People Tracking

Andy Slote - Director of Customer Success for ObjectSpectrum

July 1, 2022

One of the many applications where the Internet of Things delivers significant value is “people tracking,” which primarily refers to monitoring a physical persona rather than a digital one in the context of this article. There is a lot we can capture about humans and their activities using many different approaches.

Presence is one of the most elementary things to sense. Is there a person (or several people) within a defined space? Can I get a count of people if I want to track and trend occupancy? Gathering this data makes monitoring and managing spaces more effective. Data collected is helpful for activities like space planning, room management, and ensuring occupant comfort and safety.

Some use cases value the proximity of a human to a particular spot. For example, when someone gets close to digital signage, it responds with information or marketing. Proximity monitoring is also used in office environments to check the occupancy of specific locations like shared desks or workspaces.

Another attribute of interest is motion. In a medical space where patients gather to wait for assistance, movement may indicate potential issues like a lack of comfort or a potentially agitated state of mind. Motion detection can also determine if workers are busy or incapacitated in work areas. 

Determining an accurate location for someone is extremely useful, but it can also be intrusive, opening up privacy concerns. Outdoor positions are usually given in latitude and longitude, often using the Global Positioning System (GPS) as a data source based on the physical location of a GPS-enabled device, many of which can use other global navigation systems as well. Usually delivering accuracy within one to ten meters under the right conditions, enhanced approaches can produce more precise results at additional cost. For indoor spaces, there are multiple technology options, with high levels of precision possible at generally-increasing costs (although these costs are coming down and the technology becomes more ubiquitous). Visualizations created usually show a person’s position on a map, floorplan, or schematic, represented by an icon or symbol.

One way to split people tracking into two general categories is one group where the subjects are anonymous and the other where they are, at some level, known or identified. In either case, the best practice is to make people aware they are being tracked, divulge the use of any information collected, and obtain the appropriate level of consent.

“Non-anonymous” tracking requires a person to carry a connected device, which is detectable by a wireless network. Examples include:

  • Phones
  • Tags
  • Badges
  • Other Special Purpose Devices

The device has some Personably Identifiable Information (PII) for these implementations. It can be basic for tags and badges (name, identification number, for example) or more extensive when tracking by cell phone. In addition, these applications often match and merge the device data with information from other sources to create more valuable intelligence, such as environmental sensors.

On the other hand, anonymous capabilities rely on technologies for detection and tracking that do not require individuals to carry devices. These include:

  • Infrared
  • Thermal
  • LIDAR (laser)

There is still value in accumulating data for trending and analyzing the data, but the insights are less granular. For example, we can know that 23 people are in a room, but not which 23 people.

The level of anonymity is just one of the considerations when making technology choices. Others include the environment (indoor, outdoor, both), accuracy required, device costs, and how you will measure the success of your implementation. A review of all the options to make a selection requires extensive technical expertise and an understanding of how to implement a solution.