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16 April 2020

Covid-19 crisis: a stress-test for smart cities

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The Covid-19 emergency is trialling our technologies, infrastructure and laws. In this context the EU has released a common toolbox for contact tracing apps to support gradual lifting of confinement measures. From the frantic race against time to fight off the coronavirus, we will inherit scientific and technological knowledge that could make our cities smarter and better equipped to face such global crisis in the future


From the Covid-19 crisis we are learning a historic lesson about transforming our towns and cities. We’ll probably see a smart city concept B.C. and A.C, before coronavirus and after coronavirus.

This emergency has boosted the development of new technologies and collaboration between countries. It has shown the importance of data sharing and it has put infrastructure and legislative frameworks to the test, especially in the privacy domain. In many ways, what the threat of climate change has done over the last few years, the virus has done in just a few months.

Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, points out: “The current crisis is dramatic, but it can also be seen as a global testing laboratory. I remember a quote from Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and chief of staff to President Barack Obama: ‘Never allow a crisis to go to waste’.”

Ratti continues: “We are witnessing a widespread use of smart technologies to track people's movements in cities, to measure compliance with the rules of social distancing, apps to monitor infected people. So there has been an acceleration in this sense. All these measures, probably necessary in the short term, will soon be called into question, especially from the point of view of privacy. The long-term response to the crisis will depend on how cities react to the need to meet essential but partially conflicting needs: security and freedom, privacy and access to data.”


A pan-European model of Covid-19 mobile application - #StrongerTogether

Emanuele Piasini is CEO and founder of Webtek, an Italian company. At the beginning of the Covid-19 emergency they developed in a very short time a free application to map the infected people’s contacts, and made this tool available to the authorities. He warns: "We must rush, we are wasting too much time, we need to record data to stop the infection.”

Piasini points out: “The contact tracing apps used in China directly interact with the users, giving them a signal when they approach people who are potentially infected with Covid-19. Moreover, the installation of these tools is mandatory over there. We have instead developed an app compliant with the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is voluntary and should be managed by government authorities. It uses the smartphones’ GPS coordinates and sends them to a server. Here an artificial intelligence (AI) system collects this data, matches it and detects the contacts occurred between people (who have previously installed the app).”

“For example, let's say that I was on a train in the morning, I got a fever in the evening and then I tested positive for Covid-19. At this point, it would be hard to remember all the people I bumped into. With the app, the authority enters my phone number into the AI system, which provides the list of phone numbers of the people I met, including where and for how long I met them. The authority then warns the citizens involved.”

Several private companies and public institutions are developing contact tracing applications in many European countries. The risk is the proliferation of incompatible platforms that collect fragmented information and process personal data in different ways.

Therefore, the EU Members States, supported by the Commission, released a common EU toolbox, which provides a practical guide in the implementation of contact tracing and warning apps. It is based on measures taken by the States and peer reviewed by the countries themselves and the Commission.

The apps should be fully compliant with the GDPR, installed voluntarily, approved by the health authorities, and dismantled once the crisis is over. They should exploit the latest privacy-enhancing solutions such as the bluetooth technology, which doesn’t enable tracking of people's locations. Moreover, the apps should be based on anonymised data: therefore they can alert people who have been in proximity to an infected person but without revealing the identity.

Another important aspect is that the apps need to communicate with each other and be interoperable across the EU, so that citizens are also protected when they cross borders. The toolbox is a work in progress. The Commission will publish periodic reports about it throughout the crisis.

Watch the video on EU guidelines on apps tracing coronavirus infections – Credits: Video by EU Commission

Watch the video on the EU guidelines on apps tracing coronavirus infections – Credits: EU Commission

Smart cities join forces against the coronavirus

As part of an ever-increasing international collaboration to face the pandemic, the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) agency selected Valencia, in Spain, to lead an international task force that will share innovative solutions and best practices in cities all over the world.

