How people move around cities matters

Aerial view of a street with data surrounding people

Credit: peterhowell / Getty Images

Mobile, CCTV and app data analysis is being used to help create more sustainable cities.

The Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC) is a research centre and national data service funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It generates insights to improve social, economic and environmental wellbeing in cities using new and emerging forms of data.

These data are the ‘digital footprints’ we each create in our daily lives, by using business or administrative systems, through sensor records such as those from mobile phone movements, or by generating content on social media.

Real-time analysis of city movement

New and emerging forms of data have distinct advantages compared with traditional forms such as censuses and surveys. With great scale and speed of access, they open up the possibility of near-real-time analysis of even small areas of a city. They also present distinct challenges, since much of the data is privately owned or controlled, and important qualities, such as representativeness, are unclear.

For UBDC, cities and metropolitan areas are key to tackling climate change. This is not only because they are home to the majority of the world’s population and responsible for the majority of global carbon emissions. More importantly, it is because they offer the opportunity for more efficient and sustainable ways of living.

Understanding how much people move around cities, as well as how they move around, are key issues for sustainability and for urban planning. UBDC has developed a range of innovative tools to measure and better understand travel behaviours in cities, working in each case with Glasgow City Council and other partners.

Capturing mobile phone locations

Mobile phone locations can be captured when users access certain apps, providing an invaluable picture of movements across urban areas. One project, Mobile phone app data for mobility analysis, has shown how these data can be used to measure movements for a large sample of the city’s population.

UBDC is now using these to provide an up-to-date evidence base on mobility for transport planners.

Using CCTV to measure city footfall

Another project has developed methods for using spare capacity in existing CCTV systems to measure pedestrian and vehicle activity across the city. The measures of footfall in city centre and high street areas are used by the city’s economic planners to understand how each location is recovering from the impacts of lockdown.

Harnessing user-generated data

Active travel has long proved difficult to measure. UBDC has shown how the user-generated data from fitness apps can provide a robust evidence base of cycling in the city. It has used this data to evaluate the impacts of investments in better infrastructure, providing vital feedback to policymakers on the benefits of this expenditure.

UBDC uses a variety of novel data sources and analysis methods, whilst also fostering positive relationships with those who need to use data to inform their decision-making. This is enabling the centre to help track and ultimately influence the development of cities.

It is the policy and investment decisions made by planners, and the responses of individual citizens to these, which will deliver (or impede) progress to net zero.

Last updated: 1 September 2023

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