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Artificial intelligence Vivacity cameras will not enforce social distancing in Kent, says company boss

Artificial intelligence cameras being installed in Kent will not be used to enforce social distancing, says one of the manufacturing company's bosses.

News 30 of the sensors were "in the pipeline" sparked concern among councillors when it was announced at a meeting last week.

But Vivacity co-founder Peter Mildon says his small North London company, which has 44 employees, says there should be no concerns around privacy.

His company has been commissioned by Kent County Council to place the devices across the 12 districts to look for potential road accident hotspots and to measure car, cyclist and pedestrian volumes.

During the pandemic, the Department for Transport (DfT) has been using Vivacity cameras to monitor behaviour and check if UK citizens are adhering to social distancing rules laid down by Boris Johnson's government.

But the department is not involved in the Kent project.

Once installed, the high-tech equipment can hone in on pedestrians and surround them with individual coloured rectangles which can show how close together they are and how busy the streets are.

Maidstone County Hall chiefs have adamantly denied the sensors in Kent will be used in this way. A total of 30 will be installed in two phases. Seven will be placed across the county on October 21 and a further 23 in mid-December.

However, Mr Mildon said the devices could be "upgraded" remotely to observe social distancing if KCC was "amenable" to the idea. The DfT has declined to comment on whether they would consider asking County Hall to carry out this request.

Assuring the public about intrusion concerns, Mr Mildon said: "From a privacy perspective there is no slippery slope and no backdoor to these being big brother."

He says the sensors cannot be used to enforce the rule of six or any other social distancing rules, stating it would be "unethical" and explained the picture quality would not enable them to be used in this way.

At the start of lockdown in March, Vivacity joined the national effort to help the government understand how effective their social distancing messaging had been.

Mr Mildon said: "Our data showed there had been a big reduction in less than 1m interactions."

The Rule of Six came into force to tackle rising coronavirus infection rates last month, making gatherings of more than six people illegal across England. Mr Mildon said Vivacity's data was unable to provide "useful" information on how effective this measure had been.

He said "Clearly you can't use our data for enforcement because we can't tell whether it's a household group or not.

A screenshot from a Vivacity video showing how the cameras could work Picture: YouTube/Vivacity
A screenshot from a Vivacity video showing how the cameras could work Picture: YouTube/Vivacity

"It would be completely impossible to make a judgement on the adherence to the rules."

"Serious questions" were raised by Kent councillors about use of the sensors in the county during KCC's scrutiny committee last Tuesday, with Cllr Rory Love (Con) saying: "I think all of us would be worried and we probably ought to scrutinise that very thoroughly at a future time."

But, Mr Mildon stated emphatically the firm had no intention of adopting a 'China-centric' model where the state knows what each individual has done through technology.

He added: "While the Chinese system is there for the good of the state, here the objective is to make roads more efficient, safer, easier to use for the citizens and therefore there is no need for personal data or enforcement as part of that tool box."

A total of 30 UK clients work with Vivacity to better understand their road networks, the majority of these are local transport authorities and the projects are based in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Oxford and now Kent.

Mr Mildon said: "In Kent, we have been asked to find out how close cars get to cyclists and how close cyclists get to pedestrians, not from a virus transmission perspective, but a safety one."

KCC says it has hired Vivacity to spot highways defects and provide "efficient" and "accurate" analysis about the number of cars, cyclists and pedestrians using Kent's roads and pavements and to record their speeds.

County Hall's highways director, Simon Jones, said the scheme was "in the pipeline" while Nikola Floodgate, KCC's schemes planning and delivery manager, denied that they will be used for a "big brother" function.

A KCC spokesman said: "The recorded data can then predict how the road network will react in the future, providing us with considerably more accurate journey times and the potential to push people onto other types of transport rather than getting into their car.”

The DfT, who says it receives regular anonymous data updates from Vivacity to monitor the impact of Covid rules, says KCC is managing the placement and scheme rollout and running privacy impact assessments.

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