AI and surveillance – Helsinki looks for ways to make itself safer amid pandemic

AI and surveillance – Helsinki looks for ways to make itself safer amid pandemic

Local authorities are experimenting with ways to use cameras to determine how many people are in a specific area

Over the last few months, local authorities in the Finnish capital of Helsinki have been flirting with the idea of intertwining AI and local surveillance systems in order to determine the sizes of crowds in different parts of the city. Crowds and how large they are, has become a central issue since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe and governments have been searching for ways to make their responses to the disease smarter, quicker and more effective.

Concerns about privacy

In Europe, however, there is also a prevalent disdain for privacy-breaching measures. The pandemic, at first, did little to change that. But as the months have dragged on and as the continent is faced with a 2nd wave of the disease, the tide could be turning.

Helsinki’s new system, which has been undergoing trials in the city’s downtown since August, is combining CCTV networks with AI which sorts through the images in order to determine a mostly accurate number of people present specific times and places. The monitoring which has been conducted so far has taken place on the Senate Square and the Citizen’s Square.

As a response to the privacy concerns of citizens, Anssi Vuosalmi the City of Helsinki's chief of preparedness explained that the AI used for the project looks at the footage not through the lens of individual photos of citizens but rather as chunks and data blocks that allow it to find an accurate estimate of the number of people that are present.

Furthermore, the cameras are not monitored by humans, but rather by machines that are simply processing the algorithms that result in rounded numerical values – the only result that can be seen by officials and authorities.

Currently, Helsinki’s local government is analyzing the results of the tests of the last couple of months. Should officials be satisfied, the system could be introduced in a wider fashion in the future so as to better allow the city to deal with the spread of COVID-19.



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