Steve Ainsworth, director of operational safety at Northgate Public Services, explores how technology created for tasks such as policing and crowd management could be used to restore consumer confidence
Six months after COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, many countries are starting to ease their lockdown measures, giving us a tantalising glimpse of life on the other side. However, the threat to the economy’s health remains on high alert.
Some people have happily rushed back to their favourite stores and restaurants, but many more will need convincing they’ll be safe before they hit the high street or board a plane.
Living through a pandemic has had a far-reaching impact on the way we feel about sharing public spaces. As a result, businesses and the government need to restore consumer confidence to get people back out spending and give the economy a much-needed boost.
A need for reassurance
There’s no doubt that businesses are working hard to put social distancing measures in place by reducing customer capacity, using floor stickers to indicate queue points and installing hand sanitiser stations. The problem is there’s no way of being sure how closely people are following this guide.
Without solid proof these measures are working, many consumers will simply stay away.
But if a shop could report on its low number of ‘one-metre plus’ breaches, or a train station could issue data on the amount of space available for each individual during rush hour, could businesses start to encourage more people to leave the safety of their homes?
Using the capabilities of existing technologies could help in a number of ways.
Monitoring the impact
There is plenty that businesses can do to show their safety measures are working, simply by modifying tools that are already widely used. For instance, many transport providers and airports use crowd management software to keep track of queues at ticket barriers and passport control.
Post lockdown, the data from these systems could be instrumental in keeping the public informed about the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention measures, which will go a long way towards enticing customers back to the tills.
This type of technology not only keeps a tally of the numbers of people entering and leaving a retail outlet, enabling the store manager to stagger customer entry, it can be used alongside behaviour detection which is a common law enforcement tool. A supermarket could detect how well people are sticking to social distancing rules in the shopping aisles and at the checkout, focusing not on individual incidents, but on overall trends in customer behaviour.
If the shop could inform customers that 98% of people sanitise their hands on entering, or that three-quarters of shoppers remain two metres apart, it would contribute towards bolstering confidence in that supermarket’s brand.
Adapting the space
Every public-facing business is having to make changes to the way it operates to mitigate the threat of COVID-19. But it’s important to know which changes are most effective and to communicate these adaptations to customers so they know their safety is being taken seriously.
Commuters may be wary of entering a busy city centre railway station, but if the transport authorities were able to identify which parts of the station are more crowded than others, and take steps to reduce the volume of individuals in these areas, this could allay people’s fears.
For example, heatmapping technology could show that station entrances one, two and four are low risk, but entrance three is high risk, with frequent social distancing breaches. Steps could be taken to change the layout of the entrance by widening doors, relocating a snack kiosk or moving a train information screen to a different area.
Tackling virus hotspots
The virus will be with us for some time yet. We have to accept that it’s part of our lives and there’s no such thing as no risk. So to get the economy moving again safely in the post lockdown world, a more local approach might work well.
Local councils and retailers could analyse government data to identify virus hotspots and combine this with information about high street footfall and floor plans to pinpoint where more stringent measures are required.
This might involve businesses in high-risk areas using thermal cameras to screen the temperature of everybody entering their café, museum or shop. These premises could also impose mandatory face mask policies and use cameras to measure customer compliance. Targeted approaches like these not only create a safer environment, they enable businesses to report on the success of the measures they are taking, providing reassurance to the local community.
The world we live in may have changed, but the tools and technology traditionally used to keep public spaces safe and crime-free can be adapted to keep the wheels of commerce moving during the pandemic.