Only technology can save our stolen sidewalks

March 8, 2023 | 04:30 pm PT
To Thuc Lecturer
Hanoi authorities are conducting another campaign to make sidewalks for walkers, mobilizing multiple enforcement authorities to inspect the sidewalks and punish violators.

I don't remember how many times the capital city has conducted such campaigns. But I remember how many of these campaigns were successful: zero.

Since 1995, Hanoi has regularly mobilized forces to prevent sidewalks from being encroached upon. Officials and police officers usually perform inspections that chase away the encroachers, but the sidewalks return back to their normal crowded, unwalkable state in a few months' time. The biggest problem is that the city claims it cannot sustainably employ enough salaried officials and police officers to maintain sidewalk order. The same has happened in other big cities, like HCMC.

I think that to deal with this, there should be a clear plan to ensure the interests of both pedestrians and those who rely on sidewalks to make a living.

Once an appropriate plan is built, technologies should be applied to help handle violations.

Foreign tourists are pushed to walk on the street as the sidewalk has been occupied as a car parking area in Hanoi, December 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Viet An

Foreign tourists walk on the street as the sidewalk serves as a car parking lot in Hanoi, December 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Viet An

To prove that my idea could be a feasible one, I used MATLAB to count the number of vehicles and pedestrians on a street in Hanoi. MATLAB is a programming and numeric computing platform used by engineers and scientists to analyze data, develop algorithms, and create models.

The software can identify which vehicles have parked over five minutes on the street and which objects are encroaching the sidewalk. It operates on a basic database that can easily be built by my senior students.

Thus, sidewalk encroachment can be handled more scientifically. Instead of a fight to restore streets and sidewalks to their original state, the city authorities can install surveillance cameras and smart devices to capture evidence of violations. By then, each household is responsible for keeping the streets and sidewalks in front of their house clear. The local authorities will be informed of violations through the camera footage and date provided by smart devices.

In addition, the fine for households running businesses on the sidewalk instead of in their homes should also be higher to stop them from using the sidewalk as if it were their own property and no one else's. Those who refuse to pay the fine should have their business license revoked so that they won't ever dare to break a regulation again.

Artificial intelligence is not perfect, but it is meeting our demands gradually. The MATLAB software I used made no errors when identifying objects on sidewalks, and only 2% of the plate numbers it read were incorrect. Based on evidence captured by the software, the city authorities can send SMS messages to violators, allowing them to fix their mistakes within five minutes, or receive a fine.

I believe that information technology firms would come up with much better solutions than the software I used if the city were to start taking this method seriously.

The cost of such cameras and devices is much lower than paying for a huge personnel force. The automatic process also helps avoid conflicts between law enforcement officers and the citizenry. In addition, surveillance cameras on streets will also contribute to helping police officers arrest criminals and ensure social order.

Technology solutions are increasingly bringing us practical benefits and it is our outdated mindsets that have restricted them from developing.

*To Thuc is a lecturer at James Cook University in Australia.

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