Can urban data be used to solve neighbourhood scale issues?

Brunswick Bus Stop

The Manchester Urban Observatory (MUO) is a network of researchers and equipment working to measure and analyse patterns and changes in the urban environment. The MUO equipment is not only focused on academic research, we are also facilitating Greater Manchester residents to collect their own air quality data. Citizen science has classically been limited to a top down approach of researchers or local authorities requesting data from local residents, the MUO are underway with a bid approach urban data science in a different way. The MUO is on track to submit the new LINKS proposal (Learning-Information-Knowledge-Insight-Strategy) which seeks to provide the resources of academia and local authority directly to the hands of the local residents, ensuring the residents are able to measure local problems and help lead on the solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised several issues for the residents of Ardwick. To identify issues an open request for community issues was circulated to community leaders of Ardwick, three resident responses were received. Issues they highlighted covered: loss of green space, increased noise and air pollution, cars speeding on main roads, cyclists abandoning cycle lanes for the pavement, poorer mental health, and increased littering. These are a handful of issues raised by the local residents, which can be grouped into three categories: urban environment, COVID-19 response, and age-friendly cities. Each of these issues also build on recent projects, each with a stakeholder community, policy agenda, and emerging knowledge base.

The Manchester Urban Observatory (MUO) has available technical resources to quantify these issues, and train residents to assist with additional data streams. Available data streams include traffic cameras and noise sensors, already installed on Brunswick street. Technical grade air pollution monitors, alongside a suite of personal air quality monitors for residents to track their personal exposure. There are data streams outside the MUO that could be leveraged: Satellite imagery to track the loss in green space, litter collection rates to track the change in public and private bin use.

The public has the ability to contribute additional data streams following training provided by MUO to ensure high quality and reliability of resident collected data. Litter prevalence could be counted on a street-by-street basis, increasing spatial and temporal granularity. Mental health could be surveyed to provide a primary data stream to assess the mental health, availability of local resources to cope, and the direct needs of residents. Cycling on pavements is more difficult to measure; on site surveys could provide a good baseline for distribution of cyclists between the pavement and the road. Speed gun use by residents could be used to verify the MUO Brunswick traffic camera data, and improve the spatial resolution of traffic speed within Ardwick.

Providing citizen training is one series of benefits that residents of Ardwick will benefit from. Their training would include how to conduct public surveys, deploy and maintain measurement equipment from noise sensors to measuring wheels. The MUO will upskill residents in fundamental mathematics and a range of data analysis methods. Our additional training sessions would include how to represent data visually for maximum accuracy and effective communication.

Facilitating the training will require a local space, office supplies, computers, and the technical monitors for collecting data. This will enable all the facets of the training required to be complete.

Providing residents the ability to measure urban changes and report them empowers them to achieve a greater influence on local council focus, improving the efficiency of local resource use to tackle the issues at hand. Contribution and access to data sets that provide decisions provide a greater understanding of how local decisions are made by the authority, this clarity can facilitate improved communication between the council and residents. The benefit of answering personal and community questions may encourage residents to continue participation with local issues.

The council benefit of improved community engagement should be a better council-resident relationship, improved communication channels, better assessment of council led interventions.

Tangible solutions to these issues could be local council policy change to encourage urban greening, working with residents to identify ideal locations for planting. Resident organised cycle awareness training, and road user safety forums could help rebalance how roads are used in the area without changing the physical infrastructure. Building planned community upkeep events into the Ardwick COVID-19 support group would help improve mental health, community socialisation, reduce littering, and improve the quality of green space. These are just some of the possible community led solutions that could be leveraged and measured to build improved local networks for residents of Ardwick, the reality of the solutions implemented could only be realised through the implementation of the LINKS proposal.