Social distancing among Antwerp shoppers focus of new study


A month-long project on the Meir will determine if people are following social distancing advice

Mind the gap

Everyone has been told to maintain a 1.5m distance when out and about, but has the message really got through? And if it has, how long will people follow the advice?

This is what researchers at Antwerp University intend to find out, by applying artificial intelligence to crowds in the city’s Meir shopping district.

The Meir is a broad pedestrianised street that runs through central Antwerp, with shops down either side. While often crowded, there should be enough space for attentive shoppers to keep the correct distance from each other without too much difficulty.

Over the next month, people walking along the Meir will be recorded using special mobile cameras. Movement patterns will then be extracted from these images using technology developed by Ghent-based artificial intelligence company Robovision.

Finally, the patterns will be analysed by Antwerp University’s IDLab. The researchers are keen to make it clear that this is not about policing social distancing, but exploring how people respond to the distancing advice.

Big brother is not watching you shop

“It will also be interesting to discover whether and how people’s 1.5-meter behaviour will evolve in the near future,” says Steven Latré, director of IDLab. “Do people pay more attention to the safe distance in the initial phase? Does that focus relax afterwards?”

Strict rules will be followed to ensure the data is anonymous. No attempt is made to identify who is in the images, and by the time the data reaches the researchers, people are simply represented by dots on a map.

While necessary, this means the system will not tell the full story of what is happening on the Meir. “People from the same household may, of course, walk close together, but our technology will not be able make that distinction,” says Latré.

This crisis clearly poses new challenges for us as a city, and technology can help us find answers

- City councillor Claude Marinower

But even so, the approach should say enough about how people behave on the street to be useful when it comes to improving distancing advice or modelling the spread of the coronavirus. And in future, the project could be expanded, for instance to check how many people are wearing face masks while shopping.

Naturally the researchers have permission to do all this from the city of Antwerp, which is keen on such “smart city” projects. “This crisis clearly poses new challenges for us as a city, and technology can help us find answers,” said Claude Marinower, city councillor for innovation and digitisation.

Photo: Antwerp has introduced unique methods to remind shoppers to keep their distance
©Nicolas Maaeterlinck/BELGA