How smart cities can mitigate the impact of health crises

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Smart city technologies can help detect and mitigate public health crises, as evidenced by the current COVID-19 pandemic, new research shows.

With data emerging as the star as governments at all levels work together to slow the virus’ spread, smart cities can facilitate collaboration and response, according to “COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review of Smart Cities Initiatives to Face New Outbreaks,” a June 2020 paper published in the IET Smart Cities Journal.

That’s because “cities can be perceived as living organisms,” the paper states. “Terabytes of data can be daily provided from different sources, such as lamp posts, buses, climatic stations, police vehicles, traffic lights, security cameras, automatized hospitals, universities, museums, and any other ‘element’ that can be connected to a digital city’s macrocosm.”

Some technologies — such as cameras that can screen passengers at international airports for fevers — can be used to fight COVID-19 now and detect, alert and mitigate other health crises in the future. One effort in 2017 to do that combined visible and thermal imagery with algorithms to assess heart rate, body temperature and respiration.

The study also points to the PortoLivingLab, a monitoring infrastructure that uses internet-of-things sensors to detect environmental variables in cities. That could help raise flags to outbreaks in early stages, the authors state.

Social media can also offer clues by monitoring what residents post about themselves and noting breaks in routine. Monitoring health conditions using wearable gadgets and sensors would work similarly. “A smart city macro-system could retrieve that information and store the health behavior of their inhabitants, quickly detecting sick people,” the report states. It acknowledges that both raise privacy concerns, but that COVID-19 “has shown how some ‘invasive’ solutions can be highly effective when trying to reduce virus spread.”

But data collection is only one part of the job. Analytics is also necessary. “Smart cities may provide massive amounts of data every single second, uninterruptedly, demanding highly efficient algorithms to transform such data in useful information,” the report states. For smart cities planning for the next pandemic, recent use cases offer some lessons.

For example, Hong Kong has used robots to disinfect public transportation, and Wuhan, the coronavirus’s epicenter, has deployed an app with a color-coded QR code to let residents know whether they may move about the city or need to quarantine. Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital, served as a case study for an artificial intelligence model that looked at variances in average daily temperatures, city density, relative humidity and wind speed to predict the number of confirmed COVID cases in a 30-day period.

Singapore, “largely considered the smartest city in the world,” the report states, created Smart Nation, a program that uses smart city technologies such as a contact tracing app and a national-level WhatsApp one-way messaging group to provide information on COVID-19. A South Korean app called Corona 100m alerts users when they are within 100 meters, or 328 feet, of a location visited by an infected person.

To facilitate the sharing of electronic health records, the New York State Department of Health created the Statewide Health Information Network for New York that connects the state’s regional networks so they can exchange data quickly.

While the integration of different data sources combined with growing processing power, data science and deep learning has changed how cities operate, even more is possible “when cities and their inhabitants are considered as a symbiotic organism,” providing relevant data on the health of urban areas, the report states. “This final massive integration of a city’s cyberspace with social media and people’s smartphones and gadgets can not only pave the way for the anticipated digital society, but it can also be a source for prevention and mitigation of virus outbreaks.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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