One of the biggest issues in a wide range of countries is access to healthcare. Not (though this too can be a problem) getting an appointment with a GP, but physically getting care to a critically ill person, or getting that person to the hospital quickly. Ambulances often have target times for responding to a call. In rural areas, these are regularly breached, but in heavily congested cities too, even short journeys can take longer than desirable. 

With every second counting when you have had a stroke or a heart attack, this clearly matters. Ambulance journeys need to be quicker, but without taking unnecessary risks in the driving. 

A question of risk

Ambulance drivers are permitted to jump red lights, but this is risky. What if another driver does not see the ambulance coming? Few people know that they, too, can move a short distance through the red light to give the ambulance a clear route—and probably even fewer would risk it in practice. Devices have been trialled to allow ambulance drivers to turn lights to green ahead of them, but this requires them to predict when they are likely to be held up, and also concentrate on more than simply piloting the ambulance through the traffic.

All this could be about to change. Red Ninja, a Liverpool-based start-up, is due to start live trials in Oxford on an artificial intelligence (AI)-based ambulance support system. This can  take over from the city’s traffic management system, and control traffic lights along an ambulance’s most likely route, clearing congestion ahead of the vehicle. This will therefore allow the ambulance a clearer—and so faster—run. The algorithm can currently work with two main systems, Siemens’ Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique (SCOOT) system and Dynniq’s traffic management control system. Algorithm training using historical data will start shortly in Oxford, and the system is expected to be live by the end of this year.

What’s different about this particular system is that the ambulance driver is largely unaware of it. They do not have to do anything, or follow any instructions—they just take what they believe will be the best route to the hospital or patient. Based on the ambulance’s location and destination, the algorithm uses a combination of real-time and historical traffic data to identify the most likely route for the ambulance, and then clear it of congestion. If the ambulance deviates from that route, the algorithm simply updates, and clears the new most likely route. Computer modelling suggests that ambulance response times could be reduced by up to 40%. 

Right place, right time?

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions about the trial is why Oxford? Red Ninja is Liverpool-based, and its early theoretical work was using traffic data from that city, so why not Liverpool? The answer lies in a combination of factors that might be summed up as ‘right time, right place’, but could also be seen as a classic example of really good joined-up thinking. 

First, Oxford is heavily congested. With a large and seasonal population, city centre housing, several main arterial routes, and bridges meaning that traffic is confined to certain routes, there are few ways to resolve that. Second, the local authority, ambulance service, and hospital trust are all interested and enthusiastic. They see the benefits of the technology, and particularly its potential to save lives. The science manager from Oxfordshire County Council has noted that quite a lot of ‘smart city’ projects are a bit intangible, or a long way in the future. The benefits of this project are easy to see, and therefore to sell to budget holders. They are also easy to measure: faster ambulance journeys, lives saved, and so on.

Finally, the nature of the city itself, with its two universities, also played a key role in the decision. The team at Red Ninja will be working with data scientists from Oxford University, and specialists in paramedic science at Oxford Brookes. This kind of opportunity to work with experts on the spot—and for experts to work with a new idea and technology—does not come along all that often. 

It is, perhaps, to the credit to all those involved that they have seen the potential, and jumped on the idea. Big problems—like saving lives—require different thinking. Joined-up working is an essential part of this. Oxford, and Red Ninja, may well be showing other cities the way towards the future.

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

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