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Transport data and COVID-19

Instead of looking at more transport graphics that show how overall traffic flows have reduced and cycling and walking has increased, this blog looks at the impacts on transport data itself. The ways in which we use and understand transport data, share this information, and its use in the future are all changes that have happened as a result of COVID-19.

From this title, I suspect you are thinking, “oh no, not more transport graphs”. But instead of telling you how overall traffic flows have reduced but cycling and walking increased, I take a different perspective. While we don’t yet know the future transport patterns we will go back to (and there are too many opinions on this), I will focus instead on the impacts on transport data.

Until March, to the outside world, transport data was boring stuff my industry collected and analysed, and used for making transport better. But few outside my profession ever noticed. But suddenly, graphs of traffic appeared on the daily briefing. It was clear that many people had no clear understanding about what normal traffic patterns actually looked like.

So, the first change is that the value of transport data is now more widely recognised. It is a real tool for strategic decisions. In my area of roads, local authorities and industry rallied together and have shared, via the Transport Technology Forum, their data. We process this to give a picture of cars and trucks on roads, cycling and walking, social distancing and freight movements.  

We use data from loop sensors, image processed CCTV cameras, GPS fleet management, smart parking sensors, traffic control systems and many other sources. It was heartening to see how devices could be quickly repurposed – a company called Vivacity remodelled traffic cameras to social distancing almost overnight.

The second impact has been seeing the value of sharing data. Some authorities and companies were well equipped to open this data immediately, or found ways to do so quickly. Others had data locked in siloes and weren’t able to help. Those sharing data found real value, as academics and data scientists could use it to analyse what was happening locally.

And we found our transport data was of use outside transport for other use cases we never imagined. We worked with Professor Simon Maskell from Liverpool University to provide the epidemiological modelling of COVID-19 that he describes in the June 2020 issue of E&T Magazine with a better matrix of movement of vehicles around the country, based on GPS data from a company called INRIX. We also found “non transport” data could be useful – Wi-Fi patterns in towns were provided as an indicator we can align with traffic and parking data, to see where people were driving to – anonymously of course.

But the biggest impact from data is the legacy of how much more useful data will be in the future, not just for a pandemic but severe weather or other national impact. And in keeping data collection channels open, how much richer data we will have about “business as usual” when it returns.

So thank you to all those who opened up their data, and those who now use it. Whilst of course we would never have wished to have COVID-19 and its tragic impacts as the reason for change, we are no longer the Cinderella of the data world.

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