Campus Safety in 2020: Protecting Students and Staff with Cisco DNA and Location Services


You can't prepare for everything, but sometimes preparations in one area pave the way for the right actions in a time of crisis.

That’s what happened for us at Aventus, a secondary vocational and training school in the Netherlands. Like everyone else, we shut down when the pandemic hit in March 2020. In September, we were able to reopen our doors and relaunch in-person learning at a reduced capacity of just 15% of learners. We did it—safely—by leveraging technology that was already in place. 

Training for Today's and Tomorrow's Trades

Aventus operates six campuses with 1,150 instructors and staff. We provide training that blends education and coaching in 200 different trades, including artificial intelligence, home automation, and the repair and maintenance of electric vehicles. 

We also teach traditional trades such as welding and auto mechanics, but we are very future oriented. Together with healthcare providers in the Netherlands we teach students how to create safe automated environments. We have our own Domotica house where students work with solutions that will allow seniors to stay in their homes as they age. 

Education doesn't stop when you graduate, and Aventus welcomes learners of all ages. Many of our students are in their 40s and 50s and are preparing themselves for exciting new careers in tomorrow's technologies.

Discovering Location Services

I manage IT infrastructure at our six campuses. I am also responsible for cybersecurity, which includes our firewalls and identity management platform. A couple of years ago, I helped deploy Cisco DNA as the core technology that powers our new software-defined infrastructure. We worked with Axians, a leading Dutch Cisco partner, to deploy a futureproof network that had high availability, high speed, and maximum bandwidth. Our network is only operating at 20% capacity at the moment but it’s ready for anything. 

When you start with the right platform, you can pivot to meet unexpected #IT challenges in a crisis.

When we got the green light to partially reopen in September 2020, our students and staff were subject to strict physical distancing protocols. Our main campus can hold 8,000 to 10,000 people, and our classrooms were designed for 30 students, but now we are limited to 1,500 people in the building and six students per room. We had to find ways to ensure that everyone followed these guidelines, but we didn't want to take a heavy-handed approach. We didn’t want to have more people than necessary in our buildings, especially not people whose sole purpose was to physically monitor classrooms, hallways, and other spaces to enforce distancing protocols. 

We knew we could automate this monitoring instead of checking spaces individually, but we weren't sure how to do it. We began to explore some options, but realized we might have a solution right in front of us. Since we'd recently rolled out a new Cisco network, we went back to the Cisco team to see if they had a product that met our needs. Cisco DNA Spaces, a cloud-based location services platform that could run on top of our new network, turned out to be a perfect fit. Since we already had licenses for Cisco DNA Spaces as part of our overall Cisco DNA package, it was the obvious solution.

With Cisco DNA Spaces, you can view the fixed physical layout of a particular location—in this case, our campus grounds—and use Wi-Fi access points to track people's devices. Since almost everybody carries a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop these days, we have a relatively accurate idea of how many people are occupying our buildings in real time and where to find them.

A Ready-Made Solution That Combined Live Data and Long-Term Statistics

Just as we did with Cisco DNA, we worked with Axians to determine our use cases and establish the scope of the project. We wanted real-time information about the number of occupants in a building as well as the ability to drill down to the floor and even the room level. We had to establish the maximum number of people in the building as well as in specific spaces. We also needed to see if there were any hotspots where people tended to congregate, or where foot traffic made it impossible to avoid others. Finally, we asked for push notifications for custodial and security staff, along with weekly and monthly email reports about building activity for our administrative staff.

Modern companies need a platform that provides a combination of real-time data and a look at trends over time.

In short, we requested a combination of live data that could help us deal with immediate issues and statistical information that would allow us to detect and remedy any troubling trends. Once we'd established these parameters, Axians installed a collector in our virtual infrastructure framework and integrated it with the Cisco DNA Spaces API. It took about three hours to set everything up and start collecting data. Cisco DNA Spaces needs at least two months of data to report on longer-term trends, so we began in July because we wanted to go live when our students came back in September. 

