How have health librarians been responding to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months has highlighted the vital role of information and knowledge services in supporting health and social care, public health, and medicine.

Last month’s Annual CILIPS Conference included a presentation about #HealthLibrariansAddValue – a joint advocacy campaign between CILIPS and NHS Education for Scotland (NES) which aims to showcase the skills of health librarians and demonstrate the crucial role of health libraries.

Library and knowledge services in the health sector have faced increased pressures and a multitude of challenges throughout the pandemic as they have continued to develop and deliver vital services and resources to colleagues under unprecedented restrictions and changed working practices. With the demand for trustworthy and reliable health information higher than ever, it is clear that well-resourced, coordinated and accessible knowledge services are essential.

Supporting the frontline

Throughout the pandemic, the work of health librarians has been vital in supporting frontline workers including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and social workers. Hospital library services have been directly involved in medical decision-making, providing evidence and resources to support patient care and the training of medical staff. As the information needs of the medical workforce have changed through the course of the pandemic, health libraries have had to be fast and flexible to provide time sensitive and urgent information to those on the frontline.

A project undertaken by the NHS Borders Library Service saw the creation of a new outreach service for local GPs, which involved the delivery of targeted current awareness bulletins, resource lists, and Covid-19 research updates, all of which directly informed the provision of primary patient care and helped to keep GPs up to date on emerging knowledge about the coronavirus.

Health Education England’s (HEE) Library and Knowledge team adapted their services to meet changing workplace needs, ensuring 24/7 access to digital knowledge resources, gathering evidence on how to keep staff safe while working, and developing training programmes to support virtual working practices for healthcare staff.

Supporting decision-making across sectors

Health librarians have played a major role in informing the UK’s pandemic response at a national level, aiding public health decision-making and facilitating partnership working across sectors.

Librarians from Public Health Scotland’s (PHS) knowledge services have worked closely with PHS colleagues to coordinate Scotland’s response to the pandemic. Their work included the creation of daily Covid-19 updates for PHS’ guidance teams, distributing the latest and most relevant research on key topics, and adapting these updates in line with PHS’ changing priorities (for example as their focus shifted from virus transmission to vaccine efficacy). Librarians at PHS have also been involved in creating evidence summaries to support specific Covid-19 research projects, such as an investigation into the relationship between Covid-19 and vitamin D. The evidence gathered by knowledge services helped PHS to formulate their response on the issue and make national recommendations relating to vitamin D intake.

On 12 July 2021, PHS launched their Covid-19 research repository, which is managed and maintained by the library team and collects, preserves, and provides access to Scottish Covid-19 research. This project aims to support policymakers, researchers, and the public by bringing together Scotland’s Covid-19 research in one place and making it easily accessible for all who need it. It is also aimed at reducing duplication of effort, which health librarians had recognised as a concern during the pandemic.

Similarly, Public Health England (PHE)’s library aimed to tackle the duplication of effort across England by creating their ‘Finding the evidence: Coronavirus’ page which gathers emerging key research and evidence related to Covid-19 and makes it accessible in one place. Many resources on the site are freely available and include a wide range of resources including training materials, and search and fact checking guidance.

Health libraries have also been informing decision-making across the social care and third sectors, with NES librarians facilitating digital access to research and evidence via the Knowledge Network and Social Services Knowledge Scotland (SSKS), and providing training and webinars to help users make the most of such services. NES librarians have been involved in partnership working with organisations such as the Care Inspectorate, SCVO, and Alliance.

Keeping the public informed

A key challenge for health librarians during the pandemic has been in dealing with the information overload and spread of harmful misinformation around Covid-19.

Library and information professionals have had a key role to play in providing trustworthy information to patients and the public, helping people to make informed choices about their health and wellbeing. As previously mentioned, librarians have helped agencies like PHS to deliver clear, meaningful, and authoritative guidance to the public, as well as making up-to-date and reliable Covid-19 research centralised and widely accessible to the public.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasises the importance of health literacy in enabling  populations to “play an active role in improving their own health, engage successfully with community action for health, and push governments to meet their responsibilities in addressing health and health equity”. Health librarians have been at the forefront of efforts to promote and improve health literacy during the pandemic.

NES’ knowledge services have been delivering training and webinars to health and social care staff on how to improve people’s health literacy, and health librarians working with HEE have created targeted Covid-19 resources for specific groups such as older people and children and young people.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the work of health librarians has been crucial to the UK’s pandemic response and recovery so far, and advocacy campaigns like #HealthLibrariansAddValue are central to highlighting this important work and demonstrating its impact.

Looking forward, it is clear that innovative and high-quality knowledge services will be essential in a post-pandemic world as they continue to aid recovery, promote health literacy and support the health and social care workforce. As set out in HEE’s Knowledge for Healthcare framework, investment is required at a national and local level to build expertise and support the digital knowledge infrastructure which will be required.


