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Population density, bustling commerce and global connections — in normal circumstances, three cornerstones of a thriving city — but in the build-up to the COVID-19 pandemic, three factors that made cities especially vulnerable.

Today, in the wake of lockdown restrictions being eased around the world and the gradual reopening of transport links, shops and businesses, it’s crucial we learn from our experiences and focus on rebuilding a ‘new normal’ for post-COVID cities, where social distancing remains a public safety necessity.

Against this backdrop, industry voices, including the likes of Nesta and the World Economic Forum have been calling for a fundamental and permanent change to our urban infrastructure. To be better equip cities to cope with the impact of global pandemics in the future, the recommendation is that they must rapidly step up their ability to collect and analyse citywide data – and to do that, they need to use every possible tool available to them.

Of course, cities can’t just become ‘smart’ overnight, but technologies like Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) can play a big role in accelerating the change needed by making the process as quick and painless as possible.

A heavy investment
There are any number of technologies that can be deployed to increase the ‘data view’ of cities – with mobile communications technologies, GPS, edge computing and a whole host of cameras, sensors, detectors and supporting technical infrastructure.

All of these data sources can be incredibly valuable to cities – and there are a number of innovative companies out there developing solutions that help cities make sense of all of this data and make meaningful decisions and take action.

However, for most cities we are still in the early days of extracting the full value for these systems. Rolling out the infrastructure can be slow, painful and expensive – and as such there are few, if any, cities around the world that have a true ‘global’ view of the running and operation of their infrastructure.
The future is fibre 

And that’s where DAS comes in. Instead of looking up towards GPS satellites, there is something incredibly valuable beneath our feet — in the vast fibre optic cabling infrastructure that exists in abundance across the globe.

These fibre networks already provide greater coverage of city infrastructure than any other technology. And they are already a part of smart city infrastructures where they are used as one of the channels for the data that is being collected from other sensors.

The problem is that these cables have never been thought of as sensors in their own right before.

By essentially ‘plugging in’ to existing fibre optic cable networks, DAS transforms them into sophisticated acoustic sensors. This allows cities to send and receive information and monitor city infrastructure continuously – in real-time on a much more detailed level.

Crucially these benefits can be delivered far more quickly than rolling out other sensor networks. There’s no need to carry out extensive construction work, dig up the streets or install new fixed-point sensors or cameras.

Even if urban areas do need to install a brand new fibre optic network, that would be more cost-effective in the long-run as it can perform two functions at once: providing high speed connectivity; and by implementing DAS technology, capturing actionable data for smart cities.

Accelerating smart cities 

In normal circumstances DAS can be used to monitor traffic flows and pedestrian activity in cities to make them run more smoothly and securely. But while social distancing remains in place in cities DAS can offer a real-time citywide view of the densities of people, particularly around key civic amenities. It can help city authorities to identify locations where there are concentrations of people above a certain threshold in real-time and can be used to ensure key amenities – public buildings or services like gyms and shops – can re-open safely.

Accessing these insights, in combination with intelligent city infrastructure and other data sources, will allow municipal departments to optimise the efficiency of their entire citywide infrastructure. This a level of automation was once unimaginable but is now real and accessible.
Data necessity 

The mass urbanisation of cities is a challenge that requires urgent attention. Real-time insights, that are accurate and immediately implementable, are what cities need as they rebuild and recover from the pandemic. Deploying DAS in the many thousands of miles of suitable fibre already in place under our streets will not only realise new value in our fibre assets, it will also deliver the smart data gathering systems we desperately require in these uncharted and challenging times.

The COVID-19 crisis has seen to it that rapid technological transformation, and becoming a ‘smart city’, is no longer a choice — it’s a necessity.

For more on this topic watch this video.