“HigherEd Tech Decisions” article on WVU Digital Signage

Today’s Mountaineers Use Digital Signage to Relay Information

West Virginia University alerts tens of thousands with news of all kind with a digital signage and text message alert system.

By Daniel Dern
December 19, 2011
At a university with 29,000 students and 7,900 faculty and staff members, relaying campus-wide messages can be a daunting task for an administration. But West Virginia University (WVU) has found a way.With just a few keystrokes, the school’s digital signage system can be updated to relay the latest information about the Mountaineers’ upcoming football game or any other type of campus-wide need-to-know information, including the dreaded worst-case-scenario emergency alert.In fact, school officials had been mulling just such a system as an alternative to bulletin boards and posters when the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech rocked the nation — and prompted college and university administrators across the country to review their security protocols.“Within minutes of learning of the horrible tragedy, the concept of the West Virginia University Information Stations was conceived,” says Spencer W. Graham, II, manager of operations for Information Stations, the school’s interactive video and web services network. WVU Television Productions personnel were tasked by the administration to immediately develop a 24/7/365 information system and network with indoor and outdoor displays on the three Morgantown campuses…  (for the full article please click the link below.)http://www.higheredtechdecisions.com/article/digital_smoke_mountaineers_use_digital_signage_to_relay_information

WVU has since installed over 100 digital displays for signage in high pedestrian traffic areas such as reception desks and cafeterias in residential complexes. Outdoor signage has gone up at several platforms of the university’s PRT rapid transit monorail system, as well as an outdoor sign at the WVU Coliseum basketball arena. Graham hopes to eventually have a digital sign in every classroom on campus.

Tech Breakdown

Spencer Graham, Manager of Operations, WVU’s Information Stations breaks down the components of the universities digital signage system:

“We have mostly Samsung monitors at this point, and are also talking with NEC,” says Graham. “Most are 46-inch displays. Some are smaller, some larger — it depends on the site. We get the commercial grade for the warranty. We use Chief and Peerless mounts with articulating arms to hold the signage, so we can hinge the displays out if we have to do any service.”

To create and distribute digital content, WVU uses Xpresenter software from X2OMedia. “We’re very happy with Xpresenter,” says Graham. “We use a lot of motion and video, to make our content ‘pop off’ the pages — we have our own web designers in WVU Web Services and WVU Creative Services.”

“As the network has matured, we are seeing more individual colleges and buildings also requesting signage,” says Graham.

The basic info-loop displayed on the digital signage is about 24 minutes long. Regular content is roughly 40 percent general WVU information and about 60 percent site-specific content and includes daily listings, current/extended weather forecasts and other listings and announcements, from an SQL database.

And while the vast majority of content on the signage system is routine information that keeps everyone on campus on the same page, there are times when the alert notification functions become necessary.

WVU has two types of alert messages: Weather (green screens), and Emergency (red screens). The alert display includes information about the current situation, and what actions WVU recommends that viewers (and message recipients) should take until further notice.

The security alerts go beyond just the digital signage network, notes Graham.

“WVU’s Police Department can trigger a three-pronged emergency notification, which switches the standard digital signage across our campuses into emergency notification mode, and also issues email and text-messages to people who have subscribed — currently about 11,000. Also, the alert is visible on Comcast Cable Channel 7, which is available to any of the individual television sets, currently in more than 3,600 dormitory rooms, that are connected to the campus cable television network.”

The digital signage switches to alert displays within nine seconds; the email and text messages can potentially take thirty to forty-five minutes to queue up and be sent.

Fortunately the emergency system hasn’t had much use so far.

“We have issued an average of slightly under one emergency event per year so far. Two alerts concerned robberies across the street from the campus, letting people know to stay away. One was during the August 2011 earthquake — we got hit pretty solidly with the shaking. We were able to let everybody know it was an earthquake. And last year we issued a weather alert when there we had a big snow and ice storm coming in, which shut things down.”

In addition to the primary goal of providing a security alert tool, using digital signage has had other benefits.

“This is more aesthetic-looking,” says Graham. The postings put on traditional bulletin boards at the Mountainlair Student Union were hard to control, and often unsightly, and the signage creates a cleaner, less cluttered content delivery. It also enables the university to relay non-alert information more quickly and easily, compared to the months it could take to create and issue a brochure.

For others like himself that make the IT purchasing decisions at their colleges and universities, Graham says that the dual benefits of digital signage make it easy to convince higher ups that the investment is worth the cost.

“You can use security as the deployment driver,” Graham says. “It’s not hard to sell the idea — no decision makers want to be the one who said ‘we didn’t need that,’” says Graham.  “But you get value by providing everyday information, so you get a lot of bang for the buck while addressing two needs with one solution. 99.9 percent of the time its in standard mode, but they are able to instantly switch over to alert a campus.”


About swgraham2

Mountain Mists is an opportunity to develop some thought processes individually as I journey through this wonderful world; as someone who values highly effective management techniques and the art of leading teams; and through my association with West Virginia University as a professional technologist and network manager specializing in digital signage.
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