Spotlight: Can data save the high street?

This edition of our Spotlight series explores the new London high streets data service from the Greater London Authority. We take a look at how access to good and affordable data can help with recovery in our high streets and town centres, and how the GLA is paving the way for a data-led recovery.

London has over 600 high streets. Pre-Covid, high streets and town centres already faced several long-term challenges including vacant shop fronts, competition with online shopping and higher rent– all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Decline of our high streets risks not just further economic damage, but loss of cultural and social infrastructure.

But this could change with the arrival of a new data service from the GLA that seeks to transform the way we use data to make the most of our high streets and town centres.

Future of London got a sneak preview into the potential for our city and communities with GLA’s new London High Streets Data Service – an affordable service that provides access to quality high street and town centre data for local authorities, BIDs, and other key stakeholders.

Rye Lane High Street Fruit and Veg Stand

High streets and town centres will be critical to London’s post-Covid economic recovery. More people are now likely to live and work locally. With 90% of Londoners living within 10 minutes of their high street, there is ample opportunity to rediscover and renew our neighbourhood centres – making them more inclusive and attractive for all and a setting for social and economic activity.

High Streets for All’ is one of the key recovery missions set out by the GLA in the London Recovery Programme with the objective of delivering ‘enhanced public spaces and exciting new uses for underused high street buildings in every London Borough’. To support this mission, better evidence and data is needed. And it is in recognising this need that the GLA and partners have developed this new data service to help London build back better.

Digging for data

While there is no shortage of data in the capital, much of it is fragmented across public institutions or hidden behind corporate paywalls. Cities such as Paris and New York are ahead when it comes to open data platforms. London is simply not making the best use of data currently available.

Much of the data available to local authorities relating to high street and town centre activity is not very digestible and can be hard and expensive to find. There are currently data gaps in areas like the night-time economy/activities, day-to-day services (local grocery stores, pharmacies, cafes) and the spatial distribution of industrial and commercial activities (jobs, floorspace, rents)—all of which are critical to understanding high streets and town centres.

Good quality data is essential to make sense of new trends and the way places are working (or not) as we emerge from the pandemic and recession.

“Establishing a High Street Data Service and associated Data Partnership is important in helping boroughs start conversations with partners and community stakeholders, and then to monitor interventions to reuse and bring back to life our high streets.  It helps us all take the pulse of our neighbourhoods.”

Sarah Cary PhD MRTPI, Executive Director Place, Enfield Council & Co-Chair of the High Streets Mission

Changing the way we make decisions

For the first time local authorities will be able to retrieve policy-ready data through a user-friendly interactive dashboard, with additional access to raw data for more detailed and bespoke analysis.

The new service will offer data provided by mobile phone and credit card companies to analyse footfall and spending levels in town centres.  Access to data from previous years is also provided, allowing comparison of pre- and post-pandemic activity.

Data showing spending in London 2020 to 2021
Pan-London spending levels Jan 2020 to Jan 2021. Anonymised and aggregated data from Mastercard. Where ‘1’ is the same as 2019. Source: GLA

The GLA has also partnered with the Alan Turing Institute’s Project Odysseus – that captures activity across London to better understand the city’s ‘busyness’ by using CCTV footage to identify pedestrian density on high streets. With information like this, policy makers can begin to look at answering questions such as, is the public realm functioning for people?

Data can be applied to a range of scenarios such as measuring the impact of street-work improvements, comparing high street performance, developing local strategies and cultural infrastructure plans, and measuring weekend night-time activity levels.

Created using the raw data, the graphics below highlight an increase in localised weekend night-time activity following the lifting of the first national lockdown measures in 2020. Traditional core night-time activity areas were less than 50% of usual activity, whereas outer London centres saw numbers return to pre-lockdown levels.

Night time footfall in London data 2019 v 2020
Anonymised and aggregated data by O2. Maps produced by PRD.

Identifying emerging trends like this can help us think about new innovative ways to improve our high streets – can we repurpose vacant buildings to cater for the increased demand of night activity? Does public transport provision need changing to cater for changing levels of night-time visitors? How can we use street design to better accommodate these changes in use?

As well as accessing a huge range of data, users will also be able to compare interventions other boroughs have implemented, informed by the data – providing a space for collaboration and to share best practice.

Following its launch on 24 June, the service will be available to London Boroughs, but it will eventually be opened to a wider range of users such as Business Improvement Districts and community organisations. While the service won’t be open to individuals, the GLA’s London Datastore’s London Covid-19 Resilience Dashboard provides  an overview of the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of Londoners.

Without boosting high street business, a slow economic recovery for London is more likely. “The High Streets Data Partnership will give practitioners access to the data that they need to make decisions and delivery programmes that support our high streets and town centres,” explained Theo Blackwell MBE, Chief Digital Officer for London.

The London High Street Data Service provides a much-needed source of affordable, quality data for policy makers. And could play a key role in making sense of and harnessing new trends in high streets and town centres to support a sustainable and equitable recovery.

Currently this service is only available to London boroughs, please contact Julia Thomson to request access. If you would like to be kept up to date on this project please use the form at the bottom of the London High Streets Data Service page.

In our 2021 programme Building recovery: Closing the gap we will be looking at how we create more equitable cities. We’re keen to connect with organisations involved in working in urban post-Covid recovery and equalities. If you have experience to share or are interested in partnering with FoL on this project, please contact Hannah Gibbs