Leeds’ longstanding expertise in microsimulation modelling and urban analytics is playing a leading role in informing industry and government strategies for restarting the economy, following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Mark Birkin is Professor of Spatial Analysis and Policy at the School of Geography and Co-Director of Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA). He is also Programme Director for Urban Analytics at the Turing Institute. Currently, he is working with Rolls Royce and other 170 international companies including Google, IBM and Microsoft, as part of the Emer2gent Alliance, to model pathways industries could take to rebuild after the pandemic.
He is also leading a group of data scientists and modellers as part of the Royal Society initiative RAMP – Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic. The aim is to provide supporting evidence and assistance to the scientists advising the government. Mark leads the urban analytics element, through his role as Urban Analytics director at the Turing Institute.
The RAMP group are modelling transmission of the virus through mobility and interactions of people and how this would respond to different policy interventions. Regional differences in infection rate are particularly of interest, as these could show that it may be safe to send people back to work or school in one area of the country but not another. “We are looking at which decisions have more impacts and where they are likely to be felt. This is a work in progress for the foreseeable future,” said Professor Birkin.
As lead academic institution in the Emer2gent Alliance, Mark and his team are working on projects focused on the economic and social consequences of the lockdown and the recovery process: “If we are to regenerate the economy, we need to get airlines and railways moving but it needs to be on a sustainable path,” said Professor Birkin.
The team are working with rail companies to chart a path towards getting back to normality. Finding the sustainable balance between market dynamics and health issues which allow railways to operate safely, is the key aim.
Companies may also have decisions to make about re-skilling people and changing working patterns as lockdown eases. Using the microsimulation techniques developed at Leeds, the researchers are working to understand how people will move around cities, especially as many lower paid people are in key-worker occupations and may not have a car and so may be impacted greatly by public transport restrictions.
“We are using micro simulation to understand the data on who these people are and where they are within cities. We are asking key questions about how they might they be affected and what are their attributes, skills and working patterns. Being at Leeds, we are uniquely well-placed to do this which is why we are involved in so much pandemic work,” explained Professor Birkin.
We are using micro simulation to understand the data... and are well-placed at Leeds to do this, which is why we are involved in so much pandemic work”.
World-leaders in microsimulation
Professor Birkin leads the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), at the University of Leeds, which is a national programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of their big data network programme. Since 2014 the facility has built bridges between academia and consumer organisations to generate a bigger perspective on society for business decision making.
The CDRC collects and analyses data evidence on consumer behaviour generated from many different sources, from smart phones to supermarket loyalty cards and travel tickets. “This data allows us to understand how people move, exercise, what they eat and their attitudes and lifestyles. This can really challenge and inform social science,” explains Mark Birkin. “Leeds is at the head of this game and is championing the diversity of understanding that this brings to society.”
This evidence-based approach adds a deeper dimension to focus group and survey information from consumers. “People often underestimate how much they drink or smoke in traditional surveys,” said Mark. “This work compliments surveys on how people say that would respond. What people say and what they actually do or buy can be different and is shown by the evidence.”
This use of real data evidence makes the microsimulation models much more powerful for large scale and long-term predictions. The CDRC works with the data owners, who are some of the world’s most innovative businesses, from key retail to financial service organisations, energy providers and transport companies. Their analysis provides insights that can help them plan strategically. It can help identify new trends and develop successful new products that fit current consumer attitudes. It can also provide valuable information about sustainability and the links between retail and health.
Microsimulation modelling for policy development
As Programme Director for Urban Analytics at the Turing Institute, Mark is leading work on national infrastructure modelling. Working with partner universities UCL, Oxford and Newcastle, The University of Leeds’ spatial microsimulation expertise is providing the government with insights to inform national infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, future housing developments and provision of water and energy services.
Training the next generation
Mark also leads the doctoral training programme for Data Analytics and Society. This is in collaboration with the universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool and funds over 60 PhD students. All the projects are partner projects with external organisations, giving students valuable real-world experience and companies access to new insights from their data. More information about individual projects can be found on the LIDA website.
If you would like to discuss this area of research in more detail, please contact Professor Mark Birkin.