Ideas: In data we trust

Who runs the world? Perhaps it is no longer a question of who, but what. Richard Dawson speaks to Professor Phil James of the Urban Observatory about Newcastle’s data revolution and the work they’re doing to measure the impact of coronavirus

Recent weeks have reinforced the central role data plays in modern decision-making. In the context of the coronavirus crisis, it is statistics and analytics that have informed Government strategy more than anything else.

From the epidemiological model that gives us an idea of how the spread of the coronavirus is progressing, to observations of public transport, footfall and traffic congestion that tell us if social distancing is being adhered to, it is difficult to imagine how we could tackle this disease without data.

Our ability to use such data to make better decisions is surely one of the biggest advantages we have over previous generations.

With questions about when and how to end the lockdown becoming more prescient, and the issue of how to reconcile the need to save lives with the need to protect the economy, crucial decisions are still to be made.

And given that literally billions of people across the world will be affected by the choices governments make in the next few weeks, the insights data can provide will be relied on more than ever.

Newcastle is at the forefront of the UK data revolution, having last year been awarded Smart City of the Year and now boasting more data points than anywhere in the country.

Using smart sensors, CCTV and meteorological equipment among other things, we can now measure everything from footfall and traffic flows to air quality and pollution, building a picture of Tyneside in a way we haven’t seen before.

Interpreting this data is the Urban Observatory, a research programme that grew out of Newcastle University five years ago and is now publishing weekly analytics on the impact of coronavirus and social distancing measures.

Phil James is professor of urban data at Newcastle University and director of the Urban Observatory. He has played a key part of the observatory’s evolution from an internal research project to a key resource for city planners and decision makers.

He says: “We’ve become more interested in the value of data and that’s really where the Urban Observatory sprang from.”

The question, as Phil put it, was: “Could we start to bring together all of this disparate data, from transport, the environment and the weather and make them useful?”

The Observatory’s work has already proved useful in the temporary pedestrianisation of Blackett Street in Newcastle last summer, the analysis of the Great Exhibition of the North and, more recently, the Government-mandated drive to improve air quality on Tyneside.

Where previously city planners would have initiated changes without evidence-based knowledge of their outcomes, data insights and analysis has the potential to revolutionise the decision-making process.

“Every single city basically just tries things out,” adds Phil. “Some things work, and some things don’t. But we’ve never previously had a framework for capturing whether it’s been a good decision or continues to be a good decision.

“It’s now possible, by using data, to make decisions in an equitable way where we’re clear who is impacted and for how long.”

Working in partnership with local authorities and key stakeholders across the city, the Urban Observatory is now monitoring key data sets like footfall and traffic movements, publishing regular updates since the UK coronavirus lockdown came into effect.

The data shows that footfall in the city centre is down by 95 per cent month-on-month. Traffic volumes are also 50 per cent lower than normal in a clear indication that the vast majority of Tynesiders are adhering to the Government guidelines.

Phil explains: “The data quantifies what we see on the ground. You can walk around Newcastle and see that there’s very few people there. But the data shows you in real time when the policy was made, what the impact was and how quickly levels came down.”

When the Government announced it would no longer charge NHS workers to use car parks, for example, the Observatory recorded an immediate impact the following day using data on car park usage.

“We’re not measuring infection, but we are looking at the impacts of it,” says Phil.

In the weeks ahead, when social distancing measures are eased and some semblance of normalcy returns to our lives, the Observatory will be recording data to see whether the changes are having the desired impact.

While data and the information it can provide is fast becoming something of a precious resource, Phil maintains data must remain a force for public good, above all else.

He says: “I think what Newcastle is showing is that data should be open and accessible, particularly when its paid out of the public purse and it impacts all the citizens of a city.”

As the coronavirus public health emergency rages on, the concept of data as a public good has never been more salient.