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Using tech innovation to tackle Cambodia’s rampant road deaths

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Luma System’s soon-to-be-released app will allow users to report traffic accidents as they see them. Photo supplied

Using tech innovation to tackle Cambodia’s rampant road deaths

Cutting corners, rampant phone use, speeding and driving through red lights – these are just some of the reasons why driving in Phnom Penh can often feel like a city-wide game of dodgems.

The high death toll on the nation’s roads – combined with several high-profile fatal accidents this year that struck a chord with the public for their pointlessness and avoidability – means the campaign for safer roads is gathering ever-greater momentum in the Kingdom.

Tapping into this zeitgeist is Borey Chum, CEO of Phnom Penh-based technology firm Luma System.

Since 2010, Chum and his small team of eight have mapped thousands of kilometres of Cambodia’s roads in unprecedented, minute detail using geographic information system (GIS) technology licensed from Californian company ESRI.

“We have developed our own digital map, with the team personally collecting precise information on 45,000km of roads in Cambodia. The data we have collected includes the location of traffic lights, whether you can you turn right or left at certain junctions, whether you can perform U-turns, the maximum speed limits in areas, whether there are schools or hospitals in the area – that kind of thing,” Chum tells The Post.

While Google Maps has long charted the majority of the world’s land surface, Luma System’s road map differs as it has a “very specific focus that makes it much more detailed” with it “solely for the purpose of mapping roads in Cambodia”.

In Phnom Penh, the project has been taken a step further, with his team collecting a wealth of traffic data from NGOs, the government and local communities in order to identify accident blackspots. The purpose of this, Chum says, is to address among the Kingdom’s most pressing public health issues, and ultimately save lives.

“If you look at road accidents, it’s one of the major concerns right now. Based on government research, there are nearly 1,800 fatalities a year, which is a lot considering we only have 16 million people in Cambodia,” he says.

“How can we use technology to identify the major cause of the problem? We can’t fix it tomorrow, but the more we understand, the better we can reduce the number of accidents.”

Siem Reap-raised Chum received his bachelor’s degree in Hospitality and Hotel Management at Phnom Penh’s National University of Management, briefly working as a hotel receptionist.

“I left the hotel, it was not for me. I found a job in sales at an IT company and I loved the industry from my first exposure to it. I learned how to apply IT to real life and since then I have always been interested in seeing how I can apply it to other things,” the 37-year-old says.

This curiosity led Chum to the UK in 2006, where he undertook a Computer Management Master’s degree at the University of East London.

Upon returning to Cambodia in 2007, he combined his two areas of expertise by creating a successful online booking system for hotels in Siem Reap town at a time in which this was still done through travel agents.

This aspect of his business is still in operation today and, along with its core function of providing tech solutions to companies, sustains Luma System’s Cambodian mapping project.

Inspired by Vision Zero

Chum says his road mapping project was inspired by the multi-national Vision Zero road safety campaign first implemented by the Swedish government in 1997. Since is introduction in the Scandinavian country, fatalities have dropped from 541 per year in 1997, to just 253 in 2017.

In the years since, Vision Zero has been adopted across many European nations, the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Japan and South Korea. It emphasises the role transport system designers can play in reducing road deaths through tech innovation and innovative urban design.

“A traditional approach [to road safety] says traffic accidents are inevitable, human behaviour must be perfected, safety is an individual responsibility and saving lives is expensive.

“Vision Zero is the opposite. It integrates human failings into the approach and believes you can’t prevent crashes, but you can prevent deadly crashes. When Sweden introduced Vision Zero, they relied a lot on technology. We learned from that and want to apply that in Cambodia,” Chum says, adding that this is only Southeast Asia’s second such mapping project, after Singapore.

Vision Zero is one response to wider global concern over road safety, which has emerged as among the 21st century’s preeminent public health concerns as the number of road users and fatalities increases worldwide.

According to World Health Organisation data, 93 per cent of the world’s 1.35 million annual traffic fatalities occur in low- and middle-income nations like Cambodia, despite them only obtaining approximately 60 per cent of world’s vehicles.

