Student Project

Using Occupancy Data to drive Sustainability Decisions

Kevin Chean and Zeshan Nurani — Urban Systems Project

MEL in Urban Systems students Kevin Chen and Zeshan Nurani explore the potential of Wi-Fi occupancy data.

wifi occupancy

If you knew how many people were in a building at any given moment, what would that information allow you to do? Could it help you make better decisions to support sustainability initiatives?

These are just two of the questions graduate student Zeshan Nurani asked UBC faculty members and facilities staff in 2017. He’d learned about a project at UBC that adjusts ventilation flow based on real-time occupancy counts gathered from wireless network connectivity data, and he was curious to explore other potential applications. Nurani’s research and consultations with stakeholders across campus suggest that Wi-Fi occupancy data has the potential to optimize many campus services — from waste management to facilities planning.

How it works

Whenever anyone carrying a wireless device enters a building, the device connects to wireless points scattered across the space. This data can then be processed to determine the number of devices are in a location at any given time, and from that, estimates can be made about the number of people currently in the location. Occupancy estimates are stored in a database every five minutes, providing a high-level view of human behaviour at UBC over both space and time.

It’s useful information — several years ago PhD student Stefan Storey converted Wi-Fi connections to anonymous occupancy counts by building, floor and zone, which in turn linked to an application that automatically controlled heating and ventilation systems. The pilot project ultimately reduced energy consumption at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre by five per cent over a 12-month period and has since been installed in 10 additional buildings across campus.

Finding new applications for the data

Bud Fraser, senior planning and sustainability engineer at UBC, was interested in how this occupancy data could be used to advance sustainability on campus. He approached David Gill, a program and policy planner with the SEEDS Sustainability Program about creating a SEEDS research project to expand the scope of this initial work. The SEEDS Sustainability Program advances campus sustainability by creating partnerships between students, operational staff and faculty on innovative and impactful research projects, and the Wi-Fi occupancy data project seemed to offer an opportunity for interesting new initiatives.

“We wanted to see what opportunities there might be for stakeholder groups to benefit from occupancy data and explore how it could be used in other applications to improve sustainability on campus from both an operations and a planning perspective,” Gill says.

Gill reached out to faculty partners and staff — including Jordi Honey-Roses and Martino Tran from the School of Community and Regional Planning, facilities planner Steven Lee and energy and water services engineer Blair Antcliffe — to scope out the project and ask if they knew of any UBC students interested in pursuing research in this area. Honey-Roses suggested Nurani, a student in the 12-month Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) in Urban Systems program who was looking for an elective that would enable him to apply his background in computer engineering to sustainable urban systems.

Through his SEEDS project, Nurani met with several UBC faculty members and staff to get an initial sense of how Wi-Fi occupancy data could support sustainable decision-making in the areas of energy and water management, building operations, infrastructure development, engineering, and campus and community planning.

“Each person had different interests in this data,” says Nurani. “What started as a 15-minute conversation often turned into a two-hour meeting because we got so excited about the potential applications.”

David Gill, Kevin Chen, Bud Fraser, Catherine Alkenbrack and Zeshan Nurani

Transforming raw data into persuasive visuals

Nurani spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the existing data, extracting relevant tables and getting the information into a usable format. He then asked Kevin Chen, a classmate in the MEL in Urban Systems program, to transform the columns of numbers into compelling visuals. Chen generated a range of data visualizations, including multi-building yearly trends, comparisons over time, clickable dashboards, occupancy time-lapse maps, and density and energy time-lapse maps.

The two students then met again with campus stakeholders to present these initial data visualizations, which spurred additional brainstorming about potential applications.

Moving towards zero waste

One of the most immediately applicable uses for the data is in waste and water management. UBC already collects waste and recycling data at a campus-wide level, with efforts under way to collect that information at a building level. Having the ability to merge building and occupancy data would be extremely valuable, says Fraser.

“If we could access occupancy data, we could create intensities or benchmarks to look at the amount of waste generated per person. That would give us a nuanced metric, which in turn could allow us to develop mitigation measures – whether new infrastructure or a new program — to optimize recycling programs and reduce waste.”

Fraser notes that the same strategies could be applied to identify outliers in water usage, and that this information could then be used to develop and investigate strategies to reduce water consumption.

Managing facilities more efficiently

Nurani and Chen also met with Catherine Alkenbrack, director of infrastructure development, and Steven Lee, a facilities planner, to explore ways the data could ensure better use of space on campus.

As a facilities planner, Lee sees potential benefits in using the Wi-Fi data to find out if users are satisfied with the learning spaces and meeting rooms and whether those spaces are being used efficiently. That information can help planners decide how to optimally configure existing spaces or design classrooms and meeting rooms for new buildings to ensure they meet the needs of academic, research, administrative and student user groups.

“The data may also give us an angle to look at real-time satisfaction surveys,” says Alkenbrack. “Post-occupancy evaluation surveys can be difficult and costly to administer, and there may be opportunities to use Wi-Fi occupancy data to assess user satisfaction and experience in ways that give us relevant, easily comparable data.”

Seeing new possibilities

Lee says that the data visualizations developed by Nurani and Chen were helpful proof of concepts for “showing us what we have in the data and what we can derive from it.”

“The visualizations were fascinating,” adds Alkenbrack. “The various ways of representing the data were very useful and would definitely be applicable to different units of the university.”

As Fraser says, “if we could make this data accessible to researchers and operational staff, it could lead to useful and interesting outcomes in areas we haven’t even thought of.”

For that to happen, the Wi-Fi occupancy data would need to be combined with other data sets. And to that end, the project has also become something of a rallying cry for the importance of open data.

Nurani and Chen’s final report to stakeholders recommends that UBC develop an open data platform for student and staff use, as well as open data standards and a user screening process for sensitive data. “The potential of open data gets me really excited,” says Nurani. “This Wi-Fi data and the many other campus datasets are a gold mine. If UBC wants innovation, this is where to look – there are so many projects that could stem from this.”

Gill says that faculty members and staff were “thrilled with the results,” and that the dialogue generated by the process and the innovative approach to data visualization have provided many new insights and ideas for sustainability initiatives.

“For me, this shows the untapped potential for innovation that happens when we give students access to data and to the people who are facing sustainability challenges,” says Gill. “If this is what two students can do, imagine unleashing the potential of an entire program at a larger scale.

Read the full report Exploring the Potential of Wi-Fi Occupancy Data.

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