The power of data in campus re-opening:
A Q&A with UNC
Chapel Hill

For most institutions, the road to re-opening is fraught with uncertainty. To answer critical questions, many colleges and universities are turning to data and technology for much-needed insight. Learn how UNC Chapel Hill is leveraging data to assist in their campus re-opening.

Amidst a global pandemic, how many students can safely social distance within a single classroom? And how many people actually passed through a building’s doors today? To answer these and other critical campus re-opening questions, many college and university teams are turning to data and technology for much-needed insight.

For most institutions, the road to re-opening is fraught with uncertainty. Testing for COVID-19 remains limited in many areas, and a vaccine may be more than a year away. And the data facility leaders need to answer new questions often isn’t readily available.

Data is really gold; it costs money to collect it and maintain it. But what we’ve learned is that not having it is going to be a lot more costly. 

Abbas Piran, UNC Chapel Hill

To meet these challenges, interdisciplinary teams are working together to pin down facility utilization data in creative new ways. They’re bridging human insight with technology tools to meet social distancing and cleaning guidelines—while supporting the positive, in-person experiences that students and faculty crave.

To help institutional leaders learn from each other during this unprecedented time, JLL recently hosted a virtual Q&A: “Leveraging data to drive campus social distancing plans into the next normal.”

Following are highlights from JLL’s conversation with Abbas Piran, Director of the Facilities Technology Group at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

Effective Aug. 19, all undergraduate in-person instruction at UNC has shifted to remote learning. Regardless of whether your institution is holding in-person or remote classes, UNC’s approach to data can be applied to better understand your campus utilization and help you uncover inefficiencies and savings opportunities.

Question: What are some of the first steps you took in planning for re-opening, and what technologies have you been able to leverage to develop that plan?

Abbas: In April our provost put together a committee to plan for the return of students, faculty and staff to the university. I was initially asked to provide data for our classroom capacities—which we keep in our integrated workplace management system (IWMS). But then, we needed to determine what the new capacity would be with six feet of distance between individuals.

We started using a pretty standard process called conformal mapping—also called circle packing—to determine how many seats could fit in each classroom. It quickly became apparent that because we have multiple configurations in a classroom—including fixed seating, tables and chairs, and movable seats—we could not directly rely on simple formulas. We had to go inside and figure out what those configurations are and make adjustments.

Our next step was to determine how many students we can bring into our buildings in between classes. To do that, we used our geographic information system (GIS), coupled with mass motion software, a powerful pedestrian simulation tool. 

Question: Are you converting other real estate on campus to classrooms or student housing to accommodate social distancing or other needs due to the pandemic?

Abbas: Yes. We have over 65 buildings that have classrooms in them, but to reduce capacity to allow for social distancing, we still need more. So we’re looking at other spaces on campus including large auditoriums and performance spaces, as well as large arenas that we might be able to convert. A large percentage of our students would like to come to the university and have a face-to-face experience, and we want to do everything we can to identify the real estate space for that. Data is critical to that effort.

Question: We’ve heard from many colleges and universities that they are encountering data gaps. How are you using data and technology to accommodate social distancing?

Abbas: We are all living right now in an imperfect world. All of us are working with incomplete data to figure out a solution that is workable. Even if a university has a mostly complete set of data, there are probably holes in it. In those areas where we have missing data, we go into the field to make measurements, take photographs, use go-pro cameras and whatever else we can to get the data that we need.

We work closely with our registrar and the scheduling software they use to input space and classroom capacity, square footage and room numbers into their system. When they ask for the COVID capacity, we provide that data in Excel files so they can bring that into their software and analytics programs.

But we need to verify the data is accurate—and that has been challenging because our systems didn’t previously have seating and furniture details for each classroom.

For example, how much space do you need for the podium and where is it located? How much space does the professor need? Is there any protrusion of a column or other obstacles in the room? Are there tables? Where are the doors located, and do they swing in or out? All that detail is necessary for ensuring enough room for social distancing.

In addition to leveraging webcams to fine-tune data, we also went into the classrooms and worked with the interior design department to physically place those features on AutoCAD plans to provide the most accurate numbers possible in terms of COVID capacities.

Integrating our IWMS floorplans with our GIS systems has also been very helpful. Now I can holistically see all the floor plans on a big campus map. Those types of integrations and visualizations are critical as we go forward.

Question: How are technologies and data systems being used to communicate these social distancing changes with students, faculty and staff both on and off campus?

Abbas: Overall, clear communication is a key part of making this whole process work.

In addition to the website, our university provost sends out an update email to faculty and staff every week with new information and expectations. Students are updated via our student information system, and the registrars and others are in constant communications with prospective students. Our professional schools are engaged with their own students, too, so there are a lot of different modes of communications.

We have multiple communication strategies in terms of the on-campus experience. For way-finding, for example, we will use signage to keep traffic one-way in buildings, with dedicated entrances and exits so we don’t have collisions.

For each classroom, we want to make sure we have well-marked PPE stations so students can clean their workstations. Where we can, we remove seats from classes so it will be easier for students to know where to sit (or not). If the seats cannot be removed, then we’re blocking those seats with signage. We’re also providing signage to designate entrances and exits.

We also work collaboratively with faculty to ensure in-class technology supports distance learning. For example, several weeks ago we met in-person with professors in some of the classrooms to try out Zoom and other technologies the university will use to communicate with students remotely.

Question: Beyond meeting today’s social distancing guidelines, how else do you expect real estate and facility data to play a part in paving the way for the next normal?

Abbas: For now, we want to focus all our efforts toward the safe return to our classrooms, offices and other facilities. So, some data is simply being used to help prioritize our efforts. Our CFO and others are carefully reviewing expenditures, potentially postponing non-critical capital projects, both to help ensure enough space is accessible, and to shift resources to more timely efforts.

Looking ahead, we’ve learned a lot about the kinds of data we’d like to capture to improve planning in general. For example, if I look at my IWMS system, I know that I should capture more attributes about a classroom. I’d love to have a photograph of each classroom, with detail on the seating type and arrangement.

One of the things we are working on now is an occupancy initiative with JLL. We need to identify who is sitting in what room so we can plan accordingly how we would return certain segments of our employees from each department. Ultimately, we’d like to expand and scale the amount of data that we can capture.

Data is really gold; it costs money to collect it and maintain it. But what we’ve learned is that not having it is going to be a lot more costly.

Question: What recommendation would you make to other college and universities?

Abbas: Continue to look at the gaps in IWMS and data systems. Now more than ever, university leadership and staff are recognizing the value that IWMS and good data can bring in times of difficulty. We have to continue our investment not only in our IWMS, training and staff, but also in making sure the right data is current and available when we need it.

Is your institution prepared for the next normal?

Data and technology strategy is helping provide universities like UNC with a foundation for re-opening. But it doesn’t replace the need for human insight. Higher education leaders across the country are finding new value not just in ramping up data and technology strategy, but investing in people who can make sense of it all, too.