Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on UBDC’s data services
It’s no overstatement to say that COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on all our lives.
Devastating health effects have been accompanied by a wide range of smaller impacts ranging from minor inconveniences to often upsetting disruptions. Although we may feel awkward to admit it, many of us have also identified positive side effects of this pandemic.
As one of the Economic and Social Research Council’s data infrastructure investments, UBDC was asked to join a recent meeting to explore the effects of COVID-19 on our work, and its impact on the role of data services and data-driven research. Within this blog we collate some of our thoughts, including how we’ve adapted procedures to facilitate continued and enhanced service provision, as well as some of the unexpected opportunities that have arisen.
In common with all organisations, communicating well and working collaboratively as a team has been especially important during the work from home phase. While data service staff are working remotely, it is essential to stay informed, connected and have a structure to the working day. For this reason, scheduled team meetings and individual progress meetings have taken place as usual, although they are now online. Additional formal and informal meetings have provided opportunities to share knowledge with colleagues in different teams. For the most part, tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which we’ve relied on extensively, have proven to be extremely effective and cloud-based storage and remotely accessible desktops have enabled files to be accessible from any location.
In the past, the much-vaunted promise of these technologies had seldom been put to the test, but with new-found necessity they have confounded many expectations. Highly technical or design discussions are those that have been least well served, benefitting as they do from more flexible, free form and “organic” discourse. Offsetting this, the widespread availability and accessibility of these tools has meant that connecting with even senior staff in other organisations has never been easier. Whereas a short time ago a meeting would be arranged several weeks in advance it’s now possible to easily schedule and connect more quickly, more regularly and less formally to develop partnerships and collaborations.
For UBDC staff, other than adjusting to a new physical working environment, several of the most profound impacts of the pandemic have been in terms of new opportunities. During the period, equipped with the means to provide meaningful data and methods to a range of stakeholders, UBDC has established new relationships and enhanced existing collaborations with government, other academic units and international organisations.
UBDC researchers are working hard in response to the pandemic, collecting and using new forms of data to contribute to the analysis of the economic, social and environmental impacts, monitoring activities in cities and producing short briefings. The Centre’s active publishing approach has seen a significant increase in interest in the Centre’s work, manifesting in terms of increased news and media page views and social media referrals and interest from potential collaborators in our data, methods and metrics.
The pandemic provides a demonstrable setting for the value of new types of data – the availability of good data has been integral to understanding the virus and to develop an appropriate response. For UBDC, data sourcing requests have evolved in response, as researchers prioritise data to assist in their analysis of the virus and its impacts within cities. Appetite for new forms of data that can help make sense of the pandemic is high and relevant datasets are being prioritised.
Existing data collections have also been re-purposed to provide data for the COVID-19 agenda. One example of this is within the context of UBDC’s CCTV object detection work, which was originally aimed at evaluating Glasgow infrastructural investments but now also provides a basis for assessing mobility and pedestrian populations during lockdown.
Service provision challenges and solutions
UBDC’s Data Service has always been largely based on a model of distributed access to data – in most cases, we provide data to end users to consume within their offline environments. As a result, the model has been largely unaffected by the current situation. One practical exception relates to the administration of licensing. Researchers are generally working from home and frequently have no access to technology such as printers and scanners to print, sign and scan licences. Consulting with senior contracts colleagues within the University of Glasgow, the Centre’s licensing procedures have been amended to maintain adherence to licensing conditions while accounting for these technological limitations. Scanned images of signatures or email cover notes are now accepted from licensees, who certify that they will accept contract terms and agree to sign when they can.
Another issue associated with home working relates to UBDC’s use of secure data access services to facilitate limited user access to controlled data. This has posed some challenges for a small number of researchers wishing to connect from non-University environments where this cannot be supported, and alternative technical provisions are not available.
Notwithstanding these specific practical issues, adapting the data service and research to produce insights into the impacts of COVID-19 has been generally effective. There is a growing demand for data services and opportunities for policy makers and operational leaders within government to work with UBDC. Efforts to innovate around data collection and methods, which are often quite dispersed, are showing signs of coalescence. Standardised approaches to data service provisions such as APIs, dashboards and data formats are emerging through collaboration with various organisations as we seek urgent answers to enhance our understanding of the virus and provide a more informed response.
We will continue to keep you updated on the challenges and opportunities for the data service but if you or your organisation want to know how to increase the value of your data, or if you are a researcher looking to utilise our collection, please do get in touch.
Authors: Heather Sinclair, Information Services Officer, and Dr Andrew McHugh, Senior Data Science Manager.