The new CrowdZen app allows students to gauge how crowded campus dining facilities like Bruin Plate are at any given time. UCLA Dining Services
The new CrowdZen app allows students to gauge how crowded campus dining facilities like Bruin Plate are at any given time.

App allows students to see occupancy before deciding where to eat

A UCLA grad student developed an app that collects data from cell phones on campus Wi-Fi networks to estimate dining hall capacity levels.

It’s lunchtime on Tuesday. Classes just let out at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). You’re a student, you’re hungry and you’re a 10- to 15-minute walk from two different dining halls. You only have an hour to eat before you have to be at your next class. Speed is of utmost importance.

Before May, you’d have to roll the dice and hope the hall you chose didn’t have a long line. But now, thanks to a new services offered by UCLA Dining Services, students can see how busy dining halls are during meal times in real time before committing to a destination. 

The app, called CrowdZen, was developed as a research project by computer science graduate student Joshua Joy and his team. It combines historical visitor data with records of connection attempts to Wi-Fi access points to measure activity levels in designated areas. The app only records the fact that someone has been to a hall. It does not collect anything personal about the user. 

“This has been a really great feature for our students’ convenience,” says Al Ferrone, senior director of dining services for UCLA. “If a student intends to eat at a certain hall, but doesn’t have time to waste, he or she can log in and quickly view capacity levels before making a decision. It makes the dining experience for these students much more efficient.” 

The students who developed the software did so as part of a research project. They then provided it to Dining Services for free. It works with Android, iOS and website interfaces.

“The value from Dining Services’ perspective is that it allows us to distribute our covers more evenly across campus,” says Ferrone, who plans to continue with the app into the fall and beyond. “It allows us to use our labor more efficiently.” 

It’s still too soon to see any impact or traffic trends across the school’s eight—soon to be nine—dining locations as a result of the app, but Ferrone hopes to work with the developers to further leverage the app’s functionality and better distribute traffic across campus. 

“We’re talking with them about creating push notifications,” says Ferrone. “It would alert students in or around a certain hall about lower capacities at another hall.”

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