Ernesto Faubel, chief analyst at the ICT Project-Innovation Service at the Valencia City Council explains: “The goal of this initiative, called ‘Emergency response of Covid-19 cities’, is to monitor the evolution of the disease, analyse what signs can help to forecast, anticipate the behaviour of citizens and thus try to slow down the spread of the virus. We will provide a global data-sharing platform and develop a policy framework for smart management of public health emergencies in cities.” Data will come from mobility, water consumption and garbage collected during confinement.

Faubel adds: “In Valencia region, we have designed a big data project which analyses aggregated and anonymised data from the telecom companies and looks for patterns in people’s mobility and the impact that they have on the spread of the virus. We are also developing artificial intelligence (AI) tools that could explain the people's movement behaviours and identify places where they tend to converge too much. With all this, we will be able to design dashboards with estimations about citizen mobility and build epidemiological models of the virus.”

Among the initiatives implemented during the crisis, the Spanish city developed an internet portal that offers a disease evolution map and resources to assist people in the emergency. Real-time information about public services is also provided by an app, sending warnings related to the spread of COVID-19.

Valencia is also one of the ‘lighthouse’ cities of the EU project MAtchUP, which is testing intelligent solutions in the mobility, energy efficiency and ICT fields. It has launched, together with other 16 smart city projects supported by the EU, the social media campaign #SmartCitiesHelp, with which the towns can share their experiences during the health crisis.


Studying mobility as a virus vector

Total lockdown has been the first emergency solution for cities unprepared to handle the coronavirus. However, it brings serious socio-economic consequences.

Selective confinement has proven to be a smarter and more sustainable approach. South Korea adopted this approach; it carried out massive testing, even on those without symptoms, and it isolated the people infected while tracing and quarantining their contacts. All this has been key to stemming the pandemic and bringing it under control, without locking down entire cities.

Having access to mobile phone location data has been crucial. Emanuele Massaro, researcher from the Laboratory for Human-environment Relations in Urban systems at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, says: “We normally allow apps to know everything about us, we allow private companies to know where we are, who we meet, what we like. All this for money, for marketing scope. So it would be fair that scientists and political decision-makers should access people's phone location data for public health purposes.”

Massaro has been working with this kind of data for years, to study the spatial spread of epidemics and inform agent-based models. They are computational systems that simulate interactions between individuals or collective entities (agents) and predict their effects. These tools can be useful for assessing in advance the effectiveness of strategies and policies for dealing with an emergency, before they are implemented. For example this information could allow governments to distribute resources where they are likely to be most needed.

He says: “So far, agent-based models in computational epidemiology have been developed on a large scale, at national and global level. They elaborate real time information on how people move in macro-areas, and therefore they are able to make fairly precise estimates of how epidemics develop. The challenge now, on which I would like to work in the next few years, is to go on smaller, urban scales, to make much more refined models using GPS location data. The aim to better understand how mobility and urban-scale interactions can affect the spread of the virus, and evaluate how different policies and methods have an impact not only on epidemiological scenarios, but also on the environment – the effects on the pollution – and on the economy”.

Michele Tizzoni, researcher in mathematical modelling and infectious disease epidemiology at the ISI Foundation, Turin, explains: “Mathematical epidemiology was born in the 1920s, but only in recent years has it raised the problem of people changing behaviour during an epidemic and how to include this in the models.”

Tizzoni is leading a study to assess the effects of the restrictions on travel and individual mobility imposed in Italy and the behavioural changes of the population. “We are analysing the reaction to lockdown and social distancing through the analysis of aggregated, anonymised data from mobile phones. This data has been collected and made available for research by a company that operates a geolocation intelligence platform. User privacy is preserved. When people share their position via smartphone apps, their exact location is ‘obfuscated’, for example some sensitive places are automatically deleted.”

New technologies, implemented without infringing the GDPR framework, will be crucial to progressively unlocking cities and going back to normal while we eagerly await the advent of a drug and a vaccine. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.