Further reading: more on health from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Are smart cities at risk from hackers?

From traffic lights to bins, across the world, internet-connected technology is being integrated across all manner of everyday city infrastructure. Smart city technology can provide cities with real-time information which can be analysed to offer insights into how people interact with the city. These insights can be used to make cities operate more efficiently and ensure that cities are responding to the changing needs of their citizens. 

However, like any internet-connected device, smart city infrastructure runs the risk of being targeted by bad actors who wish to disrupt the operation of city life. 

This blog post explores the extent to which smart cities are vulnerable to attack by hackers and considers the steps that can be taken to prevent them from being compromised by nefarious actors. 

Connected and vulnerable

It’s an unfortunate fact of our increasingly more connected lives that as we connect more devices to the internet, we provide hackers with more opportunities to access our devices, compromise our networks, and gain access to personal information. In recent years, as we have added more Internet of Things (IoT) devices to our home networks, such as smart lightbulbs and thermostats, there is a chance we may be weakening the overall security of our networks. Experts have warned that these small IoT devices may not have the necessary level of sophisticated defences required to protect them from attack. 

Naturally, as these devices normally perform relatively inconsequential tasks (such as turning on a lamp) and don’t tend to host a great deal of personal data, many consumers do not consider the danger they could pose if compromised. Research has found that hackers may be able to gain access to entire home networks through hacking a single IoT device. This can enable hackers to access other connected devices, such as a phone, which holds a large amount of personal data. This can allow hackers to steal personal data, covertly spy on unknowing users, and gain access to email/social media/bank accounts. 

Therefore, as more small-scale infrastructure is connected to the internet, hackers will have more opportunities to take advantage of devices with lax security. In the context of smart cities, these vulnerabilities may be able to gain access to systems that operate critical city infrastructure. 

Smart city vulnerabilities

A key component of the development of smart cities is the fostering of a network of interconnected devices which cover a wide variety of city activities and functions. Through collecting and analysing this data, cities will be able to improve the way they operate in real-time and better respond to the needs of citizens. As such, smart city technology will have to be integrated into systems as simple as a streetlight and as complex as the public transit system. 

As previously discussed, IoT devices have varying levels of protection against hackers, and this is no different in the context of the smart city. Research conducted by UC Berkley found that small smart city infrastructure, such as CCTV systems and traffic lights, were more vulnerable to attack than more significant infrastructure, such as smart waste and water management systems. Vulnerabilities at any point of a network can allow hackers to gain access and potentially to compromise a more critical part of city infrastructure. 

Recently published guidance from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) indicated that smart cities are a target for hackers, and warned that if systems are compromised there may be “destructive impacts”. For example, if a hacker can gain access to a smart traffic management system, they may be able to take the system offline and create traffic gridlock across a city. This would cause mass disruption and prevent people from moving around, which could result in threats to public safety. As a result, ensuring smart cities are protected from bad actors will be crucial as more city infrastructure is integrated into smart internet-connected systems. 

Protecting the smart city

Although smart cities will undoubtedly be a target for hackers, several actions can be taken to protect them from attack, and mitigations can be put in place to protect the wider smart city network if a single device is compromised. Ensuring that smart cities are designed with security at their core is vital. Adding on security at a later date will be ineffective and experts believe a “bolt-on” approach may pose more of a security risk. 

Guidance from the NCSC sets out the importance of understanding who is supplying the infrastructure and being aware that some companies may have links to foreign governments who may wish to gain access to UK systems for nefarious purposes. 

Key steps that the NSCS advise should be taken to protect the smart city include:

  • Understanding the goal of the smart city and potential unforeseen impacts.
  • Examining the threats posed to the smart city.
  • Setting out the governance of smart city cybersecurity and ensuring staff have the correct skills.
  • Understanding the role of suppliers in the delivery of smart city infrastructure and cybersecurity.
  • Being aware of relevant legal and regulatory requirements (particularly surrounding data protection).

Final thoughts

The development of smart cities may provide opportunities to create cities that are more efficient and responsive to the needs of citizens. Unfortunately, as more infrastructure is connected to the internet, hackers are provided with more opportunities to disrupt systems and harvest personal data. The levels of disruption and data will undoubtedly make smart cities an attractive target for bad actors.

Therefore, to reap the benefits of the smart city, it will be vital that security is at the core of the development of the smart city, and that local authorities ensure they have a clear understanding of who is responsible for cybersecurity. 


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Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Transport’s journey to sustainability

Over the past year, our ability to travel within the UK and further afield has been heavily restricted as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of ongoing restrictions, there has been a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the UK. According to figures published by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), over the past year, the UK has recorded a 10% reduction in carbon emissions. The reason for this large fall has been attributed to the substantial drop in road traffic as a result of several national lockdowns.

