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Helsinki launches smartphone-based crowd tracking system

The data aims to help people avoid crowded areas during the pandemic as well as guide tourism revitalisation efforts.

Ihmisiä Helsingin kekustassa.
Located in the heart of downtown, adjacent to the busy harbour area, the streets along the north and south sides of Esplanadi park are occupied by many cafes, restaurants and shops. File photo from 2016. Image: Kimmo Brandt / AOP

In an aim to help people avoid areas that are highly congested in the pandemic age, the City of Helsinki is rolling out an anonymous people-tracking system around Esplanadi park, one of the city's most crowded summertime tourist areas.

In a cooperative project with tech firms IBM and Hypercell, the city is installing bluetooth signal sensors on both sides of the leafy esplanade and park, which is usually packed with people whenever the sun is shining.

The tracking sensors anonymously and autonomously gather bluetooth data from peoples' cell phones, counting how many people are in the area, how long they stayed and in which direction they headed when they left.

The trio plans to launch a Heat Map web page this summer, where people will be able to see — and avoid — the most crowded areas, according to the city's project manager Sanni Liimatta.

Story continues after photo.

Sanni Liimatta projektipäällikkö
Sanni Liimatta. Image: Kristiina Lehto / Yle

"Due to the epidemic situation, many domestic tourists are unsure about Helsinki's safety. The aim is to promote a sense of security with the help of movement data," she explained, adding that city dwellers will also be able to take advantage of the tracking information to avoid crowds.

If the tracking technology becomes more commonly used, the data can also be utilised to help urban planning efforts, according to Liimatta.

Much like Finland's bluetooth-based coronavirus infection chain tracker, Koronavilkku, the system of collecting pedestrian movement hinges on individuals keeping their phones' bluetooth signals turned on, according to Hypercell's COO, Sami Vepsäläinen.

Story continues after photo.

Sami Vepsäläinen, Hypercell, operatiivinen johtaja
Sami Vepsäläinen. Image: Kristiina Lehto / Yle

He said that the collected data was anonymous as no personal information needs to be collected, and that the data is based on the movement of groups of people.

In addition to the Esplanadi area, there are plans to install similar sensors across areas of downtown Helsinki that are important to the tourism business, Vepsäläinen said.

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