Next, Cisco and Axians spent three or four days mapping our six campuses and setting up a wayfinding system. Although our main campus had the most advanced implementation and hardware, all of our buildings were already running on Cisco DNA infrastructure. This made it easy to layer our new location services platform over what we already had. 

We created accounts for our security team, our custodial staff, our network engineers, and our administrative staff, and then we rolled out training for Cisco DNA Spaces. The platform is so intuitive that even employees with little or no ICT background took to it quickly. The dashboards are available to all authenticated employees, but we can limit what they see based on the information they need to perform their duties. 

Understanding Occupancy Rates Through Device Monitoring

In the past, we needed to observe behavior in order to correct it. But now, we can do that with our real-time alerts and visibility of trends over time. If we see that one of our sanitation rooms has seen a lot of traffic over the past hour, we can send in a cleaning crew. If we plan for 8,000 weekly visitors to a building and see that 20,000 people used the site in that time, we reschedule learning activities and look at ways to reduce traffic. We no longer have to rely on anecdotal evidence; Cisco DNA Spaces generates reports that provide the proof we need to take action and comply with physical distancing and capacity regulations. 

There’s no need to rely on anecdotal evidence; real-time data provides the necessary data for building occupancy insights.

For example, our students split into groups of six when they enter the classroom, but we noticed that 30–40 learners would gather and hang out in the same spot every morning before school started. In a building the size of our main campus, we wouldn't have discovered this behavior using staff to monitor hallways and other common spaces. But we spotted it in our daily and weekly Cisco DNA Spaces reports and now we dispatch a security guard to that location to keep people moving.

Tremendous Value That Transcends Technology

Cisco DNA Spaces has proven to be of tremendous value. Because we'd already invested in updating and futureproofing this infrastructure, we were able to activate Cisco DNA Spaces at no additional cost. We couldn’t have known that obtaining Cisco DNA would put us in such a great position, but we were relieved we could get access to DNA Spaces quickly and easily. 

We originally architected our network for speed and bandwidth, not for wayfinding and location services. As a result, location accuracy is only five meters. But if we want to situate people with greater precision, all we have to do is add more wireless access points.

Even though the pandemic is still very much a part of our lives, I’m already anticipating other ways Cisco DNA Spaces can help us better serve our learners when life returns to normal. I hope to use location services to track student interest during our annual three-day open house events. To rent the equipment to do this can cost €10,000. Now, we can set up dashboards and generate reports in Cisco DNA Spaces using our in-house infrastructure at little or no cost. 

We are also working with MazeMap, an integrator that uses Cisco DNA Spaces data to create indoor navigation and wayfinding applications. We want to build an app that tells students where their next class, coaching session, or lab is located, and how to get there. It's easy to get lost in a building the size of our main campus. It would be so much easier for our students to use an app to find their way instead of stopping to ask for directions. 

Eventually, I'd also like to integrate our building systems with Cisco DNA Spaces. Once the APIs are there, we could turn off the lights and lower the heat in spaces that are not being used. I can also see the benefits of Cisco DNA Spaces for hospitals and healthcare institutions, where knowing the location of patients and the availability of beds can make the difference between life and death. 

Pivoting with Changing Needs

We were one of the first educational institutions in Europe to adopt Cisco DNA, and our use case never anticipated the pandemic or the adoption of location services. As we plan for the future, we will continue to balance our needs in this area against speed and bandwidth considerations. 

When my manager agreed to fund our initial Cisco DNA deployment, he said, “Cisco never disappoints.” He was right. Aventus deployed Cisco DNA because we needed a reliable high-speed, high-capacity network. When the pandemic changed the operations of our institution, we used Cisco DNA Spaces to provide a safe environment by limiting their numbers and helping them follow physical distancing protocols. We pivoted from what we wanted to what we needed, and gained a world of possibilities in the process.