Debating with data

Data Hub computer image

What is Data? A character from Star Trek? Or is it factual information or numbers that can be used to help inform decision making?

Both are correct, of course. But in an era where disinformation and ‘fake news’ are playing an increasingly key role in driving geopolitical crises, it’s more important than ever that we all strive for higher standards of data and the presentation of that data. This is particularly key for the world of transport.

That’s why in July 2017, the Urban Transport Group launched the Data Hub – an online, interactive tool allowing users to create bespoke visualisations of key transport data. This unique tool has proved very popular, with thousands of people visiting the hub to explore data and produce their own visualisations to help support the work that they’re doing on transport.

Back in July 2017 whilst I was at Nexus, I was working on the early stages of developing a new Bus Strategy for the region. Seeking the data to support statements in the draft, the Data Hub was able to instantly present to me the trends of bus patronage and bus trips per head for Tyne and Wear. Previously, such a task would have required trawling though spreadsheets for hours on end to get the data I wanted. The Urban Transport Group has recognised that transport planners and policy makers from across its membership were likely doing the same tasks and so the Data Hub was born, turning long spreadsheets into usable data for everyone.

When I joined Urban Transport Group on secondment earlier this year, it was clear to me that the organisation did not want to rest on its laurels. Driven by the positive experiences and constructive feedback from users, overseeing an upgrade to the Data Hub became one of my main jobs.

Select, visualise and share

The upgrade has involved two key elements. The first was working with engineers AECOM to carry out upgrades, including the introduction of Geocharts (or maps) to allow data to be paired with maps and the ability for users to add their own data to charts. The Data Hub, once loaded, should also now be faster too when creating new visualisations.

The second key upgrade was the significant expansion of data that was on offer. From station entry and exit data to road safety statistics, I have spent the last few months trawling through some of the Department for Transport’s and Office of Rail and Road’s largest and greatest datasets, bringing them together in a more presentable and useable format.

Ultimately, we believe that this work has expanded the ability to ‘select’ the transport data you’re interested in, ‘visualise’ that data in graphs, charts and maps, and to ‘share’ it on websites, social media or in presentations.

Data Hub infographic 2018

This isn’t the end though, and there are lots more exciting developments in the pipeline as we continue to evolve the tool – including even more data sets (from beyond just the UK city regions) and the ability for our members to capitalise on the software behind the Data Hub.

This has been a thoroughly enlightening project to work on. I never knew there was so much excellent data on city region transport out there and I’m pleased the Data Hub will be able to raise the profile of this data.

All that is left to say, is to ask you to head over to the refreshed Data Hub and to get stuck into the new data that is available and explore the new functions we’ve added. Visualising this data and presenting it to others will help you sell your message and continue to make the case for investment in transport with accurate, informed analysis. Go on, give your work the integrity and substance that is so often lacking in today’s key debates and discussion. Debate with data!

Stephen Bellamy is Business Development Officer – Policy at Nexus, and oversaw the upgrade work to the Data Hub whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group

Joining the dots on data, transport, health and air quality

Data has been all over the media recently, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the upcoming changes to data protection rules. And here at the Urban Transport Group we’ve been talking about transport data for some time: our Getting Smart on Data report identifies some of the issues and barriers for transport authorities to capitalise on emerging data sources, and our Data Hub and associated Number Crunch report analyse trends in the transport sector.

The Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) at Leeds University recently held a workshop exploring how new and emerging data sources can help to support policy making in relation to transport, health and air quality – connections we at UTG have been exploring. Health has been rising up the transport policy agenda in recent years, accelerated by the forward thinking Healthy Streets approach emerging from Transport for London. And air quality is a pressing challenge for city regions, as they are mandated by Government to reduce levels of air pollution in the shortest possible time frame. The recent joint inquiry by four House of Commons Select Committees into the Government’s failure to improve air quality in the UK shows just how serious this has become.

The ITS event included outputs from the EU Horizon 2020 project ‘EMPOWER’, which explores how people can be encouraged to make more sustainable transport trips through incentives. This has been trialled in Newcastle, along with six other European cities, using their ‘Go Smarter’ App, and has generated positive results for participants and useful data and insight for the City Council.

Spring Walking Weekend 2

Challenges yet opportunities

All of this got me thinking about the role of transport authorities, the issues they face, and the opportunities data presents for them:

  • Local and city region authorities can undoubtedly benefit from this deluge of data, but often lack the resource and capabilities to deal with and fully capitalise on large volumes of data that are coming from these new and emerging sources.
  • Data quality remains an issue even where you have transport tracking data, as entries can be missed where participants turn off trackers. However, tracking data can be really useful for filling in the gaps in other data sets, such as trip lengths for smart card journeys made with only one tap in or out.
  • The focus so far has largely been on personal travel and exposure to air pollution. Our recent report ‘White Van Cities’ showed that vans now make up 15% of traffic in urban areas and contribute 30% of harmful NO­2 emissions – yet we know little about the cause of this rise in van traffic, for example, what’s in these vans. We need to examine ways of using new and emerging data sources to explore non passenger transport as well.
  • Making the case for investments in transport, which deliver benefits for health, can be challenging, but there are ways to push the agenda forward. Newcastle City Council has established a Healthy Streets Board which will help to deliver transport and health improvements.

