Density - it’s part of what makes cities bustling cosmopolitan hubs for transnational commerce and mobility. It is also what makes them particularly vulnerable to the risks of outbreaks such as COVID-19, with some experts arguing it will force a significant rethink of urban planning if we are to achieve long-term survival in a pandemic world.
However, cities and communities are also beginning to develop new ways of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic that seek to make the most of the collective intelligence of urban areas. Some have even gone as far as arguing that the pandemic could provide the final shift in how technology is used in smart cities to one that is primarily about building communities.
'The pandemic may, finally, humanize the use of high-tech in cities. The “smart city” models of a generation ago were all about regulation and control – the state online. What’s emerging in this pandemic are good programmes and protocols which create community'Richard Sennett, Professor of Urban Studies, MIT
In this blog, we take a look at some of the ways which new combinations of people, technology and data are enabling innovative approaches to the crisis caused by COVID-19, and what lessons this is creating for the use of technology in smart cities.
One of the most prominent examples of how technology and data is being used to empower citizens is happening in Seoul. Here the city has used its ‘citizens as mayors’ philosophy for smart cities; an approach which aims to equip citizens with the same real-time access to information as the mayor. Seoul has gone further than most cities in making information about the COVID-19 outbreak in the city accessible to citizens. Its dashboard is updated multiple times daily and allows citizens to access the latest anonymised information on confirmed patients’ age, gender and dates of where they visited and when, after developing symptoms. Citizens can access even more detailed information; down to visited restaurants and cinema seat numbers.
The goal is to provide citizens with the information needed to take precautionary measures, self-monitor and report if they start showing symptoms after visiting one of the “infection points.” To help allay people’s fears and reduce the stigma associated with businesses that have been identified as “infection points”, the city government also provides citizens with information about the nearest testing clinics and makes “clean zones” (places that have been disinfected after visits by confirmed patients) searchable for users.
In addition to national and institutional responses there are (at least) five ways collective intelligence approaches are helping city governments, companies and urban communities in the fight against COVID-19:
Based on open data provided by public agencies, private sector companies are using the city as a platform to develop their own real-time dashboards and mobile apps to further increase public awareness and effectively disseminate disease information. This has been the case with Corona NOW, Corona Map, Corona 100m in Seoul, Korea - which allow people to visualise data on confirmed coronavirus patients, along with patients’ nationality, gender, age, which places the patient has visited, and how close citizens are to these coronavirus patients. Developer Lee Jun-young who created the Corona Map app, said he built it because he found that the official government data was too difficult to understand.
Meanwhile in city state Singapore, the dashboard developed by UpCode scrapes data provided by the Singapore Ministry of Health's own dashboard (which is exceptionally transparent about coronavirus case data) to make it cleaner and easier to navigate, and vastly more insightful. For instance, it allows you to learn about the average recovery time for those infected.
UpCode is making its platform available for others to re-use in other contexts.
Crowdfunding is being used in a variety of ways to get short-term targeted funding to a range of worthy causes opened up by the COVID-19 crisis. Examples include helping to fundraise for community activities for those directly affected by the crisis, backing tools and products that can address the crisis (such as buying PPE) and pre-purchasing products and services from local shops and artists. A significant proportion of the UK's 1,000 plus mutual aid initiatives are now turning to crowdfunding as a way to rapidly respond to the new and emerging needs occurring at the city-wide and hyperlocal (i.e. streets and neighbourhood) levels.
Aberdeen City Mutual Aid group set up a crowdfunded community fund to cover the costs of creating a network of volunteers across the city, as well as any expenses incurred at food shops, fuel costs for deliveries and purchasing other necessary supplies. Similarly, the Feed the Heroes campaign was launched with an initial goal of raising €250 to pay for food deliveries for frontline staff who are putting in extra hours at the Mater Hospital, Dublin during the coronavirus outbreak.
The need to quickly get extra funding to local communities and organisations dealing with the various issues and challenges caused by COVID-19 has led many local authorities in the UK, such as Lambeth Council, Portsmouth City Council and Coventry City council, to match donations from the crowd for projects with public grants. Elsewhere crowdfunding initiatives have been set up to help keep local businesses afloat by pre-purchasing products from them. In cities like New York, similar initiatives have been set up to help small, independent restaurants raise relief funding for staff that have been laid off.
Alongside the rapid increase in the need for services from food and grocery delivery services like Deliveroo, Peapod, Instacart, FreshDirect or BuyMie (vital suppliers for those who are social distancing), community-led and not-for-profit collaborative economy initiatives are also emerging. Deliveroo has reported that 3000 new restaurants have added their businesses to the platform) while Randall.ie is a dedicated website that has been built to connect people who are self-isolating with an army of willing volunteers.
GoodGym is partnering with registered charities and both government or local government agencies, in various UK urban centres and neighbourhoods, spanning Barnet to York, as a way to get their DBS-checked volunteer running community to provide deliveries and basic tasks to vulnerable people and those who’ve been discharged from hospital. Economy of Hours - a London-based timebanking platform - is currently asking its community to complete a short survey to see how best it can assist its community in light of the pandemic.
