an option. The first step in resuming in-person classes is to understand what spaces on campus can be utilised.”

Once the mobile application was modified, members of the university’s fire marshal group and environmental health and safety team fanned out across campus, armed with tape measures and laser measuring tools. Their job was to reassess the spacing of 300 classrooms and expand the map database with photos of entrances and exits, and variables such as fixed or movable furniture.

“Few, if any, of our peers have been able to move this quickly,” Kato said. “Our platform is unique in that it can launch a new app in a few hours. The data input is real time, so our teams were able to watch as photos and information were uploaded.”

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