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The huge value of human behaviour data

Cities are centres of culture, innovation and growth: they generate an enormous amount of data which our Urban Analytics researchers are using to create solutions to modern challenges.

As Professor of Spatial Analysis and Policy in the School of Geography, Co-Director of the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics and Director of the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre, I lead a number of teams that are focussed on creating a bridge between academic research in social science and consumer-facing organisations who capture the richest data about social processes.

The amount of information generated by retail loyalty cards; mobile phones; smart travel tickets; smart meters; social media and various others has grown exponentially over the last 10-15 years.  These data are a valuable resource which are used by our modellers and data scientists to provide unique insight into a diverse range of societal and economic challenges.  Urban Analytics researchers at LIDA are working on a number of ongoing projects with the potential for huge societal benefits, including improving emergency management strategiesincreasing mobility for elderly citizens and transforming infrastructure, planning and policy.

This year, with Covid-19, we faced a situation that was unmatched in living memory and harnessing the power of data to help model possible outcomes and roads to recovery has been of vital importance. Whilst prediction is always fraught with uncertainty, especially where human decision making is concerned, using vast data to understand behavioural change or the consequences of policy interventions can produce widespread and detailed evidence.

How to exploit this kind of intelligence is a political decision, but providing access to it creates societal benefit and a huge value.  LIDA researchers have been heavily involved in the Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) initiative, convened by the Royal Society, which brings together modelling expertise from a range of disciplines across academia and the private sector to inform the Government’s advisory bodies, including the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).

We have also been working with Rolls Royce and 170 other international companies including Google, IBM and Microsoft, as part of the Emergent Alliance, to model pathways industries could take to rebuild after the pandemic.

Having access to a wide range of datasets is incredibly useful for such expansive projects, which is why cross industry collaboration is so important.  At LIDA we are creating new mechanisms to enable secure access to crucial data sources across a widespread community of partners from academia, government, business and the third sector.

One of LIDA’s central goals is to promote a collective approach, as we believe the biggest opportunity lies in looking at these big data sets in conjunction with one another.  Complex issues such as recovery from a pandemic, obesity or infrastructure planning cannot be understood from an isolated viewpoint within geography, transport studies or medicine and health. This is why LIDA operates as a fully multi-disciplinary institute which works across all faculties of the University, as well as with external collaborators, to deliver real benefits to society. We are also actively pushing new insights from the analytics of data, and the associated skills and methods, into the educational curriculum of the University, for example through the new MSc programme in Urban Analytics which launches in 2021, and as the host of the UK’s only national doctoral training centre in data analytics and society.

Future research in Urban Analytics at LIDA will focus on a number of key areas including mobility, sustainability and healthy lifestyles. The transformation of personal mobility patterns through the growth of ride sharing organisations such as Uber or Taxify demonstrates the potential for rapid changes in behaviour which has been accelerated by the manipulation of data about the desires and needs of the population for mobility.  Municipal bodies and government departments could benefit enormously by seeking similar insights to deliver outcomes such as social equity or more efficient transport networks.

In terms of sustainability we’ll be looking more towards renewable consumption; sustainable diets; carbon zero futures and green corridors and designing energy efficient buildings.

In healthy lifestyles we are already looking at obesity and data which connects what people eat, how they move around, medical monitoring, tracing activity and sleep patterns.

Breaking down the traditional silos in the way that these phenomena are studied, and the data which inform these investigations, is another example of how cross-faculty collaborations, facilitated by LIDA, are helping to shape our futures and drive real change in society.

Professor Mark Birkin, LIDA Co-Director

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