Tag: pandemic

The rise of the cleaning robots

By James Vincent for The Verge

Airflow is a subject dear to Charlie Strange’s heart.  As the office manager for a Texas facility operated by HVAC manufacturer Goodman, he helps oversee the production of heating, ventilation, and AC units in the world’s fifth-largest factory building — 4.2 million square feet of space, all dedicated to the generation of hot and cold currents and gusts.

But when the pandemic forced Goodman to send thousands of workers home, Strange had to consider airflow anew — specifically, how the eddies and flows inside his Texas plant would affect the work of his latest hire: a cleaning robot named Breezy One that trundles around the gargantuan factory, spraying a fine mist of virus-killing disinfectant onto the surfaces. For office managers looking at a pandemic-tinged future, such considerations could well become routine.

“This robot’s going to be able to clean 200 000 square feet of office and conference rooms in two, maybe two and a half hours,” Strange tells The Verge. “It would take my team all night long to do that — wiping down every surface by hand.”

When Strange unpacked the Breezy One, the first tasks he and the machine’s creators, Build With Robots, had to tackle was a contaminant study — finding out exactly where the bot’s disinfectant mist could clean. To carry out this study, technicians dropped test plates around the plant populated with microbes taken from the compost heap of Kimberly Corbitt, Build With Robots’ head of customer engagement.

“It’s the worst smelling thing you’ve ever smelled in your life,” says Corbitt of her compost. “I dilute it in a giant pitcher of water, put it into a spray bottle, then spray it onto these foam plates. The first time I did it, the total viable count was out of the testable range and I had to dilute it by a factor of 100. My compost is really healthy.”

Before Breezy One could start cleaning, it had to be guided around Goodman’s offices to map the area. GIF: Goodman
Each plate is divided into two halves: one side covered and the other side uncovered. Once the plates have been placed, Breezy One does its thing, spreading a mist of disinfectant around the area. The next day, technicians check to see what percentage of microbes have been killed off, comparing the uncovered half of the plates with the covered half as a control sample. In essence, they’re checking that the disinfectant is getting everywhere it should.

This is why airflow is important, says Strange, as his team had to account for the building’s air conditioning units when checking the spread of the disinfectant around its offices and meeting rooms. “We might slow down the robot or change the route based on the dispersal pattern because of the HVAC or how high the ceiling is,” he says.

Thankfully, Goodman found that Breezy One worked as advertised. “The dispersal pattern on it is very nice, it mists very well, which means [the disinfectant] floats and can get into all those areas,” says Strange. “That’s one of the reasons you want the airflow in the room going, because it helps deliver it around the room, rather than having it shoot straight up and fall straight down.”

The robot itself is about the size of a bulky trash can, with a wheeled base and two large mist-producing jet nozzles on top that stick out like a pair of swiveling eyes. It moves at a steady walking pace, using a combination of LIDAR and 3D cameras to navigate like a self-driving car. And it’s not the only robot making its way into these sorts of shared spaces.

Cleaning machines have come into fashion with the pandemic. Hospitals around the world have been deploying them since the spring, using robots that radiate ultraviolet light to kill germs and viruses rather than “foggers” like Breezy One. Airports and arenas are getting in on the action, too, with the latter using drones that spray disinfectant over stadium seating. Now it seems offices are next. The demand certainly seems to be there, with one US manufacturer, Xenex, saying sales of its UV cleaning robots are up 600 percent compared to 2019.

Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, the company that makes the autonomous base of Breezy One, tells The Verge that interest in disinfecting robots has taken off swiftly. She says the two main types of machines — UV emitters and foggers — are suited to different markets, with the former better suited for small rooms and the latter working best in larger spaces.

Robots like these will become staple fixtures “in any area that has a large amount of the general public filtering through,” predicts Wise. “There’s just a large need to provide continuous disinfection.” She says, although the pandemic has prompted many companies to investigate these machines. If the robots prove their effectiveness, they’ll likely become a regular part of cleaning operations even after COVID-19 is under control.

“Whether or not it’s COVID, there’s always going to be some next viral thing coming through that [companies] will want to disinfect,” says Wise. “We’re looking at having one at our headquarters for flu season, for example, as I would guess maybe 30 percent of staff ends up out because of flu.”

“I think people should be demanding that these things are in their offices,” she adds.

Some buyers certainly see the robots as investments for an uncertain future. Pamela Ott, deputy city manager for Pleasanton, an affluent city in Alameda County, California, purchased three UV cleaning robots for operation in various government facilities — the city permit office, the library, and senior centre — and says she thinks they’ll be useful long beyond the duration of the pandemic.

