Cedarville University is a small, private Christian college in Ohio. The Midwest university teaches about 4,000 students through its more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and online programs.

Nathanael Biggs, Network Analyst for Information Technology at Cedarville University tells Security that the university values the on-campus experience it provides to students. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down educational institutions across the country in March 2020, the university set up a COVID-Response Team to determine response protocols and how it would get students back as safely as possible. Cedarville University shut down to in-person learning during its spring 2020 semester.

“So, when it came to looking to the fall (2020) semester, we made it a priority to set up a plan where we could be as successful as possible,” Biggs says. That plan included condensing the fall semester to conclude by Thanksgiving and giving students an extended holiday break through mid-January. The spring 2021 semester will also be condensed as well, starting later at the beginning of the semester and forgoing the typical Spring Break.

In addition to outdoor and virtual worship services, Cedarville administrators were looking for solutions to help students reduce crowding and encourage social distancing. One of the areas within campus that the university set their sights on was its dining facilities. In total, the campus has seven locations where students can get food on campus, including a traditional cafeteria, a restaurant and food court, as well as several “Grab & Go” takeout stations where students can grab a quick meal on their way to class.

When it came to on-campus dining, Cedarville was navigating a couple of challenges, Biggs says. Over the last few years, the university had opened up its new food court facility, along with several grab-and-go stations. “One of the problems we were facing is students didn’t necessarily know what the dining options were. And second problem was we didn’t know how many people were currently waiting in line at each of those locations,” Biggs says.

The response team ultimately determined that technology could help solve both problems.

“We talked through a lot of possibilities for tracking occupancy and line length. Everything from manual observation and reporting by food service workers to high-dollar AI-based video analytics platforms,” Biggs says.

The university decided to deploy a counting solution by BlueZoo. Seven sensors were deployed throughout the dining areas. The integrated Wi-Fi radios on each sensor passively listen for Wi-Fi probes sent spontaneously by mobile phones in the determined range of detection, and are able to collect data to give an accurate depiction of the wait time for each area.

With the help of BlueZoo and its APIs, Biggs and others in the IT & marketing departments, took the data from the sensors and made its CrowdChecker app for Cedarville Students. The app gives students and users a color-coded picture of how busy area dining options are, along with information about whether they are open or closed. It was important for the software to be able to override the BlueZoo data in the event that it was wrong: i.e. having the app show “no waiting” at a restaurant when it is in fact closed.

At first, the Cedarville team needed to calibrate the sensors to determine detection range for accurate data. They also used their existing security cameras in the area to double-check the data it was receiving from the BlueZoo sensors to ensure accuracy.

“We tweaked the sensors for how sensitive we wanted them to be and we used our security cameras to compare what the sensors were telling us with what we were seeing while fine-tuning the system,” Biggs says.

When the fall 2020 semester began and students were first getting used to the new normal of life on campus, Cedarville’s CrowdChecker web app was the most popular page on its website for several weeks. As students, faculty and staff developed routines, traffic decreased a bit, but the site still sees a substantial number of hits as students and staff check in to see where they can go in order to avoid lines.

Biggs says he doesn’t know Cedarville’s long-term plans for the BlueZoo solution and CrowdChecker app just yet, but says he foresees value for the data even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat. “There’s a continued value there for telling people what is busy. Even without COVID, people like to know where there are lines,” he says. He adds that some of the data gathered from the sensors can give the university greater overall insight into the university’s busiest days of the week or busiest times of the day to help with scheduling or planning purposes.