Is Smart City Technology the Answer?

It may be, if how to support the citizenry through the COVID-19 pandemic is the question.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge communities around the world with no regard for geographic location. Cities are experiencing the widespread impacts of rising hospitalizations, decreased tax revenues, reduced vehicle and pedestrian traffic, lowered energy usage, increased need for public safety and surging usage of connectivity and bandwidth – all while experiencing distribution and supply chain interruptions. Although we continue to see the negative impacts of COVID-19 across the world, research indicates that a potential solution exists to halt the spread of this disease, thereby decreasing its devastation: smart technology.

Cities can utilize smart technology as a tool to help mitigate some of the impacts of the pandemic in the following ways:

  • Incorporating public Wi-Fi access points to enable free connectivity
  • Using 5G small cell technology to increase connectivity
  • Repurposing community school buses and equipping them with wireless access points to deliver connectivity to lower income neighborhoods
  • Providing cities with real-time vehicle traffic data to update lane usage, signal timing, and intersection logic to optimize the new normal of traffic and prioritize freight shipments and emergency vehicles
  • Monitoring pedestrian counts, crowd size, and crowd durations to help identify possible new COVID-19 hotspots and allow first responders to act proactively to reduce the risk of exposure to the larger population
  • Providing cities with live video feeds and acoustic shot detection in key areas to give public safety officials live situational awareness to increase public safety and reduce crime and violence
  • Installing infrared thermal imaging cameras at key entry points to screen individuals for elevated temperatures so that cities are able to open some essential departments while still maintaining public safety for citizens

In various applications, smart technology can be used as a tool to help mitigate some of the impacts of the pandemic.

Leveraging the data provided by smart technology can help cities better manage outbreaks.

By aggregating the data collected by these tools, authorities can track how the virus is moving and spreading. While some might currently view smart technology as a luxury versus a priority, many successful applications have demonstrated how smart tech can be crucial in protecting people from the disease.

For example, Quantela, a digital technology solutions company, has developed a platform that allows governments to aggregate and analyze data via sensors, databases and other tools to understand the movement of coronavirus, track quarantined patients, monitor hospital capacity, and measure compliance with social distancing protocol. These capabilities enable authorities to plan the distribution of resources based on need, and to take the appropriate actions to support their citizens.

Atos, a European technology supplier and service provider, offers an epidemic response solution that allows for proactive management of COVID-19 cases.

Even incorporating public Wi-Fi and increased cellular connectivity in cities can support people as they manage their ability to work and learn remotely. Across the globe, smart technology has provided authorities access to quicker and more effective methods to save lives and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.

The challenges of smart tech implementation

While smart city technology can be useful to a city during a pandemic, authorities must also consider its long-term sustainability and its general practicality. Although research demonstrates the benefits resulting from this technology, there are other factors that authorities should consider in determining if smart technology is a good option.

Public opinion can influence the ability of this technology to be effective and useful, so cities will need to consider the public’s perception of “Big Brother” monitoring and tracking their movements. Additionally, it will be important to develop the proper infrastructure to ensure data security. Data must be protected and secured since it could have significant privacy impacts to citizens. Cities must balance the need for more data with the need to protect that data and the privacy of its citizens.

Some smart tech options, like mobile applications, are opt-in resources. For authorities to draw conclusive insights, they will need as many people to opt in to these platforms as possible. It will be difficult to evaluate trends based on small sample sizes of participants; the data is only as good as a person’s willingness to opt in.

Cost is also a major consideration. Can cities afford the capital investment in smart technology or will certain cities be excluded because of their lack of funding? This point will raise concerns about equity and fairness as it relates to the ability of city leadership to protect citizens. However, despite the capital expenditure implication, smart city technology is not just for the largest and most affluent cities. In fact, smaller and lower income communities stand to achieve the greatest impacts and benefits from its implementation for public health initiatives.

Finally, city leadership must consider the difficulty of implementation and the time investment to transition from an old infrastructure to a new one.

Authorities must consider multiple factors for utilizing smart technology during a pandemic:

  • Long term sustainability
  • Cost
  • Data security and privacy
  • Public perception
  • Difficulty and timeliness of implementation

Smart technology gives city leadership the ability to be proactive and accurate in taking necessary safety precautions, and in supporting citizens as they manage their daily lives during this new “normal.” However, the numerous benefits of using smart technology to manage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic must be weighed against the investment and deployment challenges to determine if it is possible and practical to implement in any given location.
While modern medicine works to cure COVID-19, cities are turning to smart technology to slow the spread of the disease and mitigate the widespread impacts.