UO lab follows an innovative course with campus mapping

A map of the EMU interior

For anyone searching for one of the 22,000 rooms on campus, or trying to maneuver around recent storm damage, or tracking down an all-gender restroom, or even locating a notable landmark from the movie “Animal House,” there’s a map for that, thanks to the Campus GIS and Mapping Program.

This division of UO’s Safety and Risk Services aims to improve efficiency and safety on campus with the help of spatial data and maps — lots and lots of maps.

“Many groups on campus have important data; our job is to figure out how to tell a story with it,” said Ken Kato, the program’s director. “The nexus of safety and efficiency is our mission.”

Through one of its main initiatives, Campus GIS and Mapping creates “story maps” to highlight information that’s useful to the campus community, like the whereabouts of current construction projects, lead testing and mitigation efforts, and storm damage.

“We talk to real people with real problems and find cutting-edge solutions,” Kato said.

The group also helped bolster the university’s commitment to inclusion and equity. People can now find interactive maps that help locate the all-gender restrooms on campus and let parents find the closest lactation support room

“The interactive map is an incredible resource for our students, particularly marginalized and underrepresented populations like members of the LGBTQIA+ community and student parents,” said Fatima Pervaiz, director of the ASUO Women’s Center. “Having an accessible, interactive map to display specific locations for gender-neutral restrooms, lactation support rooms and other culturally sensitive spaces truly illustrates our commitment to providing a safe, equitable and affirming campus climate.”

These specific maps are possible thanks to the help of an especially innovative technology that the group developed — the ability to go inside buildings.

“We can take you right inside, up, down, in and out,” Kato said, explaining that the development is a product of years of hard work and something so advanced that many technology companies are still trying to figure it out. The UO’s GIS team was even recognized with the Special Achievement in GIS Award from the geographic information company Esri for the innovation.

Most of the maps that Campus GIS and Planning create start with a base map of campus. The team then adds layers to it for things that Kato classifies as “hot.”

Or — as in the case of the recent extreme weather — very, very cold. When December’s ice storm hit campus, the team got right to work creating a digital tool to make the UO community aware of the storm’s impacts and help them avoid hazards.

The custom map allowed users to identify unsafe areas of campus and provided real-time updates to risk levels as cleanup crews tackled the damage. More than 8,000 people accessed the resource in the wake of the storm.

“They are true innovators who can take campus data and make it spatial and usable for students, faculty and staff,” said Andre Le Duc, associate vice president for safety and risk services. “Like the winter hazard map they developed during our last snow and ice storm — they linked data from the field on the evolving situation to the campus map to provide the campus community with real-time information on hazards.”

The base map itself offers many features to improve safety and efficiency on campus. Users can find paths that are lighted at night, bike racks — both covered and uncovered — bike repair stations, emergency call boxes and bus stops, and they can determine the best routes for accessibility.

“We even had a passionate group of ASUO students test the mobile data-collection software to ensure accuracy with accessibility and the equality data and information,” Kato said, explaining that collaboration with students helps his group produce the most helpful products for campus.

“These maps are made for Ducks, by Ducks.”

During the annual Campus Night Safety Walk, students teamed up with Campus Planning and Facilities Management, the UO Police Department and a number of campus partners to identify areas in need of better lighting or landscaping to improve safety. Kato’s team outfitted the students with a mobile app that pinpointed each location they identified as needing action and then plotted them directly to a map the exterior lighting team uses to improve safety and track progress.

The Campus GIS and Mapping team has played a critical role in safety initiatives on campus for a number of years. The current iteration of the program actually has roots in the safety efforts behind the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field.

When the competition came to Eugene in 2008, the UO mobilized an emergency management team to prepare and manage safety efforts throughout the event. Kato coordinated with this team and offered mapping technology to help make the incident management process more efficient and productive.

Since that first coordinated effort, the group has elevated its ability to contribute to incident response and management. It has activated location-based communications at events across campus to help track and respond to incidents. Real-time updating during incidents like the ice storm is a vital resource for the UO because it allows timely analysis and action.

Kato currently is working on integrating technology to expand on these initiatives for future maps.

“We are working on incorporating sensors that will allow the UO to track and measure things like temperature, light and sound across campus,” he explained. “If a sink overflows in a chemistry lab, this kind of technology could flag it and trigger a quick response.”

Kato jokes that the ultimate goal of his group is to “work themselves out of a job.” They’re currently developing technology, known as an application programming interface, that will enable users to generate their own story maps, dropping pins and color-coded markers to help tell their individual stories.  

They are also coordinating with academic partners on campus, including an upcoming exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art that will integrate mapping technology to make information about the art more accessible and interactive for museum-goers.

Many more pleasant surprises probably are in store for the campus community. Kato fondly refers to his team as the “innovation corps” because they’re so adept at using spatial data and savvy technology and always trying to push the needle — or drop a new color-coded pin.

“Our job is to be the most innovative group of people in our area of expertise,” he said.

By Emily Halnon, University Communications