Houston Sees COVID-19 Pandemic As Opportunity To Improve Infrastructure
Houston, Texas, with 2.3 million residents, is one of the most diverse cities in America. In the last few decades,
Hispanic and Asian immigrants thrived in this metropolis while African Americans established tight-knit communities. Perhaps due to its diversity, innovation is thriving in the city of Houston. It is on track to becoming one of America’s leading Smart Cities.
From the beginning, Mayor Sylvester Turner saw the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to improve its infrastructure. Its smart city initiatives already contribute to the resilience of the city overall. When a recent spike in COVID-19 patients overwhelmed its hospitals, smart technology that were already in place immediately provided relief to the city’s hospitals.
Building a smart city has been driving the innovations of the city of Houston for the last decade. The city made strategic investments in Artificial Intelligence, the Cloud, the Edge, Smart Sensors, Big Data, and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while other cities struggled, smart technologies helped Houston to become resilient.
Mayor Turner says, “Technology is not for Technology’s sake. You have to recognize what your needs are and what you want your predetermined objective to be. In the smart city’s old paradigm, we were locked into one mode of thinking, addressing one area of need. But, now, during the pandemic, you can see other things, you can go in several directions. You are not stuck on one track. This is why we have been able to do so much more in a shorter period of time.”
Together, We Can Use Smart Technology To Become Resilient
When residents in the community work hand-in-hand with institutions, city government, corporate partners, and non-profit organizations to solve mission-critical problems, other practical use cases for technology can be discovered, prioritized for the future. Quick adaption inside the current environment allows everyone involved to step back and evaluate the bigger picture.
Mayor Turner says, “We’ve asked people to work remotely. We are reimagining and focusing on realizing our vision. We are pulling money from capital improvement programs and redirecting them to make sure our employees have what they need to do their jobs.”
As a part of the city’s Smart City for resilience initiative, using real-time data, digital contact tracing can pinpoint community spread more rapidly, allowing policies to be implemented faster to contain the community spread.
The city’s smart water program, using genetic markers, can detect where the coronavirus has infected the water system. Just understanding where the community spread has penetrated can allow for the prevention of further spread.
Sameer Sharma, Global General Manager of Smart Cities/Transportation at Intel, says, “We’ve been partnering with the city of Houston to deliver smart city solutions with a focus on citizens’ quality of life. For example, Water Lens, one of the Intel-backed startups with the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, offers genetic water testing technology. The company has secured a pilot program with the city to rapidly test for COVID-19 in wastewater, which could help determine the community’s true infection rate.”
Virtual ICU, Telemedicine, and Quick Pivots Provided Relief to the Healthcare System
At Houston Methodist Hospital, the recent surge in coronavirus cases from 230 patients at the height of April to well over 800 patients in August was an opportunity to find new use cases to use every existing piece of technology available at the hospital.
Roberta Schwartz, Chief Innovation Officer at Houston Methodist, says, “Everyone under the Center for Innovation team has been heroic when it comes to the Covid-19 situation. We turned every one of our applications over to see if they can be helpful in any way: Telemedicine, Microsoft Teams, etc. The group pivoted quickly. We now have Virtual ICU monitoring. Initially, we planned for the project to run through the full year. We turned it on in 2 weeks.”
Lisa Spelman, corporate vice president, and general manager at Intel says, “When we heard what Houston Methodist was working on, we immediately committed to applying our technologies to accelerate access to virtual patient monitoring solutions so we could protect front-line healthcare providers taking care of ICU patients. The MIC Sickbay solution relies on Intel technology to improve the efficiency of ICU patient care while protecting the health of doctors and caregivers on the front line of this crisis.”
Using Medical Informatics Corp.’s Sickbay™ platform running on Intel’s Edge AI technology and Cisco networking technology, virtual ICU integrates real-time data from bedside monitoring devices, providing doctors and nurses the ability to monitor patients without entering the room. They can monitor all ICU patients in the command center or use computers or iPads at different hospital locations to receive real-time information such as vitals and other patient data. The idea is to limit the infection within the hospital and protect the nurses and the doctors. Between March 16 through May 11, staff responded to 400 Virtual Alert Button calls to the bedside and 7,000 remote connections into patient’s rooms.
Schwartz says, “We didn’t start from scratch. We already had the infrastructure. Much of the infrastructure or technology was applied to smaller use-cases and situations. We just mass-produced it when the need increased exponentially during the pandemic. For instance, we were able to train 900 providers in a span of weeks to use the technology. Before the pandemic, we had less than 5% virtual visits. Now, we have 80% virtual visits.”
Houston Methodist is a part of a group of city hospitals that serve as the hub of specialists for rural area hospitals. By going virtual, in the future, specialists can take care of more patients from surrounding rural hospitals where patients don’t have immediate access to these types of specialists.
Schwartz says, “We are building a hub of telemedicine. Once we build it, we will be able to service other hospitals. There has not been a moment like this before. With the Cloud, you can pay for things on a per click basis. This makes technology more accessible to rural hospitals. You can buy the technology for ten nurses or pay for it for one patient. The idea is to pay for how much you use.”
Using the Cloud, Houston Methodist has been able to cut costs in the deployments and implementations of smart technology. Making conscious decisions to integrate and build out infrastructure has allowed the hospital to cut costs.
Corporate Partnerships Enabled Faster Implementations
Due to the City’s Smart City initiatives, corporate partnerships with Intel, Microsoft, and T-Mobile were already in place before the pandemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these partnerships provided hospitals such as the Houston Methodist with resources to quickly turnaround implementations under normal circumstances would’ve taken months if not years.
Mayor Turner, “We’ve been focused on the city of Houston to build out our innovative ecosystem, creating a very integrated robust ecosystem. Our corporate partners have been behind that all the way. As our city evolves into the energy capital and the technology capital that we hope it will be, we will continue to leverage our corporate partners to develop initiatives to serve our communities. We now live in a global marketplace. With everything taking place this year, we have to find a way to move forward. In the midst of storm, it is still a great time to look for creative ways to be resilient and engage with all your partners to help to provide solutions. Don’t wait until the storm is over. Act now.”
In times of uncertainty, it’s the partnerships between the public and the private sector that ultimately provide resilience. It looks like Houston is making use of this partnership to become one of America’s leading Smart Cities.
This news was originally published at forbes.com