Problems Counting People?

Implementing COVID Regulations

Here in the Netherlands the University system just reopened after a short lockdown (again). There are still restrictions on how many people are allowed into rooms however, a maximum of 75 in any single space. This ruling was introduced last year, and led to some developments that might be of interest to technology fans (and privacy fans I should add).

Counting people manually as they enter and leave a room is a time consuming and expensive approach, so two universities had the idea of using cameras and artificial intelligence to check how many people are in buidings and individual spaces.

Utrecht University ran a trial, while Leiden placed 371 cameras on the walls above the doors to each space.

The Leiden approach however caused a bit of a stink. The cameras were all placed and set up while the students were locked out of the building, the ideal time we might say, to be having people up ladders in front of doors. But such an approach can also be seen as trying to do something without too many people noticing.

And that is how some of the students saw the arrival, and a couple started to investigate for an article in the weekly University student magazine.

Counting entries and exits, well nobody could be against that! The University has to do it by law. So discussion grew around the methods and the cameras and the data.

The university had bought 371 cameras from the Swiss manufacturer Xovis, 600 euro a piece. So the question is what can (and do) they register?

According to company spec, the system is capable of:

Counting students

Following their individual routes

Calculating an individual’s height

Estimating age

Suggesting mood (is an individual happy or angry)

Determining who is a staff member

Counting numbers in groups

Detecting incorrect facemask use.

Now these types of cameras are already in use in airports and shopping centres, to minimize waits (among other things) and to try and calibrate advertising and work out the actual moment that someone choses to buy something. So such data does offer broad analysis possibility.

The slogan used by the manufactures maybe lets the cat out of the bag a bit: ‘Way more than people counting.’

The cameras can of course be set to different levels of data collection and privacy, from level 3 fully anonymous (just numbers of people), to 0, which is a livefeed of the images.

Some Questions

Now I am no expert, but one problem seems to me to be that the system records lots of data, that at some point someone filters before providing their dataset to the customer. Who, when, under which circumstances, who manages security of access, there are a lot of issues here. But they are not all negative. Such a system may be of use in a terrorist incident for example, or other sorts of emergency. You could see why something more expansive might be chosen over a system that just counts movement. But there is a moral as well as practical dilemma in choosing such an overkill solution to a simple problem.

The report the student investigators published in the weekly university magazine showed lots of security issues, and there were protests from the students who wanted the system taken down. Both Utrecht and Leiden have now stopped using the cameras.

But that is not a good result from a responsible innovation perspective. Lots of money was wasted, many people got upset, two sides of an argument were constructed that are at loggerheads with each other.

A change in public participation techniques might have avoided all of this. A lesson to be learned I feel. Informing without debate doesn’t work.

You can read the student report here and a local newspaper report here. All in Dutch though, so you might have to use some translation software.

Is the pandemic over?

England’s approach to COVID restrictions this January is very different to last January. It’s also worlds away from how European neighbours are reacting.

Many countries are now imposing tighter travel restrictions, and implementing lockdowns, while England (and to some degree the UK) is moving in the opposite direction.

For example, the “red list” of countries has been scrapped, as has the need to get a pre-departure test when travelling. Isolation periods have also been reduced and were masks not mandatory in indoor public spaces, you could be mistaken for thinking the pandemic was over.

England’s libertarian approach comes as the country’s infection rates hit an all time high. One in 15 people in the UK had COVID in the last week of December. Not since the pandemic started, or in the last year, in the last week! 🤯

So why is the UK making these decisions?

Do the statistics offer any justification for these changes?

Last year I posted several articles looking at the UK’s COVID-19 data and exploring the effectiveness of vaccination. Things have changed a lot since, so here’s an update.

UK COVID-19 Stats

The UK is now 90% vaccinated. Nine in 10 people aged 12 and over have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Around 80% are “fully vaccinated” having had two doses, and around 60% have also had a booster (or third) jab. 💉

While hospitalisations started to rise quite rapidly at the end of the December, they’re also still nowhere near to the 40k numbers we saw last January.

Why is this?

There are many reasons, but the two biggest seem to be: Vaccinations and Omicron.

Vaccinations

Vaccination has undoubtedly helped to weaken the link between infections and deaths. Despite there being around 3 million more infections in December 2021 than January 2021, there were around 30k fewer COVID related deaths.

This chart shows that link between cases and deaths.

December 2021 COVID-19 cases aligned to deaths

You can see last year in weeks 44 and 45 (January 2021) cases and deaths hit their peak – I’ve used this as the baseline maximum, 100%. Until week ~60 (May 2021) cases and deaths were fairly well aligned, cases went up, deaths went up. However that link has been slowly weakening. Since May 2021, cases have risen and fallen, with deaths hardly moving, and that’s in no small part thanks to vaccinations. By May 2021, around 1 in 3 people were fully vaccinated and 2 in 3 had had at least one dose.

In week 95 (the last full week I have data for) deaths were around 11% of January 2021 levels, while cases were almost 190%. The virus no longer has the same ability to kill as it once did.

N.B. Cases shown aren’t positive tests, but the ONS infection study estimates. Deaths are those within 28 days of a positive test, by date of death. Deaths have been moved forward by one week, to better align them to cases.

