Will tech help Cornwall’s tourist sites ensure social distancing post-Covid?

GPS tracking apps could help keep people apart, but may not be practical at every venue

Coronavirus forced most of Cornwall’s tourist attractions to close just as the season was getting underway. As lockdown starts to be lifted, there’s anxiety about how to bring tourists back safely.

Ensuring social distancing at popular sites like beaches, coastal paths and the Eden Project is emerging as a critical problem – and one that Penryn-based software company Data Duopoly is hoping to solve.

Tanuvi Ethunandan (L) and Erin Morris, co-founders of Data Duopoly

GPS-based apps could help keep people separated

Originally founded to help tourist attractions reduce queue sizes, the three-person tech startup is finding new uses for its GPS-based app platform in a post-Covid world.

Ninety-five percent of visitors to Cornwall own a smartphone, according to co-founder Tanuvi Ethunandan, which means GPS-based apps based on Data Duopoly’s XplorIT platform could help keep people separated. By receiving real-time updates about queue sizes, crowded areas and quieter places, people could make more informed decisions about what to visit and at what time.

“The local community is scared – rightly – that an influx of tourists could overload our already-stretched hospital in Truro,” she told attendees at a Cornwall Chamber of Commerce webinar.

One way to prevent that is to disperse holidaymakers more widely across the county – something that could also benefit smaller and less-visited attractions.

“Right now, if you’re a tourist visiting Cornwall, there’s no way to know where you can visit that’s less busy,” said Ethunandan. “You’re just going on hearsay, which means you might make ill-informed decisions.”

Right now, if you’re a tourist visiting Cornwall, there’s no way to know where you can visit that’s less busy. You’re just going on hearsay, which means you might make ill-informed decisions

Tanuvi ethunandan, co-founder, data duopoly

The company has already worked on a pilot project with the Eden Project, developing an app that notifies visitors in real time about less-crowded talks and exhibits. It’s proven useful for reducing queues and increasing attendance at niche-interest talks, and Ethunandan believes it could help with social distancing when the 1m-visitors-a-year venue reopens.

People could even indicate in the app if they have Covid-like symptoms, providing anonymised data for contact tracing. “Tracking visitors on site in real time, using GPS app-based technologies, is one way to [do contact tracing],” she said. “If a visitor later reports they have Covid symptoms, they can let the venue know, and the venue can find out who they may have been in contact with.”

Some venues and attractions may struggle

While GPS-based apps may help to disperse crowds at large, outdoor venues, not every attraction will be able to take advantage. On May 22nd the Cornwall Museums Partnership, representing the county’s 70+ museums, registered concerns about the practicality of social distancing in its submission to a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on the museums sector.

“There are significant practical challenges involved in designing systems to keep staff and the public safe and comply with social distancing in museum buildings,” the Partnership wrote. “Many are small, ‘quirky’, historic buildings with physical limitations.

Social distancing in an underground tin mine, for example, is impossible.”

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