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EXCLUSIVE Booked in the Library

05 December 2014

How a London college uses sensor technology to eliminate students’ complaints about insufficient study space

Jeremy Tanner, director of commercial services and estates development at Birkbeck College in the University of London, would appreciate the quote from Brett Matthew Williams’ book, Time is Relative for a Knight of Time, about perception being nine-tenths reality.

The author was trying to point out that a misperception can eventually come to be seen as a reality if it gains traction and is repeated often enough. In Tanner’s case, the misperception involved students believing there was never sufficient study space in the college library. Eventually, word spread widely enough for Tanner to look for a solution to the ‘problem’.

First, it’s instructive to describe the challenges Tanner faces in terms of workspace. “We have one main building that was built in the ‘50s,” he explains. “It’s relatively reconfigurable but space is at a premium so we have to ensure we’re using it as appropriately as possible. The big pressure for us is that we’re a unique institution in many ways. We teach exclusively in the evenings and have predominantly mature learners – people who have day jobs but want to do a Master’s or undergraduate qualification.”

The college caters to 19,000 individual students and requires about 220 classrooms each evening between 6-9pm to deliver its classes. “In a typical institution you could stagger that across three slots, but we have only one. During the day, that space remains empty so we allow other institutions to hire it, but to meet our demand we have to hire another 50% of our classrooms from elsewhere.”

Tanner points out it’s not only teaching spaces that are precious – offices, libraries, support space and catering areas all need to be maximised in terms of space. “A big part of my job is juggling that balance according to competing demands,” Tanner says. “With respect to the library, however, there was consistent feedback from students that when they arrived at the library there were no available study spaces.”

The feedback, Tanner chuckles wryly, was ‘fairly anecdotal’. Nonetheless, those anecdotes had a habit of gaining momentum, particularly when senior academic staff was adding their voices to the chorus of dissent. “I agreed to monitor the situation and create more study spaces within the library. During the first few years, some book stock was removed because it wasn’t being used, thus creating more space.”

He was able to create additional space owing to the fact that the library is configured over four floors where the least popular study spaces (typically nooks and crannies) were utilised. As he progressed, he continued to receive feedback that there was no study space available in the library. “That was the feedback, there's no space available at the peak time of 5pm, the crucial hour before classes begin. That news reached the estates committee as a serious issue.”

Frustrated, Tanner felt something just wasn’t right. He’d increased the amount of space available, yet nothing had changed. He decided to monitor actual space usage by using walk-around staff to survey space. But that didn’t come cheap. “It cost several thousand pounds – over £10k - just to do that over a year at six points for a 12-hour period. It was always designed as a temporary move so we could disprove the perception that the library was always full.”

Tanner discovered that space issues peaked at 5pm when there would be 75-80% occupancy of the study spaces before that level dropped off quickly again after 6pm. “The results were useful because it set a pattern of usage. We worked out which desks were being occupied and it became clear that some areas were just being badly used or not used at all. Nonetheless, that finding was based on only six points of the year so we weren’t comfortable trusting that data entirely, nor did it offer solutions. It just gave us an indication.”

That’s when Tanner had a light-bulb moment: What if the solution applied for car parks, indicating whether there are spaces available and, if so, how many, could be applied to Birkbeck library? Using the data he’d already acquired about the library’s space problems, he took that idea to his estates committee. There was, he says, ‘lots of nodding’.

“I undertook to find the companies that could deliver something that could work for me,” Tanner says. “It was initially nothing more complicated than a Google search – which I’m sure is how everybody does it these days when they're looking for something new and different. We picked a handful of companies although none of them was offering the specific application I had in mind.”

The first hurdle was trimming down the list by removing the consultancy services and focusing instead on the technology providers. “We reduced the list to three, and asked each of them to demonstrate their solution. There were several sideways glances because of the odd nature of my request,” he explains. “It’s a very ‘off’ request when you consider how much the technology has evolved.”