So what are we doing at UTG?

Following our 2016 Getting Smart on Data report, we set up a group to look at some of the challenges facing transport authorities relating to emerging data. These include:

  • Sharing and integration;
  • Ownership and privacy;
  • Quality and standards; and
  • Skills, capabilities and capacities.

We have also developed our own online, interactive Data Hub, which brings together a range of data sources on a host of transport topics and allows you to generate your own bespoke analysis, graphics and charts.

On health, we are working with public health and transport expert Dr Adrian Davis to renew and re-launch the Health and Wellbeing hub on our website, with the aim of being the UK’s best online resource on the connections between transport and health.

We are also focusing on promoting the Healthy Streets approach, pioneered by Transport for London, outside of the capital. The brainchild of public health and transport specialist Lucy Saunders, Healthy Streets is a system of policies and strategies to deliver healthier, more inclusive cities where people choose to walk, cycle and use public transport. As part of this, we will be looking at developing resources and learning opportunities as well as sponsoring the 2018 Healthy Streets conference, on 12th October.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

My night at NEF – CAVs, data, carbon and the future of transport

Took part in a Chatham House roundtable at the New Economics Foundation last night which, mostly ended up exploring the fault lines between a vision of the future of transport centered on moving as rapidly as possible to the vast majority of journeys being made by electric, shared and autonomous cars – and those who thought that vision was either unachievable or highly undesirable, or both.

It made me think this (or in some cases steal the thoughts of others)…

  1. There is a big gulf between those who see transport from a tech / venture capital perspective and those whose background is in wider urban and transport policy. Indeed they are very rarely in the same rooms together. The former look at transport from the outside and they see one vehicle dominates – the car. So that’s where the heroic engineering and renumerative opportunity lies for transforming transportation – and at a global scale. With that clear objective set then everyithing else is about cracking any problems that lie in the way to the goal of fixing the car (ie making it electric and autonomous). And given the amount of money at stake, their faith in technology and their own abilities – they are confident that all problems can, should and will be cracked. The people from a wider urban and transport policy perspective see cities and their transport network as complex systems of which the car is one element – an element which is problematic per se. So you don’t start with the car as the be all and the end all of transport policy because that clearly makes no sense. The global nature of the ambitions of the tech / venture capitalists also makes the gulf even wider as what might work on the empty straight roads of 1950s US suburbia might struggle with being the answer to the future of transport on the constricted road network of European cities with their roots in the 1500s. However is there somewhere within this zone of mutual incomprehension for a space for thinking about how tech could fit with where the reality of the transport needs of denser older major cities where space for any kind of road vehicle is becoming steadily more constrained and where there is a wider vision for healthier streets?
  2. Is the above a first world problem in that it would be easier to establish a whole new mobility system based on the tech / venture capitalists view that the future is about electric, shared, autonomous cars in newer, or even new, cities in developing countries – where city layout, politics and regulation could be more receptive?
  3. In the Eighties there was a brain drain into a deregulated financial sector which ultimately gave us the crash and the strange and frightening world we now live in. Is there now an equivalent brain drain into a tech sector which was never regulated in the first place? And are we living with the consequences of that right now from fake news, and election meddling to lack of control over our personal data and the rise of unregulated internet monopolies? If so what do we do about it? In Estonia the Government uses secure technology to hold citizen’s personal data for them in a way that makes public services easier to use and cheaper to provide. In London there’s talk of cities establishing something that sounds similar – city data trusts. Could these approaches be part of the answer? Or at least part of a more urgent debate?
  4. The carbon footprint of the energy sector is transforming for the better with amazing rapidity in the UK but the same is not true for transport. Will the pressure increase for this to change? At the same time (and there’s a lot of fog of war here) the shift to electric vehicles seems to be picking up pace dragging even the more reluctant elements of the automobile sector with it. Will that lead to panic by Government over loss of fuel duty revenues and could that lead them to react by seeking to slow the shift?
  5. One more on CAVs. One of the big emerging obstacles to full CAVs that the techies / venture capitalists will need to crack if their dream is to be realised is attitudinal. As in just because people could do something that technology allows them to do  – they might not actually want to do it. So, for example, if CAVs need to be shared (given that if everyone had their own nobody would be able to move very far in them without being stuck in a traffic jam) then how do you get round the fact that if there’s one thing that people hate its being in a small space (like a lift) with strangers (even if its only for a minute). Are people really going to want to make the beloved lift experience into their day to day travel experience?

Jonathan Bray