Campus News

Commerce in a time of COVID-19

Working behind the scenes after the pandemic hit, the Finance and Operations IT team quickly adopted touchless technologies to keep students, staff and faculty safe.

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Craig Hyatt’s most immediate challenge when the novel coronavirus pandemic sent people packing in the spring of 2020: How to feed the approximately 900 students, including those under hardships, who remained on campus? Or, more precisely, how to get food to them safely, without spreading the virus.

As director of commercial systems for Carolina’s Division of Finance and Operations Information Technology department, Hyatt was focused on how to configure the University’s technology infrastructure so that students on meal plans could access their food safely. With infectious disease experts advising everyone to wash hands and stay 6 feet apart, how would students order, pay for and receive their campus meals?

Hyatt, who has been with the University more than 30 years, and his IT team worked with a technology vendor to create a smartphone system that allowed students to order food from Chase Dining Hall at Rams Head Plaza and have it ready for pickup at a specific time. It was a complicated, painstaking project, but it worked, and last summer they expanded the system to most Carolina Dining Services locations, as well as a fleet of 14 food trucks on campus.

The mobile meal-ordering technology was the first in a series of touchless tech solutions by Hyatt and others at F&O IT that have helped keep the Carolina community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making Carolina go

The Office of Finance and Operations’ motto is: “We make Carolina go.” From dining to parking, power to payroll, the office manages the business of the University. That business requires hundreds of unique digital applications and specialty devices. That’s where Finance and Operations IT comes in.

The IT team of 22 largely focuses on improving the customer experience at Carolina. Usually that means making digital systems easier to use, more efficient and more secure. When the pandemic hit, health and safety got added to the mix.

“We wanted to mitigate customer concerns about issues of health related to the pandemic and make sure that everywhere customers were interacting with payments there was a contactless option,” Hyatt said.

“The downside would be loss of revenue based on anxiety or the fear of transactions,” said F&O IT Executive Director Ray Reitz, who oversees Hyatt’s team and several others. “The downside would be that they would just stop using the service. We had to find ways to carry on business in this new touchless age.”

A suite of solutions

In all, the team implemented more than a half dozen new contactless systems — for meal ordering and payment, printing across campus, One Card delivery, building access and the distribution of personal protective equipment.

In addition to mobile food ordering, the IT team worked with vendors to implement a contactless mobile payment system for dining halls and the food trucks. Vendors point a terminal with a camera that scans a student’s One Card or a barcode on the mobile food ordering app. Since much of the commerce moved outside to courtyards and under tents, they made sure the terminals were splash-proof and had screens that are viewable in full sun.

F&O IT helped convert a couple dozen printers around campus to contactless operation. Instead of punching in their Onyen and password on a printer touchscreen, users now scan a QR code with their smartphone to initiate and pay for printing jobs.

“The only thing you have to touch is the paper to remove it from the printer,” said Hyatt.

To make building entry fast, efficient and contactless — in a word, frictionless — Hyatt’s team installed biometric readers at several Campus Recreation centers. The devices scan hand geometry to identify users. Instead of handing over your One Card, you simply wave your hand across a digital scanner.

Hyatt and Reitz are confident these systems will be popular even after pandemic conditions lift.

“It behooves us to stay as current as possible, because we feel like this is part of the campus experience,” Reitz said. “You’re not coming to Carolina to experience 1793, our first year. You want to experience 2021. We have a team that is very future-focused. I think it reflects well on the University to be able to have these types of current applications available for students.”

In developing this frictionless technology, IT has been working almost invisibly, behind the scenes. “I think that’s kind of the whole point,” Hyatt said. “Chancellor [Michael] Hooker many years ago said IT works best when nobody knows that it’s doing anything. I think people who do this are just really interested in solving problems and helping people. That’s what drives them.”