Big Data, Big Brother: How is mobile phone data being utilised?

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Lying on the desk beside you, in your hand or in your back pocket. Wherever your mobile phone is right now, I am betting its not very far away from you and that you remember how lost you felt the last time you accidentally left the house without it. Today mobile phones, and more specifically smart phones, are very much an intrinsic part of our daily lives and we are only just, globally, beginning to understand the power of the data they record and store.

It is this data and how it might be able to assist us specifically in understanding the different functions and benefits greenspace within our cities offers, that is at the heart of our Greenkeeper tool. We are acutely aware that towns and cities rarely know the visitor patterns within their greenspaces, because they don’t have access to any comprehensive data sources. Visits to parks and some wider greenspaces have traditionally been monitored and recorded via surveys, but these are often costly, time intensive and inevitably only capture a small share of visitors. But how do you improve provision if you don’t know what is working and what is not?

Smart phones are in our pockets when we go for a run, commute to work, take to dog for a walk or meet friends in the park. The location data within many of the apps we use every day, can provide information on the locations visited, time of visit and duration. Also, because apps use GPS, as opposed to cell tower locations, the location is far more accurate.

But don’t worry. This isn’t big brother. We’re not tracking your or anyone else’s every move. When using this data, we aren’t interested in or even able to track individuals. Our information is all fully anonymised (and fully GDPR compliant), and is only a one year snap shot. The value of it therefore comes in the processing of it. By aggregating and combining it with other datasets, such as Natural England’s ‘Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment’ public survey, we can build a view of behaviour patterns. The data we are utilising to build Greenkeeper, covers some 2,500 greenspaces across Birmingham, London, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool and Leeds and with a little tweaking it has already enabled us to identify variations across the UK, begin to classify greenspaces and map the drivers for each type of visit.

But there is a lot of processing to be done. For a start, not everyone carries a smart phone. Children and older people for example are less likely to have a smart phone, therefore correcting for this and other potential biases is critical to making this data work correctly.

Understanding visit patterns and what makes greenspaces successful is forming the basis of Greenkeeper, and will help all those involved in planning, investment and management decisions to create better spaces and we think, in turn, a better quality of life for the people in their cities.

Figure 1 The heat map of Victoria Park in London shows high levels of activity in the South-Western end of the park and around the edges; Source: Mobile phone location data aggregated by Factual, heat map generated by Vivid Economics, overlaid onto OpenStreeMap

Figure 2 The visitor patterns in the heat map link to the facilities and amenities in the park, indicating that these attract visitors; Source: OpenStreetMap, Vivid Economics

Author: Therese Karger-Lerchl

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Categories: Uncategorized

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