blog | 26.10.2021 | Rhiannon Law

UBDC and COP26 – using our data and expertise to tackle the climate crisis

You may have heard that Glasgow will welcome over 30,000 delegates from across the world for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which begins on Sunday.

COP26 is the largest international summit the UK has ever hosted. There has been speculation about who will and won’t be attending and expectations about the scale of protests. Most importantly, the effectiveness of the Conference is already up for debate. Disappointingly, I have seen hardly any coverage in the mainstream media of the role of the academic community in delivering the COP26 goals.

In the opening address on the first day of the COP26 Universities Network’s Climate Exp0, COP26 President Alok Sharma said to our community of researchers and scientists: “We need you to drive solutions”. In this blog, I will explain how the Urban Big Data Centre is working to discover these solutions and helping others to access the data and skills they need to do the same.

Our research – sustainability at the core

To reach the COP26 goal of reducing emissions and reaching net zero by the middle of the century, we will need to change how we move around our cities. Plans to reduce car journeys - while increasing active travel and public transport use - necessitate an understanding of how transport patterns change. Councils need to look at the impacts on transport networks and how people use our streets and city spaces. This is where UBDC research comes in.

One project from our Urban Sensing and Analytics team has involved developing methods for measuring pedestrian and vehicle activity in Glasgow. In a unique partnership with Glasgow City Council (GCC) and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), we use spare capacity in the city’s CCTV system to generate counts from regularly captured images. The near-real-time feedback provided by this system shows how public behaviour changes depending on the location and time of day. Using the CCTV network is a relatively cheap and flexible way of capturing data that provides valuable insights into how changes to transport, infrastructure, and street design, impact the city. Over the next year, we will be working to enhance the ability of our models with a focus on detecting cyclists.

We have also shown how we can use data from a fitness app to provide planners with a representative picture of cycling activity in Glasgow and use it to understand cyclist behaviour – the routes they prefer and the places they avoid. Our researchers also used the data to demonstrate the positive impacts that high-quality infrastructure investment has, particularly for encouraging the less-confident to get around by bike.

But it’s not all about transport. Our Educational Disadvantage and Place researchers are examining the effects of living near greenspace on learning engagement. The Housing and Neighbourhoods team are investigating the impacts on neighbourhood amenities and activity from investment in local transport infrastructure and related streetscaping works. Our Urban Governance team are researching methods to assist with locating facilities (such as electric charge points) and ensuring equal access to local services. They are also looking at how local authorities use data to inform their work during crises like the pandemic. Much of our research has sustainability issues at its core.

Our data – innovation and collaboration

Research isn’t our only contribution to developing sustainable solutions. We are also exploring new data collection methods. We are currently doing a small pilot to test a range of sensors placed in homes to measure temperature, relative humidity, and air quality. The main output from this project will not be the data itself but a review of the process of collecting sensor data to produce a protocol for these sorts of studies. We hope that this work will enable others to carry out accurate and robust data collection from sensors in the future, which will be vital in measuring the impacts of climate change in our homes.

This is not a first for UBDC. Our Integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project gathered a unique and exciting collection of data looking at urban life in Glasgow: household survey and travel diary data, GPS data, lifelogging data, and Twitter data. This data is available for others to use, as is the data from our CCTV project with Glasgow City Council (openly available via a RESTful API from our API landing page).

As you can tell, working with others is essential for our work at UBDC – from individual volunteers for data collection projects to local authorities and other data-owning organisations. This collaborative approach is also what we need to tackle the climate crisis. One of the goals of COP26 is to “Work together to deliver”. We cannot work in silos. The sharing of information, like novel data sets, and skills are required if we are going to deliver on the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

Building capacity for the challenges ahead

Another goal of COP26 is to “Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats”. The Conference website notes that: “The climate is already changing and it will continue to change even as we reduce emissions, with devastating effects". I mentioned the sharing of data and research experience that is needed to address the issues we face. This does not just relate to the skills and knowledge we possess now – we must build on this to continue to tackle climate change. We must encourage more people to become data scientists and researchers to ensure that the talent of the future is used for the future of the planet.

Our capacity-building work includes two MSc programmes to equip the next generation of researchers with high-level skills in urban and transport analytics. We also welcome applications for a wide range of PhD research.

Frustratingly, there remain persistent gender inequalities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and careers, particularly in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Some members of our Educational Disadvantage and Place team are addressing these issues through the Gendered Journeys project. As the COP26 Coalition are keen to point out “we are not all in the same boat”. Research has shown that those in the global south are worst hit by global warming and the least likely to have their voices heard on climate issues. It is therefore vital that we continue to build data science and research capacity across all underrepresented groups so that there is a continuous flow of global expertise in these fields.

A collective effort

In closing his address at the COP26 Universities Network’s Climate Exp0, Sharma noted that “it is only through a collective effort, in this vital year for climate action, that we can build a cleaner, more resilient world”. Through our research, data service and capacity-building programme, UBDC will continue to play our part in this effort.

Looking for more on COP26?

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Please continue to follow our channels for updates on the projects and initiatives mentioned above. We will also be posting a series of updates throughout COP26 to provide insights into how the city of Glasgow has been affected by hosting the Conference.

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Rhiannon Law

As Business and Communications Officer Rhiannon leads the Centre’s outreach and communication activities and supports business operations and partnerships.

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