Turku has implemented new technology which has significantly sped up the process of getting tested for COVID-19 and receiving the results. Artificial intelligence and robots are also useful for purposes such as counselling and organising vaccinations.

Smart and Wise Turku

Tapio Järvenpää is also working on the City of Turku’s spearhead project called Smart and Wise Turku.

Smart and Wise Turku is the city’s spearhead project which combines the strategic goal of regional carbon neutrality by 2029 and the concept of a Smart City. The goal is to improve the well-being of citizens, the competitiveness of the city and the productivity of its operations.

One of the central facilitators is digitalisation and the data generated through it. Digitalisation makes it possible to provide services regardless of time and place and improve the productivity of the city’s operations (Smart City).

By creating the prerequisites for utilising data for citizens and companies, the city is promoting growth that supports well-being and is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable (Wise City)

The first wave of the pandemic was relatively mild in Turku. However, when the second wave hit the city last August, the number of cases rose quickly. Health care services started receiving more and more enquiries related to COVID-19. The number of people getting tested for COVID-19 also increased.

According to Project Director Tapio Järvenpää, getting tested and receiving the results soon took an unreasonably long time due to the system being overwhelmed.

Solving the problem began with examining whether the work related to counselling, booking appointments and sharing information, which was currently being performed by health care personnel, could be automated. The task at hand was further complicated by the fact that the various stages of the COVID-19 testing process were overseen by two different public administrative organisations – and that several different information systems were being used for it.

“However, through cooperation, we were able to quickly create a system in which the customer is able to book an appointment for testing directly through a digital symptom assessment service and a robot creates a referral for the laboratory. We also built a system in which the robot sends the customer an SMS message of the result as soon as it is received and enters it into the national patient data repository.”

Before the new system was implemented, the time it took from assessing the symptoms to taking the sample and receiving the results was 3 to 10 days. Now it is only 24 to 36 hours.

“The waiting time for the customers has been minimised. Quick tests and results help manage the pandemic. They have also freed up a lot of health care staff from mechanical work to actual health care related tasks.”

Language robots help to tackle Covid-19.

Robotic advice in one hundred languages

Turku has also created an artificial intelligence application which shares basic information about the pandemic with the citizens in nearly one hundred languages.

“We wanted to take into account the 10 per cent of citizens who speak something other than Finnish, Swedish or English as their mother tongue. This solution also helps keep counselling telephone services from getting too busy.”

Customers can ask a question from the robot in their own native language and the robot recognises the language and provides an answer in the same language. The multilingual whizz fetches its data from reliable sources: The City of Turku website and the website of the national expert in fighting the pandemic, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.

According to Järvenpää, the data and digital modelling are also constantly helpful in creating a situational picture of the pandemic and making decisions, for example.

“When there was a notable cluster of COVID-19 infections among exchange students in Turku, we were able to react quickly with quarantine measures and more efficient supervision. This is thanks to modelling the spread of the virus, which demonstrated what would happen if we did not take these measures.”

Vaccination invites via SMS

Turku has also utilised digital methods in organising vaccinations.

“The robot has invited citizens to get vaccinated via SMS. So far it has sent invites to elderly people and other risk groups in particular.”

Turku is currently working on a solution that would help organise vaccinations for working-age people and other people who do not belong in a risk group.

“For working-age people, the matter is complicated by the wide scope of the group, the varying size of the vaccine shipments arriving in Finland and Turku as well as the fact that it is difficult to know beforehand how many people want to be vaccinated or how many people might want to get vaccinated through some other channel.”

Inspiration from the UEFA European Championship

Turku is planning on implementing a model for vaccinating working-age people which could be compared to the ticket sales of the UEFA European Championship. Much like the people interested in the football championship, the people who want to get vaccinated would be the first ones to register with the system.

“However, unlike in the football championship, everyone gets what they want in the end. Some people will just get vaccinated before others.”

The robots in Turku have been given names. Could this latest solution be dubbed Teemu, after football player Teemu Pukki?

“That would be great, but the robot is always named according to the day of deployment. For example, the COVID-19 result robot is called Kauno because it was deployed on 20 October, which is Kauno’s name day.”

Teemu’s name day is not until 1 June.

“This solution is set to be finished much earlier,” Tapio Järvenpää says.

Text: Matti Välimäki
Photo: Ilari Välimäki