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

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.

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.

At 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. ☺️

Do COVID-19 vaccines work?

Israel is currently leading the way with COVID-19 vaccination; 62.5% of people have had at least one dose of vaccine. The UK isn’t far behind, with 1 in 2 people having had a COVID-19 jab. Given the UK is only vaccinating adults, it’s actually vaccinated 2 in 3 people. That’s a substantial proportion of the population, with all vulnerable adults having been offered a jab. 💉

Thanks to a lockdown and vaccinations, positive coronavirus tests and related deaths have been falling since January in Israel. The UK has a population of 68 million people, much larger than Israel’s 9 million, so how are things working out here?

Has the UK beaten coronavirus?

The UK went into a lockdown at the start of January. Schools re-opened in March, with restrictions gradually easing since then. Around the same time, testing capacity was dramatically increased, improving detection of asymptomatic cases. On one day in March nearly 2 million coronavirus tests were conducted! Despite this, the number of positive tests still continues to fall, as does the number of people in hospital with coronavirus and COVID-19 related deaths.

So how does this relate the the vaccine roll-out, what were the key milestones?

The UK split its 53 million adult population into three categories:

1. Priority cohorts 1 to 4 – 15 million people
• This group included over 70s, the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (those shielding), as well care home residents, and those who work in care homes, health care and social care
2. Priority cohorts 5 to 9 – 17 million people
• This group included over 50s, as well as anyone deemed to be at risk due to their job or social circumstances
3. General population – 21 million people
• Everyone else

Cohorts 1 to 4 account for around 88% of all COVID-19 deaths, while groups 1 to 9 account for 99% of all deaths. So once 32 million people have been offered a jab, there will be a significant reduction, near elimination, in the likelihood of deaths from COVID-19.

That’s huge!

So where are we at? Currently, around 35 million people have had a first jab, 16 million of which have also had a second. That’s a mix of the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna vaccines.

That means all the most vulnerable groups (accounting for 88% of deaths) are fully vaccinated – bar those who’ve refused a vaccine.

Here are some charts showing the UK’s progress. The delivery forecast is based on the 90-day average of vaccinations administered.

The data is all going in the right direction, and I feel quite confident in saying: yes, COVID-19 vaccines do work and the UK is beating coronavirus. Vaccinations are effective at reducing hospitalisation, death, but also at reducing virus transmission.

Points to consider

The more people who catch COVID-19 (globally) the greater the risk of new variants or strains, these could potentially be more harmful, transmissible and vaccine-resistant, but they could also be more benign. Until we’ve stamped out COVID-19 globally, there will be a risk that even a highly vaccinated country could go backwards.

There are also ethical questions around vaccine supply. The UK provided funding and support to multiple vaccine programmes very early on, helping it to secure supplies of several vaccines. Now it’s vaccinated it’s most vulnerable, is there a case for it to gift or sell on doses to other countries with fewer supplies and higher need? Countries like India, which is struggling with the pandemic at the moment. A vaccine given to a not-at-risk adult may stop 1 death in 100,000 in the UK, whereas if given to someone at risk in India right now, it could save 1 in 1,000. It could also free up health care capacity, to support others who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

Wherever you are in the world, there is cause for optimism.

Vaccines work and we are turning the tide on COVID-19! 😊