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Understanding the impact of lockdown on our cities 

By Newcastle University

When the UK went into a national lockdown in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the instruction to avoid unnecessary travel and to carry out social distancing had a dramatic effect across a range of measures in our cities  

The team at Newcastle University’s Urban Observatory, led by Professor Phil James, developed a publicly available online dashboard based on data collected by a network of more than 3,600 sensors across Newcastle and Gateshead to better understand the impact of social distancing measures on people and vehicle movement in real time across one urban area. 

The data being collected by the Urban Observatory team is also now being used by the Prime Minister’s advisers to help them assess whether key messages about social distancing are getting through and how people are adapting as restrictions are imposed or lifted.   

The data showed significant reduction in the volume of traffic, which led to a marked improvement in air quality. It also showed pedestrian movement reduced by 95% as people followed the instruction to stay at home and only travel if absolutely essential. 

 

How Busy is Toon

As the initial lockdown restrictions were lifted and businesses started reopening, Professor James and his team worked with Newcastle City Council, the National Innovation Centre for Data, and other partners, to provide usable key metrics in real-time so that anyone coming into Newcastle could quickly assess how busy the city centre was.

This fed in to theHow Busy is Toon’ website which uses a traffic light system to indicate how busy the car parks are and how easy it is to social distance on key streets, helping people to feel safer about coming into the city centre 

The ‘How Busy is Toon’ model has now been adopted by other local authorities across the UK in places such as Durham, Southend, Reading and Manchester.

It has also attracted interest from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), who worked with the Urban Observatory team to better understand which data was being used and the process of collecting and analysing the information to build up the picture of activity levels in urban areas.  

 

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The effects of a tiered approach

When the government introduced a regional tiered approach to help control the virus, the Department for Transport also turned to the Urban Observatory to help them understand the regional picture across the country.

The team were able to use data from Newcastle and Gateshead, as well as information about traffic levels and public transport usage in Sheffield and Hull, to enable officials to see activity levels.

This led to Professor James directly briefing the Transport Select Committee on his work and being invited to submit evidence to the new Joint Biosecurity Centre, informing decisions on tackling Covid-19. 

The data being collected by the Urban Observatory team is also now being used by the Prime Minister’s advisers to help them assess whether key messages about social distancing are getting through and how people are adapting as restrictions are imposed or lifted.   

 

How we're using the data gathered from our Urban Observatory

How our cities are responding to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is just one example of how data collected by the Urban Observatory is being used.

The largest sensor deployment in the UK and the largest set of open environmental monitoring in the world, the observatory gathers huge amounts of data on everything from flooding to air pollution, pedestrian and traffic flows, and biodiversity – including monitoring the behaviour of urban bees. 

On this, Professor James noted "Smart city technology can provide detailed insight into how our cities work and the impact and dynamics of large-scale behaviour change,

“This is helping senior decision makers at a regional and national level to get a comprehensive picture of how the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, is affecting people’s day to day behaviour, and enables them to make improved and sustainable decisions about the places that we live and work in.” 

 


Professor Phil James

Professor Phil James is professor of urban data in the school of Engineering, leads Newcastle University’s Urban Observatory and is co-lead of the national UKCRIC observatory programme. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, with a background in spatial analysis, he is interested in how we leverage these new urban data to support data-driven decision making in cities in an equitable, open and collective fashion.


 

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Tags: Data, Cities & Place, Research