In the Canadian City of Guelph, civic innovators and others have consolidated people-powered resources and initiatives into one online place to make it easier for residents to seek or offer various kinds of assistance. In Paris and across France, a collaborative economy collective of food and agricultural industry players has formed what it is referring to as the “Solidarity Collective” to help to get fresh, locally produced food and meals to hospital staff and caregivers. The collective is made up of MiiMOSA, a crowdfunding platform for food and agriculture, food delivery companies Geev, Rutabago, Private and Tiered Courier and others. So far the collective has crowdfunded enough funding to cover costs for over 6500 meals. Meanwhile the City of Philadelphia has compiled a list of places where students can get free meals while schools are closed.
The World Health Organization has warned that all countries have to 'optimise the availability of lung ventilation equipment.' Alongside governments enlisting the help of major manufacturers like Dyson, Fiat and General Motors, urban-based collaborative makerspaces are exploring alternative distributed community-based methods for developing this much needed equipment.
Kicked off by San Francisco-based Gui Cavalcanti, the Facebook group, Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies has been set up 'to evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world, given a variety of local supply conditions.' In response to this call, Open Source Ventilator, a Dublin-based open-source project was launched to tackle the severe shortage of ventilators locally, nationally and internationally. It has invited contributions from over 600 engineers, designers and medical professionals to generate and validate ideas for open-source designs of ventilators that can be produced at scale. In less than a week after launching, the project had developed six prototypes for easy-to-assemble mechanically operated ventilators which are ready to be manufactured and tested with validation by Ireland’s Health Service Executive.
Meanwhile, in Milan, a collective made up by the team at Isinnova (Institute of Studies for the Integration of Systems), Massimo Temporelli and Fablab Milano have been working on a project to build DIY respirators by modifying a snorkeling gear that can be bought in any Decathlon store, combining this with 3D-printed components. While the resulting respirator does not have CE certification, it was tested out on patients in Chiari Hospital and found to work. The DIY is currently being used to ensure nearly 500 patients in northern Italian hospitals have access to life-saving respirators.
Alongside Torino Social Impact, Nesta Italia and others have set up an open crowdsourced platform, Torino Come Stai? (Turin How Are You?) While still in early development, the platform aims to create a useful resource for those who are in quarantine. Website visitors complete a short survey asking them about their quarantining arrangements, whether they have any unmet needs, whether any of their housemates have shown symptoms of COVID-19 and their preparedness for the lockdown between now and April. The anonymised responses will be used to visualise the data about Turin citizen’s overall outlook on the outbreak, and possibly to identify possible pain points where targeted action will need to be taken. Social media is also playing a role in helping those who are social distancing.
Collective intelligence approaches are also enabling better collaboration between cities. Networks of ‘intelligent cities’ are pooling knowledge and resources about effective real-time pandemic responses. Examples are found along a continuum ranging from more centralised to more open, distributed approaches. Bloomberg Philanthropies is virtually convening experts in public health and City leadership to help cities respond to the Coronavirus. The organisation has also teamed up with The National League of Cities to develop a Local Action Tracker that centrally collects and shares actions taken by local leaders in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Other more open and collaborative models have emerged too, such as the Cities For Global Health platform. It seeks to blur traditional boundaries between local, regional, city levels of administration to find collective responses to deal with this crisis. The platform invites local and regional governments of all sizes from across the globe to share their initiatives (e.g. plans, strategies, policies) that are (a) designed specifically as a reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak or (b) designed to face other health emergencies such as sanitary crises or epidemics. So far the initiative has crowdsourced over 270 initiatives.
Of course, effective pandemic responses cannot rely exclusively on high-tech platforms or apps. In fact, the speed and immediacy at which some technologies - specifically mass surveillance technologies - are being rolled out in places like China, Thailand, Hong Kong and the UK are leaving civil liberty and human rights defenders asking whether they’re being scrutinised closely enough. Some experts have noted that although technology can be helpful in supporting certain objectives like contact tracing, mass surveillance is not necessary to contain the virus. In truth, they must be used in tandem with a suite of other established measures, frameworks and protocols that seek to maintain a good balance between the protection of privacy rights and public health.
Whilst the speed at which these collective intelligence responses have emerged is impressive, the at-times ad hoc nature points to a different and emerging challenge. How do we integrate all of these localised solutions? While there has been a vast array of localised and improvised collective intelligence responses emerging at the city level, this is not happening in a very coordinated way - nor are these efforts always visible or connected to what’s happening nationally or internationally.
The inefficiency of these ad hoc approaches that are not integrated can lead to confusion, cognitive overload and frustration for members of local communities engaging with them. Just as the pandemic has resulted in a global effort by the science community to radically improve efficiency by sharing data and collectively working to devise tools and solutions, there is a need to pursue a similar strategy here too. To do this, smart city professionals and others must explore more hybrid collective intelligence responses that blend centralised and decentralised modes of coordination, and which work towards the standardisation of protocols for enhanced smart city communication.
In spite of such deficiencies, digital infrastructure and collective intelligence approaches are proving to be important tools in how cities' are managing COVID-19. They also provide a broader set of valuable lessons for how cities can better work with citizens using technology to solve social challenges (for a discussion on COVID-19 lessons for digital teams in UK local government see this excellent blog from the London office of Technology).
Before looking at the opportunities in collective intelligence, it is important to recognise that effective pandemic management by cities relies on a number of critical mechanisms being put in place, many which won’t involve collective intelligence based approaches. These include:
Finally, we recognise that any research on COVID-19 and the impact it is having risks being outdated before it is published, just as some of the examples we’ve listed above might change significantly as communities and cities are adapting to the outbreak.