The Cambodian government has previously committed to the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020 – which calls for road deaths to be halved globally in this period – stating its goal to cut traffic deaths to under 1,600 by 2020.

But this looks unlikely to be achieved with Minister of Interior Sar Kheng saying in April he was “deeply concerned” over meeting the target as road deaths have failed to come down.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An example of the US-sourced GIS software used by Luma System to map Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

In 2017, 1,780 people in Cambodia died in traffic accidents, compared to 1,717 in 2016. And according to the most recent available statistics, 1,736 people died in traffic accidents as of November last year. Statistics so far this year indicate the rate remaining steady, if not increasing.

Some NGOs even regard these figures as too low, with Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation director Kim Pagna telling The Post late last year his organisation recorded closer to 1,900 fatalities in 2017, also predicting they would rise to 2,000 by the year 2020.

Despite traffic accidents costing the Cambodian economy an estimated $350 million per year, political commitment remains spotty.

In April, Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol said the National Road Safety Committee yearly budget was “insufficient” at only $400,000, well short of the $2 million figure he cited as needed to address the issue.

Institute for Road Safety Acting Director Kong Ratanak agrees, telling The Post via email that “current responses are not meeting requirements. It [road safety] is underfunded”.

Innovation to curtail deaths

But Chum believes his low-cost, tech-inspired approach to road safety will be able to put a dent in the number of road deaths in the Kingdom.

Next month Luma System is set to launch a crowd-sourced app, in which the general public in Cambodia can report road accidents as they witness them on the Kingdom’s roads.

“Let’s say someone is going to Sihanoukville and sees a road accident, they can take a photo and upload it to the server. We will then identify where it is and what time it occurred, before putting in the details of what happened after speaking with a police officer. The information will also be available to the police and hospitals to collect data on the accidents,” Chum explains.

As data accumulates, traffic accident black spots will be identified, with trends then emerging in terms of the causes and patterns of accidents in a level of detail currently unavailable.

“I’ve tried to find data on what causes crashes and we seem to only have a more general idea about how many people are involved. But when we collect enough data, we can identify [through our app] which junction has the most crashes, which road network has the most crashes, what time has the most accidents, how many are caused by people drink driving, or people using phones. If we have those details, we can do more to combat the causes,” he says.

Chum believes that armed with this wealth of data, the general public can be advised, via the app, to be cautious when entering a blackspot. Similarly, law enforcement can be stationed at certain intersections at specific times when most accidents occur, or greater traffic restrictions can be imposed on high-accident areas.

“If the garment workers leave at 4pm and accidents occur at 4.15pm or 4.30pm within 1km of the industrial zone, the government can take that into consideration and apply more traffic police, or install more red lights. Traffic police and road designers can analyse the data and come up with solutions,” he says.

Inevitably, such a mammoth mapping project is a huge undertaking for a small tech firm like Luma System.

While they are currently self-funded, Chum believes that cooperation from NGOs, and most importantly the government, is essential if the project is to expand and be a success.

“It is a very big and complicated project that we have started. I hope we can build a community of people reporting on this and I hope we can get support from NGOs and the government to tackle this. We would love to work with the government on road safety,” he says.

Chum says his Phnom Penh road safety project will be scaled up nationwide if it proves a success. But long term, he has greater aspirations to transform the capital – and Cambodia as a whole – into an “entire Smart Community eco-system”.

“We want to map Cambodia based on topics that are relevant to daily life for people. Road safety is our primary focus, but we have 29 other areas we want to address to create a Smart City.

“Electricity outages for example – we want to map the locations where it is cut so people can see it on the app. Or, if there is a flood you should be able to see how many fields are affected and how many roads have been cut off. These are the things we want to map for people,” he explains.

To find out more about Luma System’s road mapping project you can visit their website (www.lumasystem.com), or follow them on Facebook (@Lumasystem) and Instagram (@Lumasystem).

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