Analysis by BEIS found that in 2020 there was a 19.6% reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the transport sector. Previous research found that the transport sector was the biggest polluting sector in the UK, therefore, the reduction of the number of cars on our roads naturally had a considerable impact on our overall carbon emissions.

As this year’s host of the UN COP26 climate conference, and signatories of the Paris Agreement, the UK is committed to and has a large role to play in the journey to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Therefore, as we see restrictions ease, the way we use transport cannot simply return to business as usual.

Sustainable choices

Naturally, as we return to something closer to normality, people’s need to travel and move around will increase. Whether it’s returning to the office or going on holiday, transport levels will be quick to return to normal levels, with statistics published by Transport Scotland highlighting that in the past week car journeys were only down 10% compared with the pre-pandemic baseline.

It’s unrealistic to ask people to reduce their transport to the levels seen during national lockdowns. However, we all can make more sustainable choices when it comes to our everyday journeys.

There are several options available when it comes to making sustainable choices around our method of transport. All of these options tend to focus on reducing our dependency on petrol/diesel cars, particularly, when it comes to short journeys which can be made using active or public transport.

Research conducted by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit found that switching from the car to active transport for one day a week could result in an individual’s carbon footprint being reduced by a quarter. Additionally, regularly walking or cycling has been found to improve our physical health, reduce anxiety, and improve levels of self-esteem. However, our ability to switch to alternative means of transport is heavily reliant on the provision of sustainable transport infrastructure.

Supporting sustainable infrastructure

For people to make more sustainable choices surrounding their method of transportation, infrastructure that supports active and public transport will have to be as reliable and safe as using a car. Across the UK, there is often a disparity in the choices that are available to people, this is particularly acute for people who live in less densely populated areas.

Expanding and improving active transport infrastructure is a relatively cost-effective way in which local authorities and governments can reduce the carbon emitted by the transport sector.

On top of the previously mentioned personal health benefits, research commissioned by the European Commission has found that there are many economic benefits to the deployment of sustainable transport infrastructure. There was found to be strong evidence that the following interventions had both environmental and economic benefits:

  • enhancements to public transport systems
  • cycling infrastructure
  • personalised travel plans (PTP)

The development of PTPs has been flagged as a particularly cost-effective way to help people  make more sustainable transport choices. Evidence from across the world has found PTPs are successful in reducing the number of car journeys made. Information about the state of a local transport network (for example, how many rental bikes are at a station or when the next bus will arrive), can help individuals make more sustainable choices. 

Smarter transport

For PTP to be successful, the transport network has to get smarter and provide real-time information about the state of the network. This includes information on the availability of rental bikes, the time of the next arriving bus, and if there are points of congestion that should be avoided. All of this can be used to enable individuals to make more sustainable choices that are responsive to changes in the transport network.

At Idox, we are at the forefront of designing solutions that can support the deployment of smarter transport networks. From urban traffic management and control to real-time passenger information, these interventions can help support the development of sustainable transport networks and allow individuals to make better choices.

Final thoughts

We’ve all had to make changes to our day-to-day lives over the past year to protect our communities from Covid-19. The threat posed by climate change poses a similar threat to our day-to-day lives. If we are to reach carbon neutrality, we all have to make changes to reduce our carbon footprint.

Making more sustainable transport choices is a simple action that we can all take to reduce the carbon emitted by the UK’s most polluting sector. By making these choices we won’t only be protecting our environment and local communities, we will also be improving both our physical and mental health.

However, to make these choices, the development of smart sustainable transport infrastructure will need to be a focus. Here at Idox, we stand ready to help and have solutions that can make the transport sector smarter and more sustainable.

Idox’s transport solutions support traffic management and the delivery of real-time passenger information across all modes of transport. Innovative services and solutions enable complete management across all forms of transport, supporting the safe and efficient movement of people and vehicles – whatever the end goal. To find out more, visit our website.


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Could arts and culture hold the key to the digital divide?

The rapid shift to digital content creation, distribution, audience engagement and participation since the start of the pandemic has enabled the continued experience of arts and culture, despite cultural institutions having to shut their doors. But a significant proportion of the population still face barriers to digital engagement – 7 million people have no internet access at home, 9 million people struggle to use the internet independently and 17 million people only use the internet for limited purposes.

Previous research has shown that engagement with cultural institutions such as museums and galleries, both on-and off-line, “remains deeply unequal”. Perhaps more worrying was the finding that “the gaps between the haves and the have nots are even wider online than in the case of physical visits.”

During a recent webinar by the Digital Culture Network, presented in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and their Connected to Culture playbook, the scale of the digital divide was highlighted, as was the important role arts and culture can play in addressing it.

The discussion focused on three areas:

  • Digital inequalities