The pocket doctors

Phones on the front line in containment battle


Keeping an eye on Covid-19

More than a month since China’s fight against the coronavirus epidemic took centre-stage there are signs that business is steadily creeping back into city life.

One of the early indications was the online retailers of fresh food, who are now managing to maintain sufficient stock throughout the day. That means that shoppers no longer need to stay up late into the night to be first to grab groceries on their smartphones.

Long-delayed parcels are beginning to pile up at the entrances to residential buildings as more of the logistics industry gets back to work too after the extended Chinese New Year break.

The delivery people, most of them migrant workers, are dropping them using a new ‘contactless delivery’ style intended to minimise the risks of interacting face-to-face.

Covid-19 has killed more than 3,000 people in China, forcing cities across the country to shut down. But the authorities are also trying to focus on containing the impact on the economy and getting more of the country back to work. Over 43% of small and medium-sized firms in the manufacturing sector had resumed production as of February 26, Zhang Kejian, deputy minister of industry and information technology, told state media. More of these enterprises must restart their operations if they are to survive a cash crunch, a government-backed survey confirmed last month (see WiC484).

Of course, the resumption of economic activity brings fresh fears that the virus could flare up again. Mega cities such as Shanghai, which still has millions of non-resident workers waiting to return, are looking to new technologies to protect communities and battle the spread of the virus. As of March 1, Shanghai had a total of 337 confirmed infections, the lowest of the first-tier cities of Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Three had died, with 287 patients reported as recovered from the virus.

Tech giants such as Tencent and Alibaba have been enlisted in a bid to counter the spread of infection. The companies have launched phone apps based on a traffic light colour system that assign people a QR code that generates red, yellow or green status, according to their travel histories and self-reported health. The apps also advise their users how long they should be in quarantine – if their health status indicates a need for it – and whether they are free to travel.

The telecoms giants China Unicom, China Telecom and China Mobile have rolled out a similar feature, which monitors the smartphone owner’s whereabouts based on GPS tracking. Offices and apartment blocks have been asking for access to the QR code produced as a means of approving entry. Your WiC correspondent ran into exactly this situation in Shanghai – being prevented from entering a restaurant when it indicated that I had recently been to Shenzhen.

China’s artificial intelligence giants have been deploying new virus-related functionality too. Earlier this month, US-blacklisted Megvii announced that it had implemented a measurement system that detects abnormal body temperatures in high-density areas, even if the person is wearing a mask or a hat. Beijing-based Sensetime says it has developed new algorithms that can flag people who aren’t wearing masks in public places. After reports that its facial recognition technology is flummoxed by hundreds of millions of mask-wearers, it has also countered that its software can still identify people with “high accuracy”.

In an unforeseen way the outbreak may speed up the development of ‘smart cities’ in China. In recent years the concept has been touted as one which increases efficiencies in everything from power usage to environmental controls to traffic management, deploying massive data gathering and AI.

However, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones the function of smart ciy technology that has become most apparent to urbanites in recent weeks is how it can restrict their freedom of movement – albeit in this case with the purpose of trying to contain a deadly virus as rapidly as possible.

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