top of page

How Smart Cities Can Help in Pandemics

Throughout history, disease outbreaks have taken many human lives, for example in 1918 Influenza Pandemic, estimated infected lives were almost one-third of the Earth’s population at that time at about 500 million people and Fifty (50) million people died across the globe from the disease. There were no antibiotics and vaccines. But these disease outbreaks have also forced new innovations. For example, cholera epidemics in the 1800s, created a need in urban areas to build new plumbing and sewer systems and the devising of new zoning laws to prevent overcrowding.

Even though today, we are more interconnected and more technologically advanced world still the leaders in epidemiology and technology believe that infectious diseases are the biggest health threat in the near future. In an op-ed with Business Insider, Bill Gates estimated that an airborne pathogen similar to that in 1918 Influenza could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year meaning that we are still unprepared.

As COVID-19 spreads across the world, people are questioning if their governments were prepared or even had the right plans in place to handle a threat like this, especially in highly densely populated areas where population density makes the transfer of this infection easy such as New York City. The cities with a high population density, are turning their attention to how to fight these pandemics and are coming up with various efforts such as quarantining infected, social distancing, mandatory to wear masks in public as well as providing public health information to inform and reassured their citizens of the risks, symptoms, and necessary precautions to take in the time of a pandemic. While we still have a long way to go to eliminate the threat, these strategies appear to be working and the curve is being flattened.

One of the most challenging obstacles for scientists and researchers for COVID-19 has been the lack of information about the virus. Nations that are divided have come to work together to improve pandemic responses, and smart cities will be a big part of that improvement. A Smart City, which is a connected city, is enabling services to a large number of people in a very short amount of time by using data sensors to gather and process information and city leaders and scientists can use this data to track diseases and deliver quick help in the clusters being formed before an outbreak can happen thus offering new and effective solutions to these serious issues. It presents a great opportunity to provide the necessary information quickly to the citizens. Smart cities can be an incredible resource to help fight against the spread of infectious diseases.

It is estimated that by the year 2050 more than two-thirds of the planet’s population will live in cities. This will make urban planning even more crucial for future generations as they prepare to protect themselves from future pandemics.

New technology can track data in real-time and could be the deciding factor for the outcome of this pandemic and any future ones. Many of the technologies are being used in Smart City and some smart city tools that can provide some help include;

  • AI Tracking of Diseases

  • Analytics & Geolocation to Predict Behaviors & Social Response

  • Thermal or Infrared Cameras to Detect Elevated Body Temperature

  • Wearable Connected (IoT) Health Monitoring Devices

  • Information Kiosks

  • Connected Mobility & Infrastructure and Autonomous Delivery Robots

Tracking Diseases

By gathering large sets of public data and information from thousands of databases and other sources, disease-tracking software allows tracking the spread of viruses in real-time through artificial intelligence. This data is used to track the spread of viruses and significantly improves response time

With information like this, countries can monitor not only themselves but also others around the world. A Canadian company that specializes in disease tracking was the first to speak up about the spike in pneumonia cases specific to Wuhan, China. This was over a week before the World Health Organization (WHO) released anything to the public.

Geolocation services

Your phone is likely tracking your movements anyways regardless of what you consent to. In many cases, it is scary but in these pandemic times why not use this data-tracking feature to help slow the spread of coronavirus and other pandemics?

Scientists and Public Health officials can use data from driving, get-togethers, popular dining and shopping times and can provide an insight into how they should create their plans and structure ordinances for future pandemics and even how the re-openings can happen.

Thermal or Infrared Cameras to Detect Elevated Body Temperature

With the world becoming more and more connected and the threat of a virus spreading faster without us knowing, is a grave concern. Getting information about a potentially infected person’s body heat is of utmost use. If this information can be detected without being close to that person, it is needed. Thermal imaging cameras and sensors that are able to detect elevated body heat are common in many places for surveillance purposes. While the main purpose of this tool may not be to specifically read a person’s specific body temperature, it could help to identify people that may need to be quarantined and help stop the spread of infectious diseases. Infrared cameras are currently being utilized to monitor the temperature of pigs for breeding purposes to diagnose disease in real-time and ensure they stay healthy.

