How smart cities could help the visually impaired

A smart cities expo in India. Image: Getty.

Travelling to work, meeting friends for a catch up or just doing some shopping are often taken for granted by people with no known disabilities. For the visually impaired, these seemingly simple things can be a serious challenge.

But imagine a city equipped with technology that enables the visually impaired to recognise people, places or even bank notes, helping them to live more independently whether indoors or in a public place. That’s the promise of so-called smart cities, which use things like internet-connected devices and artificial intelligence to improve services and the quality of life for their residents.

For example, the visually impaired could hugely benefit from a smart city’s enhanced transport system. “Virtual Warsaw”, a smart city project in Poland’s busy capital, is based on cutting edge technologies and aims to provide a set of “eyes” to those who have visual problems.

The city has developed a network of beacon sensors to assist the visually impaired to move around independently. These are small, low-cost transmitters that can be fitted to buildings and send people real-time information about their surroundings to their phones via Bluetooth. This can include the location of building entrances, bus stops, or even empty seats on a bus or where to queue in municipal buildings.

In 2018, Dubai ran a pilot scheme involving an iPhone app that can convert written information in metro stations into audio instructions, helping users navigate from the entrance to the ticket machine, gate, platform and carriage.

Once travellers have arrived at their destination, smart cities can help them navigate public spaces. Simply providing better connectivity for smartphones is a good start, for example by fitting buildings with 5G-enabled small cells instead of relying on traditional masts for signal.

This would enable the visually impaired to make better use of smartphone apps such as Seeing AI and Blind Square, which can describe surroundings or give audio directions to users. Google is also developing a platform called Lookout, that uses a camera to help people identify money or recognise the colour of objects.

But smart cities can go further with public technology. For example, they could provide automated information points with tactile maps or audio systems describing the surrounding location. If these included a camera that users can point at different buildings and other aspects of the environment, then image recognition, an application of artificial intelligence, could recognise these objects and describe them to the user.

Similarly, shopping malls could be equipped with product-recognition devices to allow shoppers to compare products in shops. These could come in the form of simple clips that can be added on top of any pair of glasses and can identify and describe a product to a user.


Smart buildings

Smart city technology can also help inside buildings. One existing example is voice-controlled home assistant technology such as Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home, which can already be used to operate locks, lights and appliances or add items to a shopping list. But we should also expect home automation to go further, with sensors used to open windows and close curtains in response to changing weather conditions, and even to help people find lost objects.

Smart cities will revolutionise how people live, communicate or shop, especially for visually impaired people. We are now starting to witness the emergence of smart cities such as in Dubai, Singapore, New York and Warsaw. However, the adoption of smart city technology is still in its infancy, which is why the European Union is investing up to €1 billion in supporting projects in around 300 cities.

A recent review by professional services firm PwC found that smart city development is expected to increase steadily around the world over the next seven years, creating a US$2.5 trillion market by 2025. Urban development is growing at the fastest rate in human history. Smart city technology can help to meet some of the expectations of urban development that are growing just as fast.

The Conversation

Drishty Sobnath, Postdoctoral Researcher in Artificial Intelligence, Solent University and Ikram Ur Rehman, Lecturer in Computer Science, University of West London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.