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How IoT can get Britain moving again

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

The pandemic has crippled public transport like no other crisis before it. Even during WWII, when the London Underground tunnels were used at night to escape from the Blitz, citizens still travelled by Tube to go about their daily business.

Today, some workers have started trickling back into city centers, but the majority still avoid the commute. Anyone who has travelled on the London Underground can attest to the long journeys, packed like sardines and pressing against other commuters with their breath in your face. Hardly a pleasant journey at the best of times. But hot, crowded carriages are no longer the largest problem for passengers. Rather, it is the threat of catching Covid-19 and/or spreading it to vulnerable friends and family. This is enough to deter even the most dedicated workers from travelling to their offices, and London’s move into Tier 3 will make a return to the office unlikely for many.

While the transition to widespread remote work has allowed many businesses to continue in a relatively normal fashion, it has been a considerable source of worry for retailers and recreational businesses in the city center. From gyms to sandwich shops and pubs, all have seen a dramatic decrease in footfall even after they have been allowed to reopen.

While many workers have enjoyed their three-minute commutes and working in their pajamas, there are also many who are ready to get back to the office. Video conferencing and other remote working tools have only got us so far; nothing can truly replicate the personal interaction and water-cooler moments of the office, let alone the natural desire to leave the house occasionally.

The question then presents itself: how can officials help to limit the spread of the virus on the commute? The key lies in giving commuters the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about how and when they travel. This includes telling them when to expect busier trains, or which alternative, less busy routes they could choose if they do not mind a longer journey. They could receive alerts telling them when the train is less than 50 percent full, or advise alternative forms of public transport. All of these options are possible with the Internet of Things (IoT).

Is this seat taken?

If you live outside London, the app could tell you not just when the trains were quieter, it could also anticipate in advance – based on recent history – when it will probably be quieter. And what if the app told you how many seats were occupied on each carriage of your train? You could choose the least-occupied carriage, grab a seat and get to work safely. In Sydney, in-built sensors under the axle of each train calculate carriage weight data to estimate how busy a particular train service or carriage is. If you put devices under the seats of train carriages to detect weight, you could see which seats were occupied seat in real time.

Combine this with some kind of anonymized facial recognition and a movement sensor and you can tell how many people are likely to get off at the next stop. This is not just important during the pandemic, but also any time you are looking to travel. No one wants to stand on a train for an hour-plus journey.

Knowledge is power

All of this is possible with the Internet of Things. IoT sensors in stations, on platforms, in carriages, under seats and on buses could send data to a platform where it is analyzed to tell you how busy each one is. You could get alerts on your phone in real time; data could be fed into a journey planner to calculate the various best routes according to occupancy.

Then, once you get to the office, you pin on your smart social distancing badge to make sure you don’t get too close to your co-workers. These Bluetooth-enabled badges interact with beacons placed at cluster points throughout the workplace. The data is then processed through an IoT platform and helps employees protect themselves by beeping when they are too close to one another. Health and safety teams can trace contact with any employee showing symptoms. You, as an employer, can fulfil your duty of care and show the compliance that allows you to remain operational. These badges are already proving to be far superior to smartphone apps that some governments are trying to use for track and trace.

It’s not just getting back to work that the IoT can help resolve. In Singapore, both the government and start-ups are working with IoT and artificial intelligence to keep citizens safe and to help the battered tourism industry recover. If you go to the park, you may hear a voice requesting you to observe safe distancing measures. There is no uniformed official behind you, rather Spot the robot dog – built by robotics innovator Boston Dynamics. Spot was also used in a pilot project to deliver medicines to patients in a Covid-19 community isolation facility.

Singapore has also implemented a national digital check-in system – a smartphone app that logs the name, identity card number, and mobile number of people entering busy public buildings where they might more easily catch the virus.

Smart city initiatives may have been stalled by the Covid-19 crisis, but the efficiencies and safety that IoT can provide are causing a rethink. Smart cities are seeing that operational efficiencies can help them to dig their way out of the crisis by using data.

Beyond transport

IoT has the potential to transform far more than trains and buses. The pandemic and the ensuing disruption pose the opportunity to completely overhaul how we live our lives. We should take advantage of the relative emptiness of our cities while it lasts to install smart infrastructure, both to accelerate our return to work and improve the quality of life once we are out of the pandemic.

The markings of Covid-19 will not disappear for a long time, even with the arrival of successful vaccines. But thanks to the IoT, we can mitigate the challenges and emerge stronger on the other side.

Bart Schouw, Chief Evangelist, Software AG

Bart Schouw, Chief Evangelist in the Office of the CTO at Software AG.