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Understanding London's busyness during COVID-19

The Data Centric Engineering programme, funded by Lloyd's Register Foundation and led by The Alan Turing Institute, has launched 'Project Odysseus' - using large scale data sets to understand London's busyness and enable effective COVID-19 policy.

The Data Centric Engineering programme is working in tandem with the GLA, TfL, Microsoft and leading universities to inform London’s response to COVID-19 lockdown.

London is a particularly complex and varied environment in which to understand how the pandemic has affected people’s lives and how they are responding to it. Researchers from The Alan Turing Institute, backed by and in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF), have been mobilised to provide crucial insights to help London authorities during lockdown and support planning for the future after lockdown.

Despite considerable disruption to everyday life and the economy, the public’s response to the ‘Stay at Home’ message (which was announced on 23 March) has been crucial to slowing the person-to-person transmission of coronavirus.



The Institute was already working on an ambitious collaboration with the GLA (Greater London Authority) and TfL (Transport for London) through the Data-centric Engineering programme (funded by Lloyd’s Register Foundation), with additional support from Microsoft.

Now, working alongside a team of researchers from the universities of Warwick, Cambridge, and UCL, the team has repurposed their existing models, infrastructure, and machine learning algorithms from the air quality work, shifting focus and deploying similar techniques to understand how and when ‘busyness’ is changing across the Capital in the wider context of Covid-19. Microsoft is a key partner, providing Azure Cloud and AI services, and expertise, to the project.

The remit of the project, codenamed “Odysseus”, falls under the themes which help to understand ‘London’s Busyness’, and how positively the public are responding to interventions. The project’s overall goal is to help manage the crisis, inform the return to normality, and act as a springboard to London’s economy in the long term. The outputs from this research are already providing crucial insights to the GLA’s Strategic Coordination Group (SCG) and Public Health England.

During lockdown, there has been a significant amount of anecdotal information about how busy parts of London have been. The aim of this work is to provide a more consistent picture of behaviour to provide:

  • A comparison to normal levels of activity
  • A comparison to levels of activity during lockdown (such as, the weeks immediately after March 23); and
  • A greater level of detail on changes in behaviour



The project is founded on detailed data privacy and ethical protections, with much of the data already in the public domain and other data just looking at high-level patterns and trends. Researchers are also using their expertise in detecting ‘change points’ (revealing where and when changes are occurring) and integrating the evidence from a range of heterogeneous data sources to build an intricate and granular model of activity.

The research uses open data to help explore information gathered from vehicle and transport movements, traffic cameras, economic activity and data from running apps.

The team is collaborating with London First (with its mission to make the capital the best place to do business) and The London Data Commission to understand how businesses themselves might use the busyness data to inform their recovery planning.

Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer said: “City Hall has been doing important work with the Turing on air quality and this is now being repurposed to help deepen our understanding of Londoners’ movements during the lockdown. Bringing together open data gives us another tool to understand how the capital is responding to public health measures, as well as how our high streets and shopping centres are doing, as we move from restrictions to recovery."

Theo Damoulas, Deputy Programme Director for the Turing’s Data-centric Engineering programme, is the Turing’s lead on this project and Associate Professor in Data Science at the University of Warwick. Theo said, “The data, algorithms, and outputs from our research have the potential to act as an early warning system to trigger different interventions and more targeted policies. They can shed light into how the transmission of the virus is driven by human mobility, social interaction and social distancing across the city. We are delighted to be collaborating with our university partners, the GLA, TfL and others to provide valuable real-time insights to support planning for London’s managed emergence from the pandemic.”

Jasmine Whitbread, Chief Executive, London First, said: “Data is at the heart of London’s Covid-19 response and it is vital that data experts, public authorities and businesses pull together for the response to succeed. The London Data Commission is proud to contribute to the city’s efforts in dealing with the crisis and, in due time, the recovery plans that will allow London to flourish in the future."

For more details on this project visit: https://www.turing.ac.uk/research/research-projects/project-odysseus-understanding-london-busyness-and-exiting-lockdown

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