Tanner sought his IT department’s advice in the conversations which led to OccupEye being selected as the technology provider. “Our discussions with OccupEye were constructive, which wasn’t the case with the others we’d brought in. Without naming names, the other companies’ salespeople were unable to answer fairly straightforward questions regarding the limits of the technology.”

OccupEye impressed Tanner and his team because it brought a demo unit into the college, listened carefully to the brief beforehand and configured it in the way they thought Birkbeck would want to use it. “Although their technology wasn’t designed for what I wanted,” Tanner says, “they could envision a potential application for what I needed.”

Birkbeck gave the process six months. “It evolved from an initial discussion with OccupEye – we decided to appoint them, got a quotation for the work, then worked on the idea for about three months,” says Tanner. “The key requirements were the battery life of the sensors and the frequency of the ‘reporting’ – in other words, we wanted to see it updated ‘as live’ every two to three minutes. Usually, systems take 30 minutes to collect data.”

The point of contact at OccupEye for Birkbeck was Neil Steele. “We didn’t know Neil until we started working with him,” says Tanner. “We had an initial dialogue with him, where he tried to understand what us nutters from the universities were saying. He was prepared to listen and take my request at face value. The difference Neil made to this was that the other suppliers we met saw the extra development we needed as a barrier. Neil and OccupEye, on the other hand, saw it as a huge opportunity. Fundamentally, it’s just a good product. With Neil I was able to cut through the sales talk quickly and just be direct about what I wanted.”

Steele is intimately connected to Cad Capture, where he has worked for six years and where he helped create the OccupEye brand and concept. “With a background in IT working as a key account manager for demanding blue-chip clients, flexibility in approach and a willingness to adapt to project and client-specific requirements comes naturally,” says Steele. “Combining this common sense attitude with Cad Capture’s ‘people first’ customer service ethos – something that emanates directly from our CEO and founder Simon Watts – allows me to fit our solution to a need in the best possible way, rather than simply offering customers a one-size-fits-all  ‘out-of-the-box’ product.”

While Cad Capture’s technology in itself offers the freedom of application in a range of differing scenarios, a true understanding of sector-specific client drivers and an acknowledgement that the small details can make a big difference for people is key to the company’s offering, Steele says.

“Getting to know the people, listening rather than talking, is invaluable in allowing me to constantly expand my understanding of what the market is looking for and adapt our solutions accordingly. Jeremy Tanner’s project at Birkbeck represents a classic example of a client with a set requirement concept from day one, which required a little adaptability from our side in delivery.”

Steele says he and Tanner were open and honest with each other from the outset and have worked successfully together since then to deliver ‘a first-class solution for the university that will improve space utilisation efficiency within the library, while simultaneously enhancing the student experience’.

“The additional time we invested as a company in ensuring Jeremy Tanner’s solution was fit to his requirements has already assisted me in taking OccupEye forward into similar environments. A happy client like Jeremy, who will speak to prospective users as a reference point, is worth far more than any words that I or anyone else here could come up with - and that’s the way it should be.”

The result is that the college has about 390 sensors, one at each desk in the library. The sensors report back to a central database on the status of each desk so students can immediately ascertain whether there is sufficient study space. “The screen is placed at the entrance to the library making it easy for the students to see,” says Tanner. “We’ve also ‘zoned’ the library into six areas so the display will indicate exactly where the desks are available.”

Birkbeck has taken advantage of mobile technology to further assist students – study desk availability is placed on a webpage so students are updated about space issues. The fact students are being constantly updated is also useful for the helpdesk staff who were previously being bombarded with complaints. “It’s a configuration issue,” says Tanner. “Students enter the library, see full desks all round them, then walk straight up to the helpdesk to complain that there was no space.”

Sensors aren’t the only solutions Birkbeck has added to its workspace. “We’ve also incorporated embellishments such as directional carpets which help students negotiate the floors, leading them to available workspaces,” says Tanner. “We’ve dispelled what was quite a popular myth because we haven’t had further complaints.”

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