UMass Dining Services unveils mobile app with dining traffic management

By Tanaya Asnani

(The UMass Dining App allows students to be alerted when certain dining halls and food places are crowded. Amanda Creegan/ Daily Collegian)
(The UMass Dining App allows students to be alerted when certain dining halls and food places are crowded. Amanda Creegan/ Daily Collegian)

With the help of a new mobile application designed by University of Massachusetts Dining Services, students can now access information about on-campus dining locations and daily menus with just a tap.

According to Christopher Howland, director of purchasing and marketing of auxiliary enterprises, the app, which was launched on Oct. 11, was created to provide real-time dining information for all residential dining commons and retail eateries on campus that incoming, current and transfer students, as well as guests, could utilize.

“There is no other dining application in the nation like this,” Howland said.

One of the most prominent features of the app is designed to help students make efficient dining choices through traffic management technology. According to Tripper O’Mara, assistant marketing manager for UMass Auxiliary Enterprises, the app monitors activity in each dining hall and categorizes different levels of guest traffic – color-coded in green for “not busy”, orange for “moderate” and red for “busy” – by determining the number of meal swipes being processed at each location.

Swipe data is sent to the app every 15 minutes, with each location setting different parameters for traffic. Whereas 200 swipes are likely to occur every 15 minutes at Hampshire Dining Commons from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. for example, only about 30 swipes are likely to occur at the smaller Roots Caft in the same amount of time.

“The application will progress to achieve a better indication of what ‘busy’ actually means. Swipe data doesn’t really account for the actual number of people in an area specifically,” O’Mara said. “Someone could spend on average, 30 minutes in a dining common, whereas utilize five minutes to get food from a Grab’n Go.”

Auxiliary Enterprises is also working with the computer science department to specifically analyze better ways of achieving this. The application development involves obtaining information from people on the campus wireless network and cross-referencing this with swipe data to improve real-time traffic management.

The app provides hours, addresses, menus and manager contact information for each dining location and also aims to connect students with special dining events such as the annual Halloween steak and lobster dinner in all four residential dining commons. Howland said the app will also provide students with details about cooking classes held by Dining Services.

According to Howland, the app is a result of extensive planning and evaluation over many months.

“Planning had taken place before the summer and a version of the application existed. It was developed at UMass and by other third party developers with minimal input. However, the results weren’t satisfactory in terms of the interface. Hence, the entire development process was reinitiated,” he said.

At the time of publication, the app has been downloaded 1,520 times by mostly students owning an iPhone at UMass. Since Oct. 11, it has averaged 60 downloads per day. It is currently available on the Apple App Store for free.

An Android version of the app is due for a winter launch before the semester ends. It’s estimated that the launch will take place in two to three weeks. In addition, updated versions of the application are in the works.

There are other plans as well for future development on the app, such as how the application will be able to integrate iBeacon technology by Estimote, according to O’Mara.

Using low-frequency Bluetooth technology to recognize and communicate with smartphones, the app will send free coupons and notify users of promotions happening at Blue Wall, for example. A first demonstration will happen at Harvest whereby, when users enter, they can download a free coupon sent through iBeacon.

Howland also said there are no plans to send excessive messages and notifications to smartphone users, but rather that this system will complement the essence of the app.

The second version of the application will also integrate new features, planning meals ahead of time in various dining areas. It will also include nutritional information to design a menu based on criteria set in the app, like low carbohydrates, high protein, gluten free and more.

Tanaya M. Asnani can be reached at [email protected]

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Tripper O’Mara’s position, and incorrectly identified the owner of iBeacon technology. The errors have been corrected above.