From our city streets to national parks, public spaces across the United States look much different today than they did just a few months ago. Many remain closed or empty while others have been drastically altered in the wake of the ongoing fight against COVID-19.
While focus has largely been centered around business and economic impacts, there have been equal if not added implications in the public sector. School districts are having to rapidly scale distance learning solutions. The closure of state motor vehicle authorities and courthouses has meant basic civil services from driver’s licenses to divorce filings have been suspended, and unemployment departments remain overwhelmed by unprecedented demands.
Across the country, Americans are understandably eager for a return to normal. But the reality is, until both testing and vaccinations are readily available, public life will have to continue to look a little different than what we’re used to.
As a result, leaders in both private and public sector face some challenging decisions around when and how to begin reopening in a way that protects public health — and what role technology will play in enabling this shift.
Not far from where I live, the city of Westport, Connecticut recently made headlines with their participation in a Draganfly drone pilot program. Following models outlined in Australia, the drone was equipped with cameras designed to not only regulate social distancing, but also to aid in early detection by monitoring temperatures, heart rates and respiratory rates from a distance of up to 190 feet.
After initial excitement about the potential for a return to public life, the program was quickly shut down — not as a result of technical failure, but due to privacy concerns from citizens.
This is an extreme example, but it offers a valuable snapshot of the types of discussions we face in the coming months and years. We have the technology readily available to regulate social distancing, remotely monitor symptoms and conduct extensive contact tracing. But, particularly in the public sector, the conversation quickly becomes one not of ability, but responsibility.
Fortunately, a wide range of technologies and approaches are available to help agencies and organizations manage data in a way that helps protect public health while respecting individual privacy.
By now, most of us have grown accustomed to seeing lines of tape on the floor or plexiglass dividers at service windows. In addition to these no-tech or low-tech tactics for social distancing, many have begun to explore the possibility of staggered scheduling. Others are discussing requirements for masks or daily temperature checks at managed points of entry.
But these manual and often time-consuming precautions represent a challenge, both from the perspective of bandwidth and reliance on social responsibility. To be effective, these solutions must be rigorous and consistent enough to re-instill confidence in the general public. This is where data-driven technologies offer some clear benefits.
Within the private sector, many organizations have already announced plans to eliminate the act of waiting in line altogether in favor of mobile alerts. A similar approach could easily transform the way we visit government buildings like the Post Office or Department of Motor Vehicles.
For those areas where foot traffic is necessary, newly-developed “smart cones” and wristbands offer a way to help anonymously guide social distancing by leveraging machine vision to measure spacing and provide notifications on crowd density.
In close working environments, other data-driven approaches can help measure policy compliance. Working with GOJO, makers of Purell, our team has helped design smart hand sanitizer stations which use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) scanners to track average or individual usage.
Basic object-detection models can be deployed using security cameras to monitor crowd size or identify the presence of face masks without registering identity.
In larger areas, thermal detection is proving a powerful tool for instilling the confidence needed for people to move about more freely. Positioned alongside security cameras or metal detectors at fixed entry points, scanners are able to quickly and non-invasively check for elevated temperature or other flu-like symptoms. This data can then be flagged for response or logged for regulatory purposes without the need to associate or store any personally identifiable information.
Among the most advanced solutions, facial recognition capabilities are being explored primarily as a touchless alternative to traditional keypads, biometric scanners and even doorknobs.
Where the true power of data comes into its own is through contact tracing. Experts agree the viral spread is simply too fast to be controlled by manual tracing alone. Leveraging data to identify, educate and monitor those who have come into contact with the virus provides the visibility to contain the outbreak without the need for mass quarantine.
South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have already successfully deployed opt-in models with apps that combine location tracking, Bluetooth and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track and alert users to the spread of infection. Similar measures are actively being explored in Canada and across the European Union, and back in April, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to launch a secure, private and transparent solution for use in the United States.
Ultimately the more data we have available, the more quickly and safely we can return to public life. But what are the implications for policy, infrastructure and the future of our towns and cities?
Though the conversation around privacy and safety will continue to evolve, on the whole we’re seeing a rapid acceptance of the role of technology in building smarter, safer public spaces.
Foundationally, modern towns and cities are already in transition, becoming more digital every day and integrating more technology as they go. Even before the recent shifts, planning committees were beginning to integrate more intelligent networks into municipal plans — from smart streets and traffic lights to security cameras.
As public and private sector work to define our new normal, it will be critical for both sides to take a long-term view, considering how the technologies and policies we implement now will shape everyday life even beyond the immediate need. Robust security strategies will need to be factored into every project at every stage. Considerations will also have to be taken to prevent bias or discrimination in data models.
The good news is, there are experts and frameworks to help make this possible. With a strategic, socially responsible approach, we have the opportunity to not only rise to this challenge, but also to lay the foundation for smarter, safer, cleaner public life in the future.