“We purchased the robots because we know they’re helpful now and helpful in the long run,” Ott told The Verge. “We look around and we look ahead, and we don’t think COVID is going away, certainly not in the very near future…. And we know any time we can better clean and disinfect our facilities, that’s a good position for us.”

Ott says each of the three machines she purchased from local distributor SNAP Solutions cost around $99,000 but that the price was worth it. “It’s a significant outlay for a city, but it’s our belief that our purchase of the robot is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure the safety of our employees and community members,” says Ott. The makers of Pleasanton’s new cleaning robots, Blue Ocean Robotics, say they’ve sold to a number of customers for use in offices and that interest has also spiked from hotels in recent months.

Gauging how effective these machines actually are at protecting people from COVID is difficult, though. Build With Robots, maker of the Breezy One, claims that the disinfectant its machines use kills 99.9999 percent of bacteria, as well as the novel coronavirus. (The chemical solution in question is a brand known as Aeris Active.) But killing the virus by cleaning surfaces is not the same as safeguarding real-world environments from COVID-19.

Scientists know that the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets — small droplets of saliva, mucus, and other internal fluids that are created when we cough, sneeze, talk, or simply breathe. But the most common ways for these droplets to spread the virus from person to person is still a matter of ongoing investigation. Current evidence suggests that COVID-19 “spreads easily” when people are in close contact with one another, while transmission via contaminated surfaces is “less common,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that means wearing masks and stopping people from crowding together is likely to be more important for hygiene purposes than cleaning desks, door handles, and other surfaces.

Despite this, those buying robots for surface cleaning hope the machines will at least help more than they harm. Strange says that his robots are at least saving the company money. Although Goodman won’t share exactly what it’s paying for Breezy One, Build With Robots says the cost for hiring its machines is between $3,250 and $10,750 a month, depending on the number of robots and the length of the contract. Strange also adds that no workers have been or will be let go because of the machines and that they’re simply taking on work that would have been done during overtime by human staff.

What Strange says is most impressive, though, is how easy it is now to integrate this sort of technology into an ordinary office like those used by Goodman. “I’ve dealt with a lot of automation over a lot of years and I’ve yet to find an honest-to-god fire and forget,” he says. “But if we’d been talking five, seven years ago I’d have had a team of four to keep this thing running. And now I’m just going to have one person moving it from zone to zone. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”

 

The office of 2021

The coronavirus pandemic will have long-term effects on offices around the world, as the habits and routines developed over a century of work have seemingly vanished overnight.

“While the office has an important future, the 2021 version is likely to be markedly different: materials, layouts and even how we interact with it will all evolve,” says Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, one of South Africa’s largest workplace design specialists.

The office as a whole

Keeping the office as germ-free as possible will require material changes. Surfaces like unfinished wood, soft stone, and stainless steel can be breeding grounds for germs and bacteria and are on their way out.

“Offices might turn to furniture made of antimicrobial synthetic materials, plus metals like copper and brass for door handles and other high-touch surfaces.

Other touchpoints, like keypads and control panels for lighting, climate control, and AV systems, will likely be replaced with apps on employees’ phones,” Trim says.

Ultraviolet lights installed in ducts could purify air before it’s blown out onto the office floor. Architects might even make tweaks like curving the place where the floor meets the wall. This can eliminate corners that collect filth and germs, a practice that some hospitals have been using for decades.

Larger-scale changes may also be coming.

Says Trim: “With more employees working remotely, some desk space could be converted into more thoughtfully designed open spaces. And companies will certainly seek out offices with more access to outdoor space both as a means of social distancing and a way of making them more inviting to employees whose alternative is to stay home.”

From here on, the office will be purposely designed to be more than just a workplace, It will be a community place, a cultural place, a place of learning.

The workstation

For the sake of cleanliness, companies might have to reconsider the long-held tradition of assigned desks. Forcing employees to remove their belongings at the end of each day will allow for more effective cleanings that can’t happen when desks are covered with clutter.

“An alternative to that approach is to keep the dedicated work station but implement a ‘clean desk policy’: Each employee gets a cubby or locker in which to store things at the end of each workday, and desk surfaces are cleaned each night. The employee is then the only one in that space. There won’t be this introduction of another person sitting in that chair or touching those surfaces,” Trim said.

Adding more separation between workstations–something being done out of necessity in the short term, might become a long-term trend meant to give employees more privacy.

The remote-friendly workplace

“We’ve long advocated for choice in the office: you can sit in a lounge space or small huddle room or the outdoor patio, depending on what allows you to do your best work.”

