Tracing & social distancing- Does this man and his team have the answer for events to thrive in a COVID world?

Simon Finlayson General Manager Harry the Hirer "The idea was to give the event industry some confidence and with this tool, go to government and say ‘We can manage this and give us a crack at getting back to work’ “

A tracing and social distancing solution has been developed in order speed up the event industry’s recovery. Furthermore, it has the technology & capabilities, that could give confidence for governments to ease restrictions and get millions back to work sooner. It’s been developed by event supplier business Harry the Hirer, and if the solution matches expectations, it could be pivotal for events recovery and for businesses outside of the events industry.

Event Organisers spoke with Harry the Hirer’s owner Rick Jamieson and the man leading the team that came up with Smart Badge, Simon Finlayson, to find out more.

Over the past 35 years Harry the Hirer has gone from hauling marquees, to geo-mapping & tracing technology. So, I ask Rick Jamieson if he ever thought he’d be involved in this kind of technology development and what made him back Simon Finlayson’s idea. “Well, I was probably too stupid to do anything else.” He laughs and goes on to explain. “Our business is about dealing with crowds and solving problems, so it was a no brainer for me.”

I ask Simon how he came up with the idea of a social distancing and tracing solution for events? “It’s very similar to what Rick’s talking about.” Says Simon. “We control crowds and I’ve been deploying technology into events for 30 years so, this was an easy solution for me personally. The idea was to give the event industry some confidence and with this tool, go to government and say ‘We can manage this and give us a crack at getting back to work’ “.

“We weren’t really aware of the consequences of all this [COVID], right up until the middle of March when the Grand Prix was cancelled.” Says Rick “In that week, pretty well every event, every private function, exhibition and conference that we had going forward, was cancelled.”

“Our industry was completely decimated, and people were going out of business left right & centre. Our motivation back then was to try and find something for our industry – not all industry – our industry, to help us get back to the event and exhibition business safely. I think our focus at that point was just social distancing. It was Simon’s initiative, but we saw it as our way of helping to get people back to their events. We realised fairly quickly that the best add-on to this would be the tracing tool.

So, what does Smart Badge do? “It’s a wearable piece of tech.” says Simon. “We have it as a lanyard and wristband. And we now have it as a lapel fob because we’ve found there are some situations in events when a lanyard is intrusive, and a lapel fob is more suitable. It uses Bluetooth technology, that in the first instance recognises other Smart Badges within that 1.5 social metre social distancing range that it’s looking for. When it sees another Smart Badge on a wrist or a lanyard, it records it as a contact. And it also provides that other social distancing alert with a little vibration or a beep, to remind you to step back and retain that 1.5 metres of social distancing. That’s it in a nutshell in terms of the wearable tech. More importantly, we’ve been able to apply functionality behind the scenes, so that event managers and organisers can actually manage and control what’s happening on their site, through participants wearing that Smart Badge technology on lanyards, lapels or their wrists.”

I ask Simon what happens if a positive case is notified say, a day or week after an event. “The event manager can go back to their software application, enter the name or phone number of the positive case, and it will instantly show every single contact that person made when they attended the event. That event manager can automatically get in touch with all of them, by selecting the list of contacts and then choosing the ‘send’ option. They will directly receive an SMS message (not via a third party, such as a call centre for some of the government’s services), which means that the response is quick. What’s more, it’s possible to drill down even further and identify who those contacts have been in contact with – you can message their contacts’ contacts if need be. You can go three steps.”

“It’s a sophisticated piece of software but presented in a simple user dashboard. Anyone who has exposure to it can pick it up in about 30 seconds – it’s that easy.”

Rick talks about one of the applications in the workplace, rather than just events. “The Frankston Hospital recently had to stand 600 people down. If they had been able to use this solution they could have very easily identified who had been in contact with the person with positive coronavirus test, quarantine those say, 50 people and let the other 550 go to work. So, you don’t have to shut your workplace down, whether its health, manufacturing or a meat processing business. I think that’s one of its bigger benefits.”

 

Why did you think you could successfully develop a tracing app, where the government has failed?

Federal government campaigned hard to get Australians to download the COVIDSafe app, even suggesting that it might be a condition of lifting restrictions. Yet, the response from the public has been poor and the app hasn’t proven to be an effective tool in tracing the contacts of identified coronavirus cases. The Guardian News outlet even headlined it as “From vital to almost irrelevant” So I ask Simon what made him believe that he and his team could succeed where government and its considerable resources, has failed?

“We did look at the phone app” Says Simon. “We spent, maybe a week on R&D, which we could have easily developed. But then we considered what the government COVID safe app was doing and the [poor] response it was getting, particularly in Victoria. The reason the phone app hasn’t worked is that it doesn’t have the uptake. People have a fear that it’s operating in the background on their phone. And secondly, many people want to conserve their battery life, so they turn off their Bluetooth for large parts of the day. That means the app’s not collecting data. And if we were going to provide something worthwhile for business events, it needs to have coverage of 100% of the people attending an event.”

“We’ve also deliberately separated contact tracing data away from tracking the movement of people, to protect their personal privacy. Our business is who they meet and area management, not their movements. We may come back to a phone-based app down the line in support of the hardware lanyard, but we believe that without [ownership of] the hardware we don’t have 100% of the control of the data.”

Simon explains the privacy benefits of being able to pick up and take off a lanyard, lapel fob or wristband. “People can control the outcome. When they go to an event, they can be sure they’ve made their contacts and then when they go home they’ve got the confidence that they keep their privacy.”

I ask if Smart Badge is available? “Yes” says Simon “It’s already been successfully trailed in real life situations in business, and we’ve got twenty thousand units ready to go and another twenty thousand being produced now. Given the demand and interest in the past few weeks, we decided to appoint company called Aspen Medical and they have now taken on the exclusive distribution. We will retain our role as manufacturer and to evolve the functionality.”

Simon confirms that the pricing will come through Aspen, but outside of the events market the price per person is comparable to minutes of a wage, not even hours of a wage – cheap insurance, compared to having to shut-down an entire workforce.

Within the events industry, Simon confirms there has been significant interest from event management companies and private conference organisers to have their own stock. “They can use them [Smart Badge units] 4 or 5 times a year, collect them back at the end of each event, sanitise them and use again the following month.” He says. “On the other side, the ACT Government has just invested for their convention centre and other tourism buildings, to provide the smart badges for the users or visitors at no cost – ‘Bring your conference to us and we’ll provide your contact tracing solution as part of your venue hire’ – it’s a sales tool for them.”

If, as Rick and Simon state, this industry is all about managing crowds, then it should be the perfect contact tracing testing environment for wider business – If it works in events it will work everywhere else?

“Correct. It’s a no brainer” confirms Rick “it’s a real circuit breaker for government here in Victoria. With all the troubles they are having with things like tracing in aged care. This could get us all back to work and living the lives that we should be living”.