Being monitored – is there a ‘right’ solution?

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A few years ago, journalists at The Daily Telegraph arrived at their London office on a Monday morning to discover that ‘Occupeye’ sensors had been installed over the weekend on the underside of each of their desks. The management team defended the installation ‘…as part of the Telegraph's commitment to green energy measures,’ claiming they were simply conducting a four-week study aimed at optimising the building’s use of lighting, heating and air conditioning. The study’s subjects were not impressed.

Concluding instead that the system had been installed to spy on them, i.e. to report on how much time they took for breaks and how often they were away from their desks; the journalists had a field day.  By midday the National Union of Journalists had threatened a walkout and the story had been leaked. As the Telegraph’s management team rushed to uninstall the system, a dozen other news services picked up on the story and dubious articles about people having their laps grilled by microwaves had gone viral.

In all probability, the managers’ declared intentions were the truth. They would have known perfectly well that journalists who are away from their desks a lot, perhaps meeting a valuable source in the pub over a four-hour lunch, are not necessarily worse or better than those who are deskbound. What the managers bungled was the issue of consent. Had they obtained the prior agreement of the participants before starting the exercise, things might have turned out differently. It seems unlikely that the journalists would naturally have opposed an initiative with a green, or even a simple cost-saving, agenda.

This sorry tale was of great interest to us at Where’s Free because – whilst most of our competitors rely on digital touchpad panels, requiring the meeting organiser to register their presence at a meeting room on arrival - we use motion sensor feedback (combining it with information from Microsoft Exchange Server) to show users of MS Outlook when a room is unoccupied and/or unreserved. We favour motion detectors because they are ‘blind’ to who it is that’s in the room – simply registering the presence or absence of warm bodies. However, when used for desk occupancy, unless the desk is a shared one, then it is possible to match the desk’s owner to the occupancy history- this is what the Telegraph journalists were objecting to. We used to be far less interested in occupant counting, seeing it as a ‘nice to have’ feature that made it possible for managers to ‘slap the wrists’ of people who regularly booked large capacity rooms for meetings involving only a few people. However, that was yesterday. That was pre-pandemic.

Counting occupants now matters because it makes it possible to flag when too many people are in a room or open plan area to allow for social distancing. In the new world in which we find ourselves, one in which office buildings are half empty anyway, people are more interested in knowing ‘where’s safe?’ than ‘where’s free?’ A people counting capability will allow ‘Where’s Free?’ to flag, in real-time as well as historically, when and where social distancing breaches occur – reassuring employees and demonstrating duty of care on the part of employers. In order to add this capability, we have had to reconsider the array of property-tech solutions that there are out there. So, what are the options?

Least intrusive are solutions like Optex that count shadows passing photosensitive cells. If the shadow moves in one direction the technology adds to a people count. If it moves in the opposite direction Optex subtracts from it. Although many people are unaware of it, technology like this has been used in supermarkets and department stores for years. Retailers generally use it to predict peak and low customer visit times, planning their front-of-house staffing accordingly. The larger supermarkets also use the technology to flag, in real-time, when queues at the tills are getting too long, informing store managers when to open up more checkout aisles.

More intrusive are various types of camera. Video surveillance is now so advanced it is possible to recognise a face and follow its owner’s progress through a building and out into the street. Great if you’re the CIA and want to know who’s stalking your corridors, but isn’t this is too invasive for most use cases? Thermal cameras, sold by vendors like Eagle Eye Networks, are enjoying more take-up. They are capable of detecting when a person’s body temperature is out of normal range – offering, in theory, the prospect of timely intervention when a person arrives at work ill. Additionally, thermal images are sufficiently abstract to be comparatively anonymous. However, the truth is that people dislike having anything with a lens pointing at them. People are wary of their images being abused, even if they have been deployed with the best of intentions.

Somewhere in the middle, in terms of intrusiveness, are Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS). According to Gartner Research’s 2020 Magic Quadrant, HID Global and Zebra Technologies lead this field. They use tiny transmitters, ‘beacons’, attached to people and/or assets, with Bluetooth or Ultra-Wide Band readers picking up and relaying radio frequency signals to determine where the person or asset is in real-time. The technology has been well received in the healthcare sector because it provides a quick way, for example, of tracking down both a defibrillator and a cardiologist if a patient suffers a heart attack. These systems have been selling well recently because their features are of relevance to employers wanting to reopen their offices, as well as to employees contemplating a return to the workplace. Most systems offer contact tracing and proximity logging, so if a person who has visited the workplace subsequently tests positive for Covid-19 the RTLS makes it possible to obtain complete contact histories, allowing anyone affected to be warned and encouraged to stay at home. Although there are ways of ‘anonymising’ RTLS user identities, for contact tracing to work it is necessary to know who the beacon carriers are.

‘Geo-fencing’ is an RTLS feature for marking areas as off-limits to certain people – perhaps where product design takes place or HR records are kept. In the same way that a person who has recently lost their income might let a spare bedroom to help pay the bills, organisations suddenly finding themselves with a surplus of spare desks and meeting rooms but reduced revenue, will contemplate subletting their under-used spaces. A rise in ‘office Airbnb’ lettings seems likely whilst the current recession lasts. In this scenario, geo-fencing offers host organisations reassurance that the external people they start sharing their building with won’t wander into the wrong areas. RTLS is also an enabler for smart building strategies. If facilities managers have comprehensive data regarding how many people are where within a building and at what times, multiple interventions to the heating, lighting and air conditioning become possible - ultimately allowing for reductions in the building’s carbon footprint.

For RTLS solutions to work it is necessary for everyone in the building to wear a beacon or tag externally, typically as a card on a lanyard around the neck i.e. somewhere the signal can be picked up by a wall or ceiling mounted reader.  However, mobile handsets also emit a signal and are increasingly replacing proprietary beacons. The major selling point of mobiles is that everybody already carries them, avoiding the additional cost of tags, cards or beacons and the administration of them. Networking giant, Cisco Systems, now offer a solution called ‘DNA Spaces’. A software as a service (SaaS) product, it uses a signal strength/distance measurement engine to calculate the location of devices via its installed networks. Data, captured from just about any device picked up by the Cisco Wi-Fi, provides information on customer visits, their durations, employee movements and so forth.

This may sound Orwellian. However, the key question boils down again to one of consent. The subscriber’s location and movements within a building should be tracked only if the subscriber agrees to it. The mobile app ‘Find my friends’, for example, does precisely this and has proved popular with younger users worried they might get accidentally separated from their friends, or whose parents want to know their whereabouts. The app only works if the user chooses to register their device. People in the workplace are unlikely to withhold their consent provided they see a valid reason for doing so. A global pandemic is currently a good enough reason to yourself to be tracked and traced because doing so is in the interests of your own and your colleagues‘ health - but what will happen once the pandemic is over?