While Binghamton University continued to expand COVID-19 precautions on campus through the implementation of social distancing bots, the University Union was vandalized during surveillance testing hours on Tuesday.
On Feb. 23, a woman entered Tillman Lobby and vandalized property within the University Union, including tables, doors and at least one social distancing bot. The social distancing bots were created to provide COVID-19 safety feedback to all pedestrians who pass by, providing impartial real-time feedback to all passersby in the interest of better supporting the communal safety of all students, faculty and staff.
On one table in Tillman Lobby, the woman wrote a statement that appears to say “you are stucked here w/ me” on one of the tables and “suckers go to other doors” on one of the doors to the Mandela Room, where COVID-19 surveillance testing was taking place. The wires leading to at least one social distancing bot were cut as well.
Jake Ignatow, a sophomore majoring in economics, witnessed the event while passing through the University Union.
“I saw a female ripping out the cords of the social distancing monitors as well as doing graffiti on the tables and doors and knocking over signs and kicking them,” Ignatow said. “From what I witnessed, the only threat she posed was that she was getting too close to people and breaking social distancing guidelines although she was wearing a mask and destroying property.”
Binghamton’s New York State University Police (UPD) responded to the scene, handcuffed the woman and escorted her out of the building. Ignatow praised UPD’s efforts to contain the situation.
“UPD acted in a very diligent manner in that they took the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe while also de-escalating the situation to bring the event to a halt,” Ignatow said.
Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, said the incident is still being investigated.
“UPD responded to a disturbance today on campus and are currently investigating,” Yarosh said. “There is no threat to any individuals or further cause for concern.”
Plans for the social distancing bots began last summer by the Watson Institute for Systems Excellence (WISE), an institute of advanced studies at BU and part of the department of systems science and industrial engineering, at the request of BU President Harvey Stenger. The bots were then worked on throughout the fall 2020 and winter 2021 sessions and were implemented in the Tillman Lobby on Feb. 4 — before the move-in week began for on-campus students.
Yong Wang, co-advisor on this project and assistant professor of systems science and industrial engineering, said the bots are meant to make sure that safety is the number one priority for students on campus. Wang explained that these social distancing bots will respect the privacy of any pedestrian.
“Our intention is to help improve the safety of everyone in the campus community,” Wang wrote in an email. “While safety is the priority, the systems developed also respect people’s privacy and do not save the videos or identify any person.”
A team of graduate students and faculty of BU’s Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science were involved in developing the bots. They developed and tested many different prototypes, having many student volunteers for the purpose of testing these designs.
According to Peter Nardone, general manager of the University Union, the bots were placed throughout the University Union because of the high traffic in the building.
“In terms of their overall effectiveness, the bots situated in the Tillman Lobby, Market Place and Undergrounds within the University Union help remind students of the importance to socially distance while indoors,” Nardone wrote in an email. “We identified these locations as busy traffic locations where students and guests to the Union frequently visit and gather for certain services. In terms of their overall utilization, students can visibly see themselves on the screen. The green boxes show that students are socially distanced while the red boxes indicate they are not. When students, staff and faculty are not socially distanced, a variety of messages are played from the monitors.”
Wang added that Tillman Lobby was chosen specifically since surveillance testing occurs in the Mandela Room daily.
“People who get tested may wait in the lobby for 20 to 30 minutes for their results,” Wang wrote. “Some people tested positive, even though they were asymptomatic. Given the amount of foot traffic and opportunity for exposure, it is very important for people to maintain social distancing in this high-traffic area.”
Benjamin Uline, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said he doesn’t feel affected by the bots in Tillman Lobby.
“I don’t know if it really helps too much, but it isn’t harmful either,” Uline said. “I think that it’s just that they are there.”
Nicolas Castro, a sophomore majoring in biology, said the bots are a good interactive way to make students more aware of social distancing guidelines.
“I don’t see harm in [the bots], and I think it is pretty cool,” Castro said. “We were just in line and it mentioned ‘Imagine a lion between people as a lion is generally six feet.’ I think that’s pretty cool it’s not just saying ‘You’re too close to somebody,’ they are doing it in a cool way.”
Castro added that while the bots are a good idea, students may not take them seriously.
“I think they’re effective for what they’re trying to do,” Castro said. “The only thing is people are not gonna be looking at the screen. They can totally completely ignore it.”
Despite the incident, Wang wrote that the bots are always open to feedback for the safety of those on campus.
“After the system was implemented, our team continues to get valuable feedback from students in [the University Union] to help improve the system, its performance and acceptance,” Wang wrote. “Also, we very much appreciate the students’ cooperation and continued compliance with social distancing guidelines. Again, the safety and health of our students, staff and faculty continue to be a very high priority for our campus.”