Our cities can’t wait for slow data like the census and community surveys. We need to understand how our neighbourhoods are changing now, says Neighbourlytics cofounder Jessica Christiansen-Franks.
From QR code check-ins to daily press conference with COVID-19 case numbers, the pandemic has given Australians a deeper understanding of why data matters. But human beings have been collecting data for millennia. The Babylonians were counting people prior to 3800 BCE, Chinese commercial statistics stretch back to around 3000 BCE and the Domesday Book was ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086.
The Australian Census, first taken in 1911, informs policy decisions on everything from transport to healthcare, schools, roads and buildings. It can also contribute to our understanding of Australia during a pandemic.
But our cities can’t afford to wait a year for the findings, says Christiansen-Franks. “Taken during lockdowns, the Census doesn’t tell us anything about Australians’ day-to-day lives,” she says. How people got to work on 10 August is irrelevant when that meant walking to the spare room. Instead, city-shapers need to be looking at data in almost real-time.
Christiansen-Franks and her cofounder Lucinda Hartley established Neighbourlytics in 2017 to uncover the data that is missed by traditional surveys. Neighbourlytics measures “urban life” or “everything that happens within and between the buildings,” she says.
Traditional space metrics, like gross floor area, tell us little about urban life. Postcode-level population analysis misses out on a wealth of information about the people who work in, travel through, or visit a neighbourhood. Consumer research relies on generalisations rather than diversity. Community engagement processes rarely reach enough people to uncover nuances needed to appreciate the uniqueness of a place.
Demographics can help us to create hypotheses. “But just because there are this many couples in a postcode with one child, for example, we may assume they have a set of specific lifestyle needs. This can be over-assumptive and dangerous.
“City makers are in the business of creating urban life. So, I say, let’s just measure the urban life. Let’s not look at demographics and make assumptions.”
Neighbourlytics mines social media – Instagram snaps to Facebook posts, rating and review websites, travel wikis, event promotion pages, and other dynamic digital sources – to understand the character of a neighbourhood and the lifestyle preferences of the people who spend time there. So, what has Neighbourlytics learnt about the pandemic that other data sources don’t reveal?
Firstly, the ‘new local’ is here to stay, Christiansen-Franks says. Last year, Neighbourlytics’s report The New Local revealed that our cities were becoming ‘hyperlocal’. Shop local movements have since “consolidated and continued”. Even places like that haven’t experienced acute impacts of COVID lockdowns, like in regional Queensland, “are seeing more people coming out to support local business”.
With people restricted to a limited radius, and when work is undertaken from the loungeroom, the local neighbourhood matters more than ever before – and COVID-19 is exposing gaps in neighbourhood services, Christiansen-Franks says. “In some places, people who were previously prepared to travel for fresh food, access to green space, medical services and even good coffee now have no option.”
Call it the 15-minute city or the 20-minute neighbourhood, people want access to amenity within a short walk. “The spatial distribution of places within neighbourhoods are really important now,” Christiansen-Franks notes. “Medical services, in particular, need to be local – we’ve learnt that from the pandemic.”
Streets that are mono-use – even if that is a dining mecca or culture magnet – are more vulnerable to the impacts of lockdowns than those with a diverse mix of businesses and activities. Neighbourhoods that were “our best destination precincts in the past” also carry a high proportion of “at risk” industries, like tourism, beauty, hospitality and creatives.
Reflecting on the data her team has gathered, Christiansen-Franks predicts that post-pandemic cities will be less focused on large destinations with anchor stores or events, instead encouraging a multitude of local experiences.
Christiansen-Franks has a clear call to action for the property industry. “The five-year census cycle won’t help us anymore. Sydney is different this month to last month. We need to measure more regularly to understand what is happening in our neighbourhoods. We can then respond to the gaps and strengths – and to do so iteratively.
“The way out of lockdown is uncharted, so we can’t pattern match and work the way we always have done. We need to change incrementally – and to do so with data that tells us what is happening right now.”