Wearable Health Monitoring Devices

Apple watch among all other Smart watches is all the rage, with several fitness applications available to help track heart rate, temperature, and fast and accurate blood pressure data over time with the use of an accessory. In an emergency, this data could provide valuable intel to the WHO and CDC if they get access. The researchers and scientists working at these organizations may be able to find and prioritize immediate care and compounded with geotracking, they may be able to get a step ahead of any pandemic.

Information Kiosks

Communicating risks and status updates are needed in any comprehensive outbreak response list and are essential to managing the spread of misinformation. New York City deployed a Kiosk called NYCLink, that can have the ability to inform the public on the facts and how to stay safe. Kiosks, deployed in Kansas City, can identify health risks based on demographics. It can issue information about vaccines, safe sex, sanitation, and warnings about deadly epidemics. Telemedicine apps provide medical services and other information to residents without leaving their homes thus reducing traffic and helping in safe distancing.

For people that are older or can’t purchase a smart device, these scattered smart kiosks throughout a city can be very helpful. These can be updated quickly as a smartphone so that information can be shared with those people who need them.

Autonomous Delivery Robots

Many college campuses use Autonomous Delivery Robots (aka Personal Delivery Devices) for food delivery. But these bots have the potential to be very helpful in emergency situations. As this technology becomes widespread after much-needed testing and hopefully cities can become more comfortable with these autonomous bots zipping around, they can help the helpless and vulnerable population and provide much-needed service in a densely populated area.

Smart Energy

Our electric grids are very antiquated. In the lockdowns when everyone is at home burning electricity, overloading it becomes one of the biggest worries. Regardless of pandemics, many people suffer from paying their electric bills. During the time of a pandemic, one of the biggest worries is using power. Finding ways to power cities and provide energy in a time of crisis will be the key to smart cities during future pandemics.

Energy is becoming something we can control through the internet. Appliances are being designed with interconnectivity. This means the appliance itself is becoming an IoT that uses digital systems so that we have full control over how energy is stored and used in each appliance. Smart Buildings will also become more power-efficient.

The future of energy is headed in a completely different direction. Rather than have a small number of large plants distribute energy, there will be many smaller plants and yet higher in numbers. Energy needs to be run at the local level, allowing every person to generate energy. If there was ever a time for Smart Grids, it is now.

Social media

The digital world has changed the way we communicate and refine information. It is keeping residents up to date during a time of crisis. In the past, Television was a huge change for people as they could get news within hours. Then came multiple news channels providing 24-hour news cycle and now one can get updates and news just seconds after they occur by using social media like Twitter and Facebook.

This is something that wasn’t possible just 15 years ago. When people can get information that quickly and in the palm of their hand, asking them to adhere to stay at home order can be issued very fast.

IoT soap dispenser for personal hygiene

It has become increasingly clear that in order to prevent the spread of the virus, good personal hygiene is crucial. It is needed more than ever. Improving public handwashing habits can help reduce common viruses such as norovirus and regular flu in more normal times. However, it is a fact that still escapes many. Sometimes the soap dispenser may be empty, many times people ignore, or are ignorant of, the correct procedure to wash hands thoroughly. Neglecting to use soap, rinsing a few fingers of one hand, or walking out without washing hands at all are very common, even in a heightened state of awareness.

At the simplest level, lack of soap could be dealt with by IoT dispensers which alert the relevant authorities to refill the machine when it is getting low or if someone doesn’t use the soap, it alerts them.

Hospitals designed for outbreaks

Hospitals can also be designed to handle outbreaks of infectious diseases better. For example, the hospital at Rush University in Chicago has an ambulance bay that is designed to be closed off, so that patients can be safely evaluated there before entering the hospital. Inside, negative pressure zones limit the spread of the virus in multiple areas. Hospitals and clinics can also add telehealth centers to make it easier for doctors to treat patients remotely and avoid the potential spread of a virus.

Smart Cities have to be Human-Centric.

The IoTs and Sensors have to work to serve citizens. In the Post Pandemic scenario, Smart cities’ future plans should include addressing health emergencies and pandemics to ensure that everyone is informed and confident in the measures being taken. Also, smart city plans should include public health challenges to inspire innovators to come up with solutions that serve the citizens living in it.

This is not meant for Big Brother watching but providing much-needed help.

Photo Credits: Cover Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash, Second photo by Rachel Hannah on Unsplash. We're thankful for their beautiful work.

bottom of page