Omicron

The other contributing factor is Omicron. In the last month, UK COVID cases have been rising exceedingly fast. This is in part due to the more infectious Omicron strain of the virus.

5th of January 2022 COVID-19 variants by countryAt the start of December 2021, around 1% of UK cases were the Omicron variant, with Delta making up the vast majority of all cases. Last week, 96% of all cases were Omicron. That’s insane growth! Omicron took over as the dominant strain in around 2 weeks, almost wiping Delta infections out in the space of a month.

You can explore this more with this fantastic tool by Our World In Data – the University of Oxford.

Omicron appears to be easier to spread, more dominant, but less deadly. The levels of Omicron in the UK are surely also helping to keep deaths low – compared with if all cases were the Delta strain.

Do the statistics justify fewer restrictions?

So do the statistics give us confidence that England’s approach at the moment is well founded? To a degree, yes. It’s unclear if the decisions have been made based on science, or politics, but so far at least, England’s libertarian approach looks like it offers a good balance between freedom, autonomy and safety.

The more cases there are, the greater the risk of mutation. That could be seen as a concern, but mutation lead to Omicron defeating Delta, which (so far) hasn’t turned out to be a bad thing.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic over?

With more global cases than ever before, it’s undeniable that COVID-19 is still very much a pandemic. But, if we’re able to live with the virus in general circulation, without mass deaths or hospitalisations (just like we do with flu each winter) there is hope, that we may be nearing the beginning of the end of the period where COVID ruled our lives.

Live in hope. ☺️

OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society

In this post I would like to offer some take-aways and personal thoughts on the recent OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, held on the 6th and 7th of December 2021.

Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions

The conference rationale was Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions, based upon the arguments that the world faces unprecedented challenges in health, food, climate change and biodiversity, solutions for which will require system transition or transformation. The technologies involved may bring fear of negative consequences and problems with public acceptance, as well as raise real issues of social justice (primarily of equal access, thinking today about covid vaccination inequalities as an obvious starting point).

Good governance and ethics will therefore be necessary to harness technology for the common good.

Towards a framework for the responsible development of emerging technologies

The following is taken from the rationale page of the conference website:

The conference will explore values, design principles, and mechanisms that operate upstream and at different stages of the innovation value chain. Certain policy design principles are increasingly gaining traction in responsible innovation policies, and provide an organising structure for the panels in the conference:  

Inclusivity, diversity and stakeholder engagement

Stakeholder and broader public engagement can be means to align science and technology with societal values, goals and needs. This includes the involvement of stakeholders, citizens, and actors typically excluded from the innovation process (e.g. small firms, remote regions, certain social groups, e.g. minorities etc.). The private sector too has a critical role to play in governance. 

Goal orientation

Policy can play a role in better aligning research, commercialisation and societal needs. This implies investing in public and private sector research and development (R&D) and promoting “mission-oriented” technological transformations that better connect innovation impacts to public policy needs. At the same time, such innovation and industrial policies need to be transparent, open and well-designed so they foster deliberation, produce value for money, and do not distort competition.

Anticipatory governance

From an innovation perspective, governance approaches that engage at a late stage of the innovation process can be inflexible, inadequate and even stifling. More anticipatory kinds of governance — like new technology assessment methods, foresight strategies and ethics-by-design – can enhance the capacity to govern well.

The conference included round-table and panel events alongside institutional presentations, introductions and scene setting as well as wrap-ups. Video of each event is available via the conference website, supported by an introduction paragraph and series of questions.

One of the roundtables I attended may be of particular interest to Technology Bloggers readers as it was all about carbon neutrality:

Realising Net Carbon Neutrality: The Role of Carbon Management Technologies

Description

Reaching net carbon neutrality is one of the central global challenges we face, and technological development will play a key role. A carbon transition will necessitate policies that promote sustainable management of the carbon stored in biomass, but not exclusively so: technology is increasingly making it possible to recycle industrial sources of carbon, thus making them renewable. The idea of “carbon management” may capture the different facets of the answer: reduce the demand for carbon; reuse and recycle the carbon in the bio- and technosphere; and remove carbon from the atmosphere. But a reliance on technologies for carbon capture and usage (CCU) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) may present barriers for other more radical transformations.

● What knowledge is necessary to better guide national and international policy communities as they manage emerging technology portfolios for carbon management?

● What can more holistic approaches to carbon management offer for developing technology pathways to net carbon neutrality?

● What policies could ensure that one technology is not a barrier for implementation of another?

I took a lot of notes, including the following points:

What kind of technology and knowledge is necessary when steering the development of emerging technology?

There are both opportunities and challenges for finding the right mix between technology and policy

Carbon capture alone will not be viable, we have to reduce emissions

The energy transition will have to be dramatic but there is no international agreement on the phasing out of carbon fuels

There is an immediate need for investment, social acceptance and political will

Use technology that is available today rather than using language about innovation

Policy-makers have to see a whole picture, just cutting carbon from some of the big emitters will not be enough

Real structural change is necessary

The old economic sectors and the poor should not be those who pay

Success requires not only information, but communication

The truth about both economic and social costs should be available

Why not watch the video here? It’s just over an hour long.