Geography major develops digital indoor mapping platform
If Rutgers students get lost on campus, they can turn to apps like Google Maps or the university's mapping system to help them find their way.
But what happens once they’re inside?
Suppose they’re looking for a classroom in Lucy Stone Hall, the mazelike Livingston Campus building that has confounded generations of Rutgers students as well as faculty and staff.
“It’s one of the most confusing buildings on campus," says Noam Aharon, a Rutgers student who graduated in the Class of 2023.
But help might be on the way.
Aharon, a geography major in the School of Arts and Sciences, spent his final semester on a capstone project in which he took some key first steps toward the creation of digital navigation services that would work inside Rutgers buildings, and specifically at Lucy Stone Hall.
He developed an indoor mapping system that—with investment from the university—could one day help guide the Rutgers community through hallways and stairwells much like navigational apps guide people along roads and highways.
His project—which he recently presented to the university’s Institutional Planning and Operations division—puts him on the cusp of the latest advances in the mapping profession: Creating indoor positioning systems accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
“This is really the next frontier in mapping,” Aharon said. “It’s a new technology but it’s developing quickly. Hospitals, universities and warehouses are using it.
“I am showing Rutgers what’s possible to do in the future if they have the time and the resources to do it.”
Developing indoor mapping systems is challenging because the satellites that provide real time directions through Google Maps or Waze can’t easily penetrate buildings. But new technology is providing a way around that problem.
Aharon used sophisticated geographical information systems (GIS) software to develop digital, 3D floor plans for a single Rutgers building. Accordingly, he chose Lucy Stone Hall, a three-story building that cuts through the center of Livingston Campus in an elongated L-shape.
“If there’s a place that I would want to tackle head-on, it was Lucy Stone,” Aharon said.
His advisor, the geography department’s veteran staff cartographer, Michael Siegel, had enthusiastically recommended the building as the focus.
“It is not the only Rutgers building that challenges people to find the room they need to get to, but it has developed a reputation for its unconnected sections, unusual room numbering system, and lack of signs,” Siegel said.
Aharon’s work was supported by IPO officials, who provided access to the building’s architectural plans and other information he needed to complete the project.
The end result left everyone impressed.
In a recent demonstration, Aharon clicked on a starting point in Lucy Stone—room B106A—and a destination—room A207. His system then plotted a step-by-step route in a journey that involves various twists and turns, including exiting the building and reentering at another wing to access an elevator to the second floor.
“This shows that you can help faculty and students better navigate these rooms,” Aharon said.
Siegel said indoor mapping will benefit the entire community.
“It could save countless hours of frustration every day,” he said. “And it would remove another barrier for people who have the added challenge of needing to find a route that includes an automatic door opener or an elevator.”
Aharon built the system literally from the ground floor up. He used GIS to convert the architectural plans into 3D maps that delineated classrooms, bathrooms, stairwells and other features. He then identified all possible pathways to create a network of routes that connect the entire building.
“I was really curious, and the more I researched, the more excited I got by how far this thing can go,” he said.
A native of Fair Lawn, N.J., Aharon is a longtime map aficionado. As a kid, he collected them as souvenirs from every place he visited. When he was entering Rutgers, he saw geography, particularly, the geographic techniques track, as the ideal major.
“I thought that this would be the closest thing to maps,” he said. “But I soon learned the geography is so much more than that. There is the whole human side to it, the whole environmental side.”
The capstone project was both personally fulfilling and helpful for figuring out his future. After graduation, he hopes to bring his skills in mapping and spatial analysis to an environmental or government organization.
“I really got a lot out of this project,” he said. “I was able to try my hand at new technology and work independently to develop something that builds on what I learned in class, and which could benefit the Rutgers community in the future.
“That was huge.”