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The Role of Tech in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca

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For this year’s Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca the Saudi Arabian government have announced that they will be issuing electronic identification bracelets to pilgrims. This is an attempt to help crowd management after numerous disasters over the year. Last year at least 2,110 people died, (although the official Saudi death toll stated 769) making it the deadliest incident to strike the Hajj in 25 years.

The bracelets will contain personal and medical information to help authorities simultaneously care for and identify people. The bracelets will be water resistant and GPS connected and will help direct pilgrims through the streets and keep crowds moving in the right direction. As well as the electronic bracelets 1,000 new surveillance cameras have been installed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque where special forces will monitor pilgrims’ movements and identify where crushes are likely to occur.

It’s not the first time technology has been used in an attempt to keep crowds safe at the event. Previously live crowd analytics software has been used which is designed to spot problems in the crowd and is able to predict where overcrowding is likely to happen based on real-time data on crowd numbers, densities, distributions and flows. The live data feeds come into a large operations room where they are analysed by military personnel, the police and trained crowd managers.

Professor Edwin Galea – a crowd crush expert and founding member of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich – has developed behavioural experiments and mathematical modelling to understand how crowds move in different scenarios with the aim of understanding how to prevent dangerous densities from building up. Experts are confident that such disasters are completely preventable, predictable and avoidable, but in this case it may take a redesign of the whole complex to make the Hajj safe.

The numbers of pilgrims are enormous – an astounding 2 million Muslims make the journey each year. For context 500,000 people cross the Jamarat bridge every hour, which is one of the main pressure points. The problem is that measures like bracelets or analytics recognise where and when a build up is occurring, but by then it may be too late to take control so it’s essential that technology measures coincide with a robust crowd management plan. There is a limit to how many people can safely be present in these spaces in a day (above four people per square metre begins to get dangerous), so while tech can definitely help, it’s only ever going to be part of the solution. Perhaps the answer lies in extending the Hajj over more days.

 

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