Employing smart city tools for coronavirus problems

How to get supplies and field responders to the right place at the right time is a resource optimization problem. One company is using IoT, machine learning, and smart city technology to solve it.

How maps are helping track the pandemic
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There's more to COVID-19 support than knowing how many people are sick; you need to get them to hospitals. Those hospitals need ventilators, protective equipment, and tests to show up in time. That means they need to be ordered in advance based on prediction.

This sounds like a job for data visualization and smart city tech.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Smart city technology

While the Internet of Things (IoT) was teaching your thermostat and doorbell to be smarter, an entirely different side of the family was teaching the cities to become more self-aware. The simplest example of the smart city is the humble waste disposal team. That is, the people who pick up your garbage every week. Internet-enabled trash cans, combined with stop lights and trucks, can optimize travel routes. This lowers traffic congestion, reduces emissions and hourly employee costs. Residents see lower trash (or tax) bills. Everyone wins. The same sort of technology can time those stop lights, direct the fire department and police, plan parking spots or optimize water use. That is, the tools provide insight into how resources are used to deploy scarce resources more efficiently.

It turns out the same technology that can make a city smart can be used to respond to the novel coronavirus. One company that specializes in that area, Quantela, is stepping up to do just that. I talked to the CEO, Amr Salem, from Dubai, on his sixth week of lockdown from the virus himself. 

After 20 years at Cisco, where he managed its IoT and smart cities business unit (and later the public sector business), Salem joined Quantela. He explained the company has 95 live deployments, including installations in Albuquerque, NM, Erie, PA, and Las Vegas, NV. Certainly, Las Vegas has plenty of need to optimize light, electrical, and water use—at least until recently. 

Salem's team noticed that the problems that smart city software solves, of scarce resources, also apply to COVID-19. "We found a lot of authorities are looking at data that comes from hospitals," he said. "They want to know how many hospital beds are available, how many nurses, how many ventilators, the personal protective equipment (PPE), testing equipment. They need to know how many ICU beds, and how many cases reported in the area around the hospital. In this case, you have two different needs, the infection rate and also the critical assets." 

Salem said the leaders want "to make sure the critical assets are available where and when they have the most patients, but also to make sure the patient is sent to the hospital that has the assets they need." 

There is a fair bit of optimization here. Not only does the person need to go to the right hospital, that might change based on projections and availability. All of this can be done with machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), and is remarkably similar to the use cases for smart cities for waste management, lighting, and traffic.

Quantela took a look at its technology, and what some clients were already doing with it and created an application to help manage the coronavirus pandemic. The company also is giving away the core technology at no cost for the next six months during this crisis.

CoVER: The coronavirus emergency response platform

covid-19-lab-reports.png

A sample CoVER report.

Image: Quantela

The application, called CoVER, takes all the information from various data sources, including spreadsheet and by hand, then projects it onto a map. That is a visualization and dashboard of complex data sets, including prediction. Armed with the current spread, the application can predict where the virus will be in two, five, 10 days, and when the municipality will run out of hospital beds or test kits. That allows leaders to reallocate resources for where they will be needed in the future. Salem explains this allows leaders to "not only optimize the existing assets, but realize what they will need and order them early enough to prevent shortages. We provide authorities with data in a way to help them make the right decisions early enough."

The new wrinkle in all this is tracking the disease itself. The CoVER software also includes a mobile application, so people who are positive can volunteer to be tracked. Field responders can use the application as people are tested, to record their temperature and other vital statistics. Salem points out the privacy issues in tracking someone's movement, and stresses the application's use is voluntary, and will be removed once the crisis is over. While it does remove a small amount of privacy, the potential to monitor how positive patients are recovering, along with who is traveling, is unprecedented.

Alternatives

Quantela is not the only software in this space. The Smart Cities Council has released a platform, which it has dubbed a "COVID-19 Mitigation Roadmap." The tool is more like a template that aggregates a great deal of online professional development resources and allows a city to upload material, resources, plan, or data sources, which can render inside of it. 

The promise of CoVER is that it can aggregate data from every data source, display it in a dashboard, and optimize based on needs. The data will come in from different sources, such as databases, spreadsheets, the mobile application, and phones. The data also needs to be stored somewhere, likely the cloud, which needs to be rented. While Quantela is giving the application away at no cost, it is not providing for the service or cloud rental fees. Quantela seems to be betting that the product will provide so much value that, after six months, customers will see the value and expand to full use.

Even if they are wrong, if it can save one life, well … it will have saved a life.

Also see

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A COVID-19 heatmap.

Image: Quantela