Many more companies will update their office spaces so that the choice of workspace is not just a nice to have someday but it’s rather a must have soon. These changes will also be a major factor in businesses being able to attract and retain top talent.When we only come into the office a few days the quality at the office has to be exceptional. “It’s no longer about having just a gorgeous front entrance. It is now about giving your team the best facilities and environs for a great sense of purpose and that are better by degrees than what they can get at home, “ Trim concludes.

A recent study has highlighted the devastating impact the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic turmoil has had on the people of South Africa.

The study by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 in the country highlights the following:

  • The country’s overall GDP is expected to decline by at least 5.1% and up to 7.9% in 2020
  • The number of households below the poverty line will increases as households fall from the lower-middle class into vulnerability
  • 54% of households that have been pushed out of permanent jobs to informal or temporary contracts are likely to fall into poverty
  • As many as 34% of households are likely to exit the middle class
  • The real average monthly take-home pay in the private sector is R14 197, according to BankServ
  • The vast majority of South Africans operate in an informal sector, with salaries closer to R6 000 per month
  • South Africa’s minimum wage is around R3 500 per month
  • South African households were already getting poorer thanks to rising food prices and the general cost of living
  • The middle-high to high-income category only makes up 2.5% of the South African credit active population
  • Middle income made up 9.3% of the credit active population
  • 55.5% of South Africans live below the national poverty line, but that number is likely to grow

By Jess Wallace for The Examiner

Deciding on an appropriate Mother’s Day gift that is thoughtful and affordable while also saying “Mom, you’re treasured”, is a challenge all of its own in the midst of a global pandemic, declining economy and life in isolation.

Now, more than ever, the importance of sharing in small traditions like Mother’s Day can go a long way towards keeping a sense of normality during a time that couldn’t be further from such a luxury.

Flowers have always been the go-to gift to mark the occasion on the second Sunday in May. In many parts of the world, carnations are regarded as the quintessential Mother’s Day flowers.

With many businesses around the country forced to close their doors due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and others finding creative new ways to stay afloat in uncharted waters, the simple gesture of gift-giving on Mother’s Day suddenly becomes a chance not only to express our appreciation for our mothers, but to throw a lifeline to small businesses around the country.

Gestures speak louder than gifts and the act of making Mom breakfast in bed, hand-made crafts, pampering her or picking up all the jobs around the house she would normally get stuck doing, might be your answer to Mother’s Day in home isolation. Or even something as simple as giving her some much needed “me time”.

Whatever it may look like, as long as it celebrates how much you appreciate your mother, or whoever that mother-figure might be to you, it’s bound to collectively lift the current state of spirits right now.

For a good many of us though, it won’t be possible to give our mothers a hug this Mother’s Day.
Lockdown laws, combined with the simple case of geography, mean digital connection is the only connection right now.

For many this step into the digital space has been a steep learning experience to move into the 21st century. For others it may have meant finding the patience within themselves to teach these technologies without losing their mind and instead remembering that this Mother’s Day, more than ever, is time to stay connected.

Consumer confidence across the globe is plummeting as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, causing businesses to cease trading.

Stringent lockdown and social distancing measures are being enforced and updated daily, which in all likelihood will mean that confidence will deteriorated significantly.

“There’s not much individuals can do about the general economy. But on their personal financial situation, they know how much money they’ve got coming in, how much money they’ve got going out. So they can think about the next 12 months and think if I keep working, interest rates don’t go up, inflation is fine, then we can kind of be OK,” says GfK’s client strategy director Joe Staton.

But, while people aren’t planning to splash out on things like furniture or electrical goods, they are still spending money.

In the UK, spend on “durables” such as tablets, computers, hair clippers and freezers are on the up. GfK data shows revenues here grew 42% year on year in the 12th week of 2020, with online accounting for almost 50% of the market.

“Brands that can offer reassurance of quality and cleanliness, companies that treat their staff well, companies with a holistic approach to wellbeing of customers and staff, this is their time to shine,” Stanton says.

Brands need to think long-term amid the coronavirus pandemic

President Cyril Ramaphosa has ordered a 21-day lockdown in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in South Africa. Businesses across the country are closed, wreaking havoc not only on bottom lines but also on marketing efforts.

In order to stay top-of-mind, try implement the following in your marketing:

Consistency
Consistency involves messaging that is not only published at regular intervals, but that is the same across all channels and assets.

Brand recognition – consistent marketing efforts pay off when someone recognises an ad without ever hearing the brand’s name. Brands with distinct brand and marketing consistency are able to benefit from being easily recognised. This can help you build your brand and the trust consumers have in it.

