Around the world, national and municipal governments have been deploying smart city technologies in the fight against COVID-19, using them to track the spread of the virus and support the implementation of medical strategies. South Korea, for example, has provided one of the most successful demonstrations of the power of smart city technologies. The country’s Smart City Data Hub system allowed the government to conduct advanced contact tracing using data from cameras and other sensors. The UAE has also deployed a wide array of smart technology applications in its containment efforts. Having previously used a system that tracks mobile phone pings to cell towers to monitor crowds, the country has adapted this to ensure physical distancing and obeyance of lockdown rules. Parallel to this, an artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance system in Dubai that reads licence plates – originally designed to reduce crime and traffic accidents – has been adapted to identify citizens leaving their homes without authorisation during the lockdown. In China, BeiDou, the country’s own satellite navigation system, has helped track patients and affected places, thereby containing the virus, apart from analysing the pattern of the outbreak. Disinfectant-spraying drones and robot dogs in Singapore to ensure physical distancing are among other such initiatives.
Meanwhile, a number of cities across India have also used the smart city platform – specifically, heat maps, aerial surveillance and GPS – to monitor the movement of suspected COVID-19 cases and health personnel. The government has been actively deploying technology solutions to keep the virus from spreading. The AarogyaSetu app was launched to contact-trace people who tested positive. Meanwhile, the central government, along with the Tamil Nadu government, has launched an interactive voice response service for people with feature phones. It has also set up a committee to revamp the AarogyaSetu app and incorporate AI and machine learning tools. NITI Aayog has also set up a committee to find healthtech solutions to ensure that the country’s healthcare system is future ready, espcially if the situation is to get worse.
Technology deployment to contain COVID-19 spread
Agra Smart City has tied up with the city administration and the Agra police to set up a control room for monitoring physical distancing compliance at various locations via video surveillance. It has also started using AI-based analytics on surveillance data to generate alerts, which are configured via an app on the mobile phones of field staff. Agra has also been working with Gaia Smart Cities, an internet of things (IoT) start up, to leverage its technology platform, including a COVID-19 self-assessment app, built on Microsoft’s Azure platform to track virus cases. The platform enables citizens to provide self-assessment of their health risk and helps city administrators track responses by pin code and take action. The collated data also provides real-time reports, helping authorities to monitor trends across the city. Agra Smart City has also launched a tele-video consultation service, which allows citizens to book appointments with healthcare professionals and even download online prescriptions from a dedicated website/app.
The Bengaluru and Kakinada smart cities have launched dashboards that will act as a single source of data for all pandemic-related measures. The data dashboard will enable the government to monitor people under quarantine as well as their contacts. In addition, the platform will help authorities keep track of front-line workers like medical personnel, compiled in a city and district-wise database.
The Surat Municipal Corporation has launched a COVID-19 Tracker App, which facilitates monitoring of people under home quarantine and tracks the health status of those with a recent history of foreign travel. From a hands-on control room, the city maintains a database and tracks more than 8,500 individuals using this application.
As part of its ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the disease, the Telangana police is now deploying AI to enforce the compulsory wearing of face masks in public places. The solution, said to be the first of its kind, has been rolled out in Hyderabad, Cyberabad and the Rachakondacommissionerate limits. The software tool is linked to CCTV cameras installed across the cities to identify face mask rule violators. Cameras will flag those not wearing masks and an alert will be sent to the central command control centre at the state police headquarters. The solution has also been integrated with machine learning to detect various kinds of masks, towels and handkerchiefs of different colours.
Meanwhile, Nagpur’s city administration has collaborated with private sector outfit HLL Lifecare to launch a COVID-19 app for symptomatic citizens. When the app detects COVID-19 symptoms in a citizen, it alerts a team of doctors immediately. Under the Smart Cities Mission (SCM), Varanasi has deployed drones to spray sanitiser around COVID-19-infected areas. The city is also making use of CCTV surveillance and GIS technology through a dedicated command and control centre set up under the SCM, to keep a close watch on crowd movement during the lockdown period. Vadodara in Gujarat has deployed a helium balloon with cameras attached for surveillance of lockdown violators. The balloon also has a public address system attached to it.
Chandigarh has installed a comprehensive “fight COVID” station, which has several facilities such as thermal screening, pedestal operated hand-wash and soap dispenser, mist spray of sodium hypochlorite solution and a hand-dryer facility. Meanwhile, KalyanDombivali in Maharashtra has been reaching out to residents through awareness videos published on its social media handles.
Many cities have also rapidly repurposed existing innovations at little or no cost to offer support during this crisis. For example, in December 2019, the Greater Chennai Corporation had developed a mobile app to crowd-source information on operational flaws in existing civic infrastructure such as potholes and faulty pipelines. During the lockdown, this app was customised for COVID-19 monitoring. Citizens have been using this app to voluntarily report their symptoms to help the administration map likely cases and take appropriate protective measures.
Meanwhile, airports and metro rail systems in major cities have deployed video surveillance and analytics to handle passenger flow and ensure safe distancing. For example, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has installed CCTV cameras at some major airports such as those in Chennai and Kolkata for passenger facilitation. AAI is also working on rolling out a pilot study on the DigiYatra platform by end 2020, with four airports to begin with, namely, the Kolkata, Varanasi, Vijayawada and Pune airports. Once implemented, DigiYatra will significantly reduce the check-in time for passengers by doing away with the need for physical documentation. Metro systems such as those in Kochi and Hyderabad have also adopted contactless QR code-based ticketing to contain the spread of the disease.
Initiatives for a safer city
Smart cities have embraced the concept of “safe city” to provide citizens with security and a sense of safety. Some cities have specifically relied on advanced video surveillance systems to ensure public safety. At the forefront of this adoption is Surat which became a safe city almost seven years ago. This precedent was soon followed by cities such as Mumbai and Pune that have also started functioning as safe cities. Another important city in this regard is Jaipur. Cisco has helped the Jaipur District Administration (JDA) develop the city into a smart and secure Wi-Fi city. Cisco created smart Wi-Fi hotspots at selected locations across the city which meant that tourists and residents alike could take advantage of this smart city feature and gain access to the internet. Besides, interactive information kiosks have been installed at designated locations that have high tourist traffic, to provide a quick and user-friendly way for tourists in the city to gain information. Cisco has also installed IP-based surveillance solutions at key locations to implement the safety component of the JDA’s plan for Jaipur. The advanced IP cameras that have been installed closely monitor and record various incidents that occur across the city. The live feed has also been extended to the Jaipur police control room, helping the administration tackle crimes with a faster response time and improved success rate. Further, environmental sensors have been placed at key locations to provide air quality status reports in real time.
Recently, Indian cities have been actively incorporating smart technologies to ensure public safety. Although the latest surveillance initiatives have been of immense help in containing the spread of COVID-19, a lot remains to be learnt from the global experience. Countries such as China and the UAE have proven to be pioneers in technology deployment in terms of video- and app-based surveillance and have set an example for countries such as India to gear up their surveillance systems to match theirs.