Using data to understand the impact of the pandemic on London’s high streets

In collaboration with London Councils and 21 London boroughs, City Hall has launched a new service that gives London borough officers access to data on the health and performance of London’s 600 High Streets and 200 Town Centres — supporting the re-opening, recovery and renewal of these important social and economic centres.

The High Streets Data Service uses spend and anonymised footfall data across London both in its raw form (to enable bespoke and detailed analysis) and via a custom-built Data Explorer tool.

This project addresses a need for better and more easily accessible data, including critical data gaps, functionality gaps, availability of raw data and transparency of existing data. Previously Boroughs have had to negotiate directly with data suppliers or have commissioned consultants to do undertake in depth analysis and reporting — this is often quite expensive and also only gives a small snapshot of activity over time.

Taking a partnership approach we have been able to address these issues through collaboration, building local capacity, and promoting data driven decisions. This is a new way for local government to access, analyse and use data, and by pooling resources and effort we have been able to:

  • buy proprietary data more cost-effectively;
  • build a data explorer tool that is truly designed for its users;
  • get a London-wide view of High Street activity;
  • and create a space for Borough officers to collaborate and share approaches and insights.
Members of the High Streets Data Partnership

The High Streets Data Service is being used by the 21 member Boroughs to understand how different High Streets are responding to the easing of lockdown, identifying those areas that have been able to bounce back and those that are struggling to get back to their pre-pandemic levels of footfall and spend. It’s also been an important tool in reporting to local elected officials. It’s also been used to support or contest anecdotal evidence of High Streets that are flourishing or floundering, and provides a way to assess the impact of local initiatives and interventions.

The Data Explorer tool was built in-house by the GLA to give non-data experts easy access to data. It has been designed to tell the story of economic and footfall activity on a selected High Street through graphs and heatmaps. Building the tool in-house means that we have been able to quickly build a minimum viable product and then continue to adjust and update as we get a better understanding of the needs of our users.

Now, we’d like to share some examples from the Data Explorer tool.

In the graph below we can see changing retail and eating out spend in Camberwell Road & Camberwell Church Street, Camberwell in relation to a previous ‘normal’ year (we have used data from 2019 for comparison to both 2020 and 2021). You can see in the graph a definite spike from panic-buying pre-lockdown 1, then a slow uptick in spend as we reached August, two more smaller spikes pre-lockdown 2 and lockdown 3. You can also see that this High Street has recovered well during the re-opening and is likely benefiting from the increase trend in home working with higher than ‘normal’ spend in both retail and eating out.

The tool also allows comparison with other statistically similar High Streets throughout London. Looking again at Camberwell, we can see that this High Street has similar statistical patterns in terms of it’s hourly profile (all-day steady), it’s daily profile (Saturday peak), and it’s size/density profile (busier) with other High Streets spread across London. The Data Explorer tool automatically selects and graphs these other High Streets so you can compare activity.

Finally, the Data Explorer tool also provides anonymised hourly information on crowd footfall, split by resident, worker and visitor. Once again looking at an area in Camberwell, we can see a definite peak in visitor footfall on Thursday afternoons in pre-pandemic times, perhaps coinciding with a local market. The accompanying heat maps then show that this area has not fully recovered in terms of visitor footfall, with visitor footfall below average.

We can contrast this with the same heatmaps for resident footfall — in pre-pandemic times resident footfall was low during typical work hours, which then shows as consistently higher than average in resident footfall in post-pandemic times.

The High Streets Data Service and Partnership addresses a number of challenges faced by local government in accessing, interpreting and using data.

Cost

Data and insights can be expensive to buy or collect and often only offer a snapshot that is soon out of date. This is particularly challenging given the pace of change in our high streets and the need to react quickly. It can also be expensive and time consuming to properly Quality Assure data sets.

Multiple local governments purchasing, undertaking quality assurance, and interpreting the same data individually is expensive and, inefficient. It also means data is siloed and difficult to compare across London. By pooling and coordinating our collective budgets, we have accessed a richer set of data, but also achieve efficiency by undertaking analysis to answer the questions that are common to all and support collaboration.

Data Skills

Interpreting and using the data can be daunting for those unfamiliar with large and complex data sets. The Data Explorer tool allows non-data scientists to access the insights and analysis they need to undertake their work. Over time the project also aims to build capacity and confidence in the use of data across local government.

It’s important to be clear that the data we are using provides insights at an aggregated and anonymised level which does not allow for the tracking or identification of individuals or businesses.

Please note: the footfall and spend data is not open data, the GLA is only able to provide this infromation to subscribing members of the Data Partnership. We do have some open data on high streets available on the London Datastore.

@MayorofLondon CDO & Smart London Board putting data & technology at the heart of making London an even better place to live, work and visit