[JEDDAH] It is hard to think of anything in our lives that has remained untouched by technology. Not even our innermost spiritual recess. Such a development might have had a disruptive impact on many areas of our existence, but that’s not necessarily a negative one. Quite the contrary.
Imagine how a pilgrimage such as Hajj would have looked like in not so distant past when millions of individuals would undertake arduously and, often, risky journeys to fulfill their religious obligation, leaving everything to chances or in the hands of the Almighty. For many of those, the profound transformation of the way the pilgrimage is conducted today is not just awe-inspiring, but unbelievable.
Welcome to the age of smart technology, when the machine has been increasingly assuming the responsibility to fulfill human wishes and desires and ensure their well-being and convenience. As in other aspects of our daily existence, the contribution of technology becomes pronounced in the context of Hajj, where it does almost everything from monitoring the quality of the environment at the mosques in Makkah and Madinah to keeping a watch on one’s health and movement and guiding them to the right place at the right time.
Managing a crowd of nearly 2.5 million – as in the case of Hajj – could prove to be an uphill task even for the most technologically-advanced nation. To its credit, Saudi Arabia makes such a task appear almost like a cakewalk. In truth, it’s a work in progress amid an ever-shifting goal to manage a continually swelling crowd.
As a result, eight projects have been recently unveiled by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, including a smart Hajj platform; a service-supervision initiative to improve housing by adding living space and organizing bus trips; a pilgrim grouping programme that uses electronic system to manage and monitor crowds; a project to increase capacity as part of which a site in Mina has been cleared to set up fully-equipped tents; and an initiative to improve upon food services and expand the provision of ready meals at holy sites.
Last year, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology launched a “Smart Haj” initiative to provide pilgrims with all the necessary information required for performing the pilgrimage.
Part of the Kingdom’s digital transformation program under Vision 2030, the effort includes many digital services and interactive apps, significant of which are Destination, Assist Me, Hajj and Umrah Navigator, Health and Our Rituals.
Most of these are self-explanatory. The destination is a system that helps visitors to navigate their way to any place within the mosques, without requiring them to have an internet connection. Likewise, Assist Me was launched by the Saudi Red Crescent Society to help pilgrims in case of any medical emergency. It locates nearby medical facilities and guides the way to reach them while using light and sound to alert those around to assist the individual.
With the help of Health, one can consult with doctors from diverse fields of specialization at any given time during Hajj, while Our Rituals helps to identify places of general interest, such as nearest mosques, restaurants, toilets, shopping malls, and the shortest routes from respective locations.
About 25,000 pilgrims in Mina have been given wearable smart cards in a pilot program launched by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah this year. The cards store the pilgrims’ personal information such as health conditions, residence and Hajj tour plans. They are also fitted with trackers to follow their movements.
“It’s still in an experimental stage,” said Dr. Amr Al Maddah, Chief Planning Officer at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. “The numbers will increase in the coming years after we determine the extent to which they are helpful to pilgrims.”
There are numerous other smart technologies that help to connect one with ambulance services, health centers and raise health and safety awareness through virtual reality.
Add the robot doctor as another feather in the Saudi cap. For the first time, the Ministry of Health has launched during this Hajj season the robot technology to offer medical consultations between doctors at hospitals and health centers in Mina and mobile medical caravans. Consultations are offered from any region within the country to virtually reach any hospital in Mina – through the 4G network. The robot doctor has its built-in capabilities, such as a stethoscope, special endoscope cameras for eye and ear examination, a special camera for a skin examination, and other tools that enable doctors to diagnose medical conditions and provide medical consultations remotely. By transmitting the image with high resolution and medically certified purity, the doctor can be able to read the clinical signs and indications, including radiographs.
Ahmed Balkhair, Undersecretary of the Saudi Ministry of Health for e-Health and Digital Authorization and the General Director of the National Health Information Center, says Robo Doctor can be very useful when medical staff in all hospitals of the holy sites, for example, may wish to consult with doctors in other locations.
“Sometimes we have rare problems such as tumors, or other cases that require the advice of colleagues or consultants who are in the holy sites or in other facilities,” he said.
“Sometimes we call our colleagues in Riyadh or Jeddah for advice, and if necessary we ask doctors located anywhere in the Kingdom to access the robot in Mina Emergency Hospital, and then can move to any location in the hospital, down to the patient's room to provide advice, through the use of lots of equipment attached to this robot, such as stethoscope, cameras, otoscopes and ophthalmoscopes.
The data is transmitted to the doctor in an encrypted form, using computer tablets, for example. These are high-resolution images that enable him to examine the x-rays and screens associated with the patient in a medically approved way. After the consultation is finished, the doctor leaves and the robot returns to the waiting site until further consultation is requested.”
Asked how would these future medical technologies benefit pilgrims and the medical field, Balkhair said: “There are many services that can be offered through telemedicine. Robot technology is a remote consulting technology. Moving the robot inside the hospital makes it easy for any doctor to provide this service all around the hospital. There are other services, such as Remote Intensive Care, which is run remotely by doctors. it’s applied by giving the patient a bracelet or a watch that continuously transmits his vital signs while he is moving around in the holy sites.
All these techniques can also be used to improve health services, Balkhair said. “I expect that technologies such as the robot consultancy will be of great use in remote hospitals in the Kingdom where not all medical specialties are available, in case they need the support of the main hospital closest to them, to provide the service of checking on patients every day or every few days to provide the best possible services to patients according to the required specialization.”
ELECTRONIC MANAGEMENT OF CROWDS
Dr. Mohammed Salih Benten, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Hajj and Umrah, said that the Hajj administration was managed fully electronically through an integrated infrastructure.
“Every pilgrim who comes to the Kingdom can know all the services he will receive, where he will live and when he will travel between the holy sites, the database is the basis for the success of the preparation to receive the pilgrim before arrival in the Kingdom,” Dr. Benten said in an interview with state-run Al Ekhbariya television channel this week, which was carried by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
“Perhaps what distinguishes this year's pilgrimage is the increased use of electronic platforms and software to manage these large crowds. In the event of any comments on the services, they get processed by the electronic systems”.
Dr. Benten said that the holy sites were covered by geographic information systems and advanced cameras that would help the joint chambers of all government agencies serving pilgrims to follow up service providers on the ground moment by moment.
Commenting on the coordination between government agencies during the pilgrimage season, he said that Hajj might be the largest religious event in the world in terms of the number of attendees, with more than two million in one location and limited in a specific time. “The services and transport they need between holly sites have to be coordinated at a high level among all government agencies. Artificial intelligence techniques have helped to make proper decisions to address any shortage or disruption in services.”
The minister said crowd management, especially at Jamaraat Bridge, was carried out through special operating rooms that monitored movements accurately and instantaneously using high-resolution imaging and thermal images that determine the size and density of pilgrims in the corridors and roads.
According to Saudi authorities, there are more than 2.48 million international and domestic pilgrims performing Hajj this year, which ends on August 14.
Meanwhile, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, Governor of the Makkah and Chairman of the Central Hajj Committee, launched 5G services in the region and at the holy sites, which is expected to boost pilgrims’ Hajj experience by leaps and bounds in the near future. The few instances above prove that technological advancement combined with our creativity will provide us with possibilities most of us still cannot imagine – just as people a couple of decades ago could not imagine a future where they would be able to undertake a technology-aided spiritual journey.
This article was written by the Center for International Communication, Ministry of Media, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia