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Hot on grandma’s trail in Hokkaido

Town tests tracking technology to make life easier and safer for elderly residents

by Chana R. Schoenberger

If you’re looking for your grandmother in the farming suburb of Iwamizawa, an hour northeast of Sapporo, your best bet may be to phone the municipal call center.

In a bid to make senior citizens — and their faraway families — feel safer, elderly residents of the Hokkaido town who live on their own are carrying around a small mobile device that tells the call center’s computers where they are at all times. Each resident in the program has a social worker who also carries a device, equipped to alert them to the resident’s whereabouts and to tell them at a glance whether the person is home or out. The devices work as Internet phones, so residents and their social workers can talk. Remote relatives can also phone the call center for information if they’re worried.

Panasonic has been using radio- frequency identification tags to track Iwamizawa’s elderly since March. The national Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is paying for the project, part of a program to help Japanese companies make and sell technology for daily use both in Japan and abroad.

The trial spotlights both a demographic problem and a business opportunity. Within three years, 40 million Japanese will be 65 or older. As Japan ages, one of the country’s looming issues is what to do about older people left behind, especially in poorer rural areas, when their children and grandchildren move away for urban jobs. Without younger relatives to care for them at home, frail elderly people can struggle to look after themselves. Their families often find it difficult to check up on them or be involved in their care from far away, since the elderly frequently don’t use mobile phones, the Internet or e-mail.

Solving this issue could mean not only happier seniors, but also a windfall for companies that can sell to the “silver market,” the fastest-growing demographic in Japan. Panasonic has just begun selling power-assist robots that help in hospitals and clinics. The company thinks the elderly represent an important market, according to Hayashi Ito of Panasonic’s Tokyo R&D Center in Tsunashima, which developed the system Iwamizawa is testing. Heang Chhor, who heads management consultancy McKinsey’s Japan office agrees, and says, “This will create great opportunities for the Japanese economy to grow domestically.”

That’s the ministry’s plan. The government’s four-year, ¥1.3 billion Ubiquitous Platform project is funding basic research at a dozen universities and companies including Panasonic and Hitachi. The idea is to help technology infiltrate every part of your life. “We think there is a wide area of applications to industries and daily lives here in Japan and for exporting to the world,” says Takashi Michikata, deputy director of the R&D office at the ministry’s Global ICT Strategy Bureau. He says the project’s priorities haven’t changed under the new Democratic Party of Japan administration.

At October’s CEATEC trade show at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center, KDDI exhibited an MIC-funded mobile-jogging program. Download an application to your phone, and you can run virtual marathons, comparing your times with other runners’ performance by using the phone’s built-in pedometer. Under the same grant, DoCoMo was showing off RFID tags for indoor tourist sites like souvenir shops, where GPS, which requires a line of sight to the sky, doesn’t work. Tourists’ phones can read the tags for sightseeing information.

Iwamizawa’s city government hopes this technology will be a selling point for its 91,000 residents. A former coal-mining center hit hard by shrinking demand, Iwamizawa now has a mainly agricultural economy; the municipality proudly touts the area’s rice and onions. Mitsui Greenland, an amusement park and ski hill; a beloved yakitori place, Mifune’s; and a well-known rose garden are among the town’s draws.

The Panasonic project grew out of City Hall’s push, now 16 years old, to turn the town into an unlikely showpiece for technology. Iwamizawa already has a remote diagnostics program that transmits X-ray images from hospitals and clinics to Sapporo, where Hokkaido University physicians analyze them. A city-run distance-learning network for elementary and junior-high students has been broadcasting from a municipal building across the street from the local JR station for a dozen years. Panasonic and the city government started working on the so-called Ubiquitous Sensor project in 2006, beginning by handing out simple tracking devices to first- and second-graders so their parents could locate them.

Next the city started thinking about how to help elderly residents continue to live alone. Like towns across Japan, Iwamizawa has seen many of its young people leave for jobs in Sapporo or, farther afield, Tokyo and Osaka. One in four people in Iwamizawa has hit retirement age: 26.7 percent are older than 65, above the national average of 22.7 percent. “In Iwamizawa, the less elderly are supporting the more elderly,” Ito says.

With older residents left to get around town on their own, the trial hopes to substitute technology for the missing young people. Panasonic’s Ubiquitous Sensor Network uses radio-frequency identification tags, similar to the tags used in stores to track inventory. Built into handheld mobile devices, the tags broadcast their presence whenever they come near enough to a reader machine. In Iwamizawa, 40 readers are in places senior citizens frequent, including the hospital and City Hall. They’re also set up in participants’ homes, where they function as WiFi access points to report back to the central server over the Internet.

The devices have voice-over-Internet phone connections to the call center, so the seniors can push a button to talk to a center worker in an emergency. The devices can last for 100 hours without recharging. The tradeoff is that there’s no battery-hungry GPS locator. Instead, the system tracks the seniors by noting whenever they pass one of the readers. Participants who feel the need can request regular calls just to make sure they are alive and well.

The trial is scheduled to continue through next year, but early results are encouraging, Panasonic and the city say. “As a whole, the senior citizens participating in this project are feeling very happy and satisfied,” says Noboyuki Kise, a manager in Iwamizawa’s municipal economy department. Sixty percent of participants said they are comfortable with the device.

Why not do this with a standard-issue mobile phone, which can already track your location? That’s how the fire or police departments find you if you call for help from your mobile. Panasonic’s engineers were concerned that the elderly might not be as comfortable using the feature- loaded phones with tiny keys that their grandchildren carry everywhere. But as mobile carriers sell increasing numbers of phones aimed at older people, with larger keys and a short list of included features, the Panasonic system could merge into a regular mobile network. This year, Panasonic will test linking mobile phones to the RFID tags using Bluetooth. By next year, one gadget will do both jobs. “In the future, we will embed active tags on 3G phones,” Ito says.

Once a system like this takes hold in Japan, the logical next step would be to sell it overseas. Countries like South Korea, China and several Northern European nations are facing a similar aging problem. That could create a natural market for Japan’s elderly-care solutions.