Published on July 1, 2016.

Fest Tech

New Technology for managing crowds, and the "cascading benefits" of addressing incidents early

It’s not just the people on the ground making festivals safer for attendees. There are also a growing number of sophisticated tools that emergency managers and authorities are using or developing to help them observe what’s happening and to respond more swiftly and effectively in emergencies.

Advanced security camera systems

Strategically placed cameras have already been used extensively for security and law enforcement at festivals, and systems and applications are becoming more advanced all the time. Last year, at the Download Festival in Donington, United Kingdom, for instance, police used facial recognition cameras to scan attendees at the gates. Images were cross referenced with a database of custody images from across Europe to catch wanted criminals. In the United States, the city of Boston controversially contracted with IBM to test situational surveillance software during the 2013 Boston Calling music festival, held downtown, which gave authorities live and detailed images of unwitting concertgoers, pedestrians, and vehicles in and around the event. Associated software could analyze video and provide automatic alerts if someone walked into a secure area, for instance, and could even be programed to follow suspicious individuals around the site. The city kept the surveillance experiment secret, but controversy erupted later when a local newspaper published details, leading to widespread condemnation from civil rights advocates who claimed that attendees privacy had been violated.

The Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has for a few years deployed perhaps the world’s largest and most sophisticated festival security camera system. Last year the festival utilized 61 cameras, including 44 high-definition cameras placed across the grounds, two 360-degree cameras, 14 high-definition mobile cameras, and a thermal imaging camera, all connected to two monitoring command stations.

Crowd management systems

While mostly still in development, infrared cameras, drones, and various other sensors have great potential for use at festivals as crowd-management tools, giving authorities better insight into how the crowd is moving, the density of people in a given location, and how crowd dynamics can be improved. Researchers at Rutgers University, for example, are developing a computer algorithm, fed with real-time data from strategically placed cameras, that can quantify the current crowd state and make suggestions on how best to improve crowd flow or alter it as needed, such as if a mass evacuation is required. Aerial drones are also increasingly being deployed to give crowd managers a bird’s-eye view of how festival crowds are moving, and enable them to see pinch points, such as a poorly placed dumpster, and make alterations in close to real time.

“Crowd crush is a real danger, and this sensor data is allowing us to make better decisions by providing better intelligence to the organizers for why a problem is occurring,” said Joseph Pred, a safety consultant for temporary mass gatherings. “I think as the technology develops, we are going to see a lot more of this stuff becoming standard.”

Tracking bracelets and apps

Festival mobile apps and smart admission bracelets using radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are increasingly being used at large events such as Coachella, the annual music and arts festival in Southern California. These allow organizers to roughly track attendee movement through festival grounds, send attendees information based on their geo-location—marketing messages, or emergency messages such as an impending storm, for example—as well as to better manage access to festival grounds by restricting access if there are too many people in one area, or restricting certain areas to attendees with specific bracelets. The RFID bracelets are linked to an online account where attendees can enter their credit card information to pay for food and drinks with the bracelet. In some cases attendees can also digitally enter emergency medical information onto the bracelets, which a doctor onsite can access simply by scanning the bracelet in an emergency.

911 texting systems

In many sports stadiums and increasingly at festivals, systems have been set up to provide attendees with a direct line of communication to incident management offices via text. Security experts have found that attendees aren’t likely to go out of their way to find a staff member to report something, but that texting is a quick and easy way to change that. The number to text is prominently displayed throughout the grounds, and festivalgoers are encouraged to use it—and many do, according to Pred.

“If you have 25,000 people at an event and 250 security staff, even if just 20 percent of people are aware and use that texting system, you now have a force multiplier and have massively increased the speed of incidents being reported,” Pred said. “That’s critical because incidents reported earlier are much easier to resolve than ones that have escalated, whether it’s a fire, a medical problem, or a fight. If you get it at the incipient stage, there are all these cascading benefits.”