Brand awareness – this is an important reason to create consistent branding and marketing. Customers are significantly more likely to purchase from a brand they recognise for their consistent image and content schedule, so make sure to maintain both with regularity. Your digital and visual content should be uniform so that your audience knows what to look for, and should be posted at similar times so they know when to look. Your visual content should stick to the same colour theme, photo quality and logo placement, and your digital materials should be consistent with that.

Create trust – customers are 71% more likely to purchase from a brand or company that they trust. Much like a friendship, building a reputable image is extremely important to your business. Being trustworthy is a major element in the success of a brand, and establishing that will help to build brand and marketing consistency. Posting your content on a regular basis at similar times, utilising the same platforms for specific purposes, and keeping messaging consistent will help to build trust.

Be memorable – the power of repetition is seen everywhere, from the movies to the classroom. We can all recall jingles we’ve heard on TV a thousand times, and printed logos that appear in digital and print media simply because of the sheer number of times we’ve been exposed to them. If you want your brand to be memorable, make your messaging consistent and frequent. The more often your customers and potential customers see your advertisements and branding, the more consistent and memorable your brand will appear.

Persistence
Persistence – even when you don’t see the results you were hoping for – is critical for business owners working to build their business and brand.

Whether you use a website, permission-based e-mail marketing, social media, newspaper advertising, mobile ads or networking events to market your brand, persistence is key.

Time – rarely do marketing initiatives provide magical, overnight results. A lack of persistence means businesses may jump from one type of marketing strategy to another. It is tempting to do this, but it never allows sufficient time for any one strategy to produce results. It is a waste of time and resources.

Lack of success – often, a lack of success may be because the expectations and time frame are unrealistic and no one has given the strategy the time or the attention it needs to be successful. Putting an advertisement in one or two issues of a newspaper, on social media or in a newsletter, and then “pulling the plug” because you didn’t “see any results”, is an example of this.

Exposure – frequent exposure is usually needed before potential customers even begin to notice an advertisement, let alone consider taking any kind of buying action. This tends to be true for both online and print advertising.

Gimmicks – marketing gimmicks, such as sales, discounts or competitions, may not help if the product or service you are selling is not one that people think they want or need, or if your reputation in the marketplace is lacking.

Clarity

The best strategic plan is only as effective as the material that supports it. Regardless of whether or not your selected channels are newspapers ads, radio spots, television ads, billboards, a website, direct mail, social networking or something else, you are only as good as the material your audience receives. Clarity is of critical importance in this strategy: are you clear about the single message and the desired call to action in your advertising?

Clarity of message – your audience is bombarded with thousands of messages every day. For yours to break through the clutter and have the desired impact, you need to be very clear about what you want to say. What single fact or idea should the audience remember or take away from the material? You should be able to refer to your previously-developed message to help you with this. Are you the fastest, bluest, cheapest or easiest – or the only one that does something, or the first one who did something? What is your unique selling point? Highlight the single most important thing you offer, and you have clarity. Avoid the temptation to try and tell everyone everything.

Clarity of purpose – what action do you want the reader, viewer or listener to take? Should they visit your website, call a number, stop by the store or clip a coupon? Don’t assume that they’ll know what to do or what you want them to do. Ask them; tell them. When you combine a clear message with a clear call to action, you dramatically increase the odds of success. Give your audience a reason to take action and give them an action to take. Clarity leads to success.

Microsoft launches coronavirus tracker

Source: Economic Times

As the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) spreads like wildfire across countries, Microsoft’s Bing team has launched a web portal to track its progress worldwide.

The website provides up-to-date infection statistics for each country. An interactive map allows users to click on the country to see the specific number of cases and related articles from a variety of publishers.

You can view the interactive map here.

According to sources, data is being aggregated from sources like the World Health Organisation (WHO), the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Microsoft announced the website two days after US President Donald Trump said Google had begun working on COVID-19-related portal for US citizens.

Google’s website is being built by Verily, a subsidiary of Alphabet focused on healthcare services.

“More than 1 700 engineers are currently working on the site,” Trump said during a press briefing last week.

The tool will triage people who are concerned about their COVID-19 risk into testing sites based on guidance from public health officials and test availability.

Globally, the virus has now affected 216 030 people, and has caused 8 891 deaths.

Beware of these corona-related scams

The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) has warned bank clients that cybercriminals are exploiting the current “Coronamania” panic to spread Coronavirus scams.

Coronavirus scams exploit people’s concerns for their health and safety and pressure them into being tricked using social engineering. Social Engineering is manipulative and exploits human vulnerability because criminals know that the weakest link in the information security chain is the human being.

These new scams include spoofed emails offering products such as masks, or fake offerings of vaccines, leading to phishing websites. These emails come from seemingly realistic and reputable companies which manipulate people into clicking on links. Some of these websites prompt the user for personal information which ending up in the hands of cybercriminals.

Cybercriminals are also using SMS Phishing, more commonly known as SMishing, to trick victims into clicking on a link disguised as information on a Coronavirus breakout in their area to steal their credentials. Some of these texts claim to provide free masks or pretend to be companies that have experienced delays in deliveries due to the Coronavirus.

Once criminals have the correct level of confidential information about a victim’s bank account, they can impersonate the victim and transact using the correct credentials but without authority.

“Although some spoofed emails can be difficult to identify, we urge bank clients to think twice before clicking on any link, even if an email looks legitimate. Any suspicious emails should not be opened and are best deleted,” says SABRIC acting CEO, Susan Potgieter.

SABRIC urges bank clients to take note of the following tips to protect themselves:

Phishing and SMishing

  • Do not click on links or icons in unsolicited emails
  • Never reply to these emails. Delete them immediately
  • Do not believe the content of unsolicited emails blindly. If you are concerned about what is being alleged in the email, use your own contact details to contact the sender and confirm
  • Check that you are on the authentic/real site before entering any personal information
  • Do not click on links or icons in unsolicited SMSs
  • Do not reply to these SMSs. Delete them immediately
  • Do not believe the content of unsolicited SMSs blindly. If you are worried about what is alleged, use your own contact details to contact the sender to confirm
  • Regard urgent security alerts, offers or deals as warning signs of a hacking attempt

Covid-19: SA in shutdown

On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a number of strict measures to help reduce the spread of coronavirus in South Africa.

The highlights of his address are as follows:

  • A National State of Disaster has been declared
  • A travel ban from foreign nationals from high-risk countries will be implemented from Wednesday 18 March
  • SA citizens are advised to refrain from travel to or through high-risk countries. These are currently listed as Iran, China, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, the UK and the USA. This is updated regularly
  • SA citizens returning from high-risk countries will undergo additional testing at ports of entry, and must self-isolate for 14 days
  • All foreign nationals who entered South Africa from high-risk areas must be tested. This applies to those who travelled from mid-February onwards
  • 35 land ports and two seaports will be closed
  • Non-essential travel is prohibited for all spheres of government
  • Gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited. This includes concerts, sport events and celebrations
  • Schools will be closed from 18 March until after the Easter weekend. Creches and universities are expected to follow suit
  • Visits to all correctional facilities have been suspended for the next 30 days
  • All businesses must take measures to intensify hygiene control, and where possible workers are to be asked to work remotely
  • All shopping centres must take measures to intensify hygiene control
  • The capacity of health centres is being increased nationally
  • A national command council has been established, meeting three times a week, chaired by the President
  • Cabinet is working with the private sector to finalise a package of varying fiscal measures to prevent economic collapse

All citizens of South Africa are called upon to do the following:

  • Wash hands with soap or similar for 20 seconds. Do this regularly, especially after going out in public and touching typically dirty surfaces (e.g. hand rails, money, door handles, elevator buttons)
  • Sneeze or cough into the crook of the elbow, or into a tissue which is immediately discarded. Wash hands thereafter
  • Avoid close contact with those who have flu-like symptoms
  • Avoid shaking hands and hugging, and try to keep a one-metre distance from other people in public
  • Avoid spreading fake news. Check all your facts before sharing information
  • Avoid panic-buying, especially of items (e.g. gloves and sanitizers) needed by medically vulnerable populations in society
  • Practice social distancing. This involves staying within the confines of the home and avoiding going into public unless absolutely necessary
  • Quarantining / self-isolating for 14 days is necessary for all those experiencing flu-like symptoms. Seek testing should the following symptoms persist:
    • Fever
    • Dry cough
    • Sore throat
    • Breathing difficulties
  • Limit all forms of travel and social gatherings where possible
  • Where possible, avoid public transport
  • Where possible, work remotely and conduct meetings via digital platforms
  • If you believe you have Covid-19, you can:
    • E-mail the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) on cicc1@dirco.gov.za or cicc2@dirco.gov.za
    • Call DIRCO on 012 351 1754
    • WhatsApp 0600 123 456 and say “Hi”, and then follow the prompts
    • Call the National Coronavirus Hotline on 0800 029 999
    • Phone your GP and ask for advice
    • It is NOT recommended that you go to a medical facility without phoning ahead. This will prevent the spread of the virus, or your exposure to the virus

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