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The changing role of the IoT in the Covid-19 world

Speaking at SmartCitiesWorld’s inaugural advisory panel meeting, Libelium CEO Alicia Asín emphasised why IoT applications are more important than ever as cities continue to battle the global pandemic.

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Using IoT technology to help prevent and limit the spread of the virus is key
Using IoT technology to help prevent and limit the spread of the virus is key

It is easy to say that citizens need to be part of a smart city solution but much harder to achieve. In the past, city leaders may have got away with the rhetoric but Covid-19 has changed the game for smart cities and close integration with, and cooperation from, citizens is an imperative.

 

“None of us would have thought, for instance, that we would need to encourage people to use technology such as contact-tracing and social distancing apps like we do now,” said Alicia Asín, co-founder and CEO of Libelium, which develops and deploys Internet of Things (IoT) sensors for a range of smart city applications. “But people are concerned about issues such as their privacy and data security and these need to be addressed."

 

Trust and transparency

 

Speaking at SmartCitiesWorld’s inaugural advisory panel meeting last month, Asín emphasised that the need to secure citizen buy-in is even more important as cities continue to battle the challenges brought by Covid-19. Of course, this requires building trust and ensuring transparency and she also made the point that not everyone will be skilled at using some of the new technologies that they are expected to regularly use. “So more than ever we need to address this end-user audience and make sure they become part of the solution.”

 

Asín highlighted the shift in priorities that the global pandemic has brought for users of its and similar technology. While generating revenue, cost-savings and compliance were the chief drivers pre-Covid, she said it is now about how we keep our cities and citizens safe and healthy, how we return to business activity, and recover productivity. Using IoT technology to help prevent and limit the spread of the virus is key. “Acting decisively and responsibly to implement the necessary preventative measures contributes to a return to business activity and employment,” she said.

 

Fever screening, social distancing and occupancy control, remote health monitoring, air quality and pollution control, smart parking detection and water quality solutions are among those seeing increased demand around the world.

“We have seen this demand for solutions that provide evidence-based data from industry but it is also relevant for cities to enable them to provide context around personal opinions”

She explained that fever screening was one of the first applications Libelium had to design in the Covid-19 era and the 15-year-old company had to do so “against the clock” to meet demand. “In many cases it is not possible to take a person’s temperature manually in an efficient way,” she said. “If you have a factory or a public space which hundreds of people enter every day, you need to have a system capable of segregating people with a fever from healthy people very quickly.” Its “no-touch” fever detection kits, distributed by Aridea, are being used in multiple locations around the world and users simply walk up to the sensor and the LED light turns green for normal temperature and red for a fever.

 

Remote monitoring is also emerging as what Asín describes as “a new, old trend” and is being demanded by the healthcare sector to help patients return home to continue their recovery.

 

Air quality monitoring

 

While Covid has brought a raft of new challenges it has also exacerbated some old ones. Much was made of the drop in air pollution during lockdowns in many cities around the world but it is returning with a vengeance as citizens turn to private car use instead of public transport. “This makes monitoring air quality more important than ever,” she said. “Traffic is getting worse and it makes mobility an even bigger problem for cities to tackle.”

 

As well as trends that relate to vertical smart city markets, Asín also highlighted a key overarching one that is accelerating: the demand for more evidence-based data. “There’s demand for data from everyone,” she said.

 

The online world means every product and service can now be reviewed and rated and citizens and consumers have a predilection for seeking out opinions but, as Asín points out, these are only opinions. “I may say the temperature in a swimming pool is cool but it is only my opinion or could even be my personal vendetta,” she said. “We have seen this demand for solutions that provide evidence-based data from industry but it is also relevant for cities to enable them to provide context around personal opinions.”

“I can cite instances where there is no interest in bringing in data sensors to monitor air quality and discussion around the project then becomes political not objective”

She gave the example of a housing development in an urban area of Lebanon that has installed Libelium air quality and nano noise sensors. They provide valuable data for home-owners but the technology also enables them to share this with would-be purchasers of their property. “Someone could claim they live in a quiet area but the sensors mean they can also provide data from the past year that proves it.”

 

She went a step further and said she believes that cities should harness the use of data to be more transparent about projects and reduce the risk of them becoming politicised.

 

“If you look at politics today, opinions are very polarised and this includes discussions around subjects such as the environment,” she said. “I can cite instances where there is no interest in bringing in data sensors to monitor air quality and discussion around the project then becomes political not objective. But, if they collected data before and after a project, citizens could check in and see the evidence for themselves.”

 

Proof-of-concepts

 

While highlighting a wide range of real-world examples where IoT and sensor technology are making a tangible difference in cities around the world, Asín is also frustrated that too many technology implementations remain proof-of-concept projects and she believes there needs to be more research around the barriers to smart cities: “Smart cities is a particular subset of the IoT and there have been a number of surveys around why it isn’t taking off as much as it should. But I think we need more research.”

 

Similarly, she believes that some consultants and technology providers still talk at too high a level when it comes to smart city technology and fail to understand the real problems being felt by cities.

 

“I was in a conference in Malaga and spoke to public sector officers about some of the problems they were encountering. They had no idea about the sort of technology that could be used to tackle them, nor how to access funds to pay for it. They also said a big cultural change was required because public sector workers would say ‘we’ve been doing it this way for 13 years with this administration why should we change?’

 

“These are real problems that are cities are having but I’m not sure if any smart city ecosystem is addressing them.”

 

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