Coronavirus outbreak: China banks on surveillance technology, AI and big data to curb spread of virus

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on February 08, 2020 Published on February 08, 2020

A man who had quarantined himself at his Nanjing home in Jiangsu province after returning from a trip to Wuhan was taken by surprise when the local police showed up at his door and asked to take his temperature.

He had failed to notify the authorities about his trip to the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak that has taken the world by a storm and yet was identified based on his travel data from Wuhan. The incident was detailed in an article published by the Nanjing government.

In another instance, a Reuters report talked about “the man from Hangzhou” who after 12 days of isolation post a business trip to Wuhan had stepped out of his home only to be confronted by the local police as well his boss who requested him to stay indoors. The authorities had tracked the man’s car through the licence plate in Wenzhou and had confronted him after identifying him using a surveillance camera’s facial recognition technology. The authorities also notified his company.

China is turning to its surveillance technology to curb the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (n-CoV) which according to recent media reports has claimed more than 700 lives in the country.

Multiple startups and government authorities in provinces across China have turned to technology to build tools that can help authorities detect potential coronavirus cases and help people stay out of afflicted neighbourhoods.

In search of Wuhan visitors

The city of Wuhan has been closed off and is under quarantine since January 23. However, about 5 million travellers had left Wuhan during the Lunar New Year festival, according to the city mayor. This has led to a frantic nationwide search for recent Wuhan visitors, the Japan Times reported.

China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Tuesday addressed the local government and said that using big data technology to track, and screen priority cases will help in effectively predicting the development of the epidemic in real-time.

Authorities have developed multiple tools to track and identify these visitors who may potentially have caught the virus from their visit to the city.

Beijing is using a set of data tracking and AI tools to find and prevent potential infections, according to the report.

The Chinese search giant Baidu has developed a system to identify and screen travellers at the Qinghe railway station with the use of infrared and facial-recognition technology, the report said.

Facial recognition firm Megvii is also testing its new system in Beijing district. The system spots and identifies people with fevers through its AI temperature measurement system using thermal cameras according to media reports.

AI firm SenseTime has built a similar system which can be used at building entrances. It identifies people even when they are wearing masks and detects fevers through infrared cameras as per a Reuters report.

Tech firms pitch in

Tech companies have also pitched in to develop tools that alert Chinese residents as they step into affected areas.

According to a report by the state-run Global Times, robots have been deployed at one public plaza in the southern Guangdong province to confront passersby who fail to wear masks to protect themselves from catching the virus.

Data mapping company QuantUrban and a third-party WeChat mini-program developer have developed apps, alert users, when they are close to infected neighbourhoods. The apps take the official information on afflicted neighbourhoods and map it geographically to issue alerts to users according to a Reuters report.

WeChat’s program, called “YiKuang” - or “Epidemic Situation”, covers the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. QuantUrban’s mapping initiative spans across nine cities in the province.

More than 34000 confirmed cases of the virus have been reported so far across the globe according to recent media reports.

Published on February 08, 2020
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