Several major UK cities have hundreds of artificial intelligence camera scanners monitoring how close pedestrians are to one another as they walk and other traffic like cyclists and cars. The sensors can distinguish and work out distances between people and different modes of transportation.
The device was developed by Vivacity to monitor traffic congestion spots, how roads are being used, social distancing, and lockdown restrictions. It was initially just about the traffic, but when lockdowns began in March, the firm added the new feature of pedestrian social-distance measuring.
We developed an addition to our sensors that were not just looking at the paths pedestrians were taking, but if two pedestrians come within two meters of one another, then we will count that as one, and if they don’t come within two meters of one another, then we will count that as a different one.
There are over 1,000 scanners spread across London, Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham, and Oxford. The data is gathered by Vivacity and shared in a monthly report with the government. The officials can use the information to inform policy decisions regarding lockdown measures and see where traffic-calming steps are necessary.
We’re creating a set of statistics on how behavior is changing in terms of how people are staying close together or apart. And it is that data that is then useful for informing policy decisions on whether there should be a two-meter rule or a one-meter-plus rule or whether local lockdown measures are having the impact they are envisioned to.
No footage is streamed, saved, personal data kept, or used for enforcement purposes – so there’s no need for privacy concerns. The cameras aren’t CCTV that store footage. They are merely data-collecting devices.
They are not recording any footage; they are not streaming any footage, and no one is actually watching it. We’ve trained an algorithm to be able to recognize what a pedestrian looks like as opposed to a cyclist or a van or truck.
Citizen raised the issue of privacy at a Kent County Council meeting, but Mildon ensured the people that:
Even if Kent Council wanted to use them for enforcement purposes, they wouldn’t be able to.
They [cameras] enable us to provide anonymous data on how the road is being used. There are huge benefits in understanding how that space is being used and how that can be improved or how it can be made safer. The idea is to provide an evidence base to check that the interventions that are being put in and are having the policy benefits that the council envisioned in the first place.
The Department for Transport also elaborated on the concern. It said Vivacity provides it and the government with monthly data reports, and they are used solely to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and traffic. There is no personal data in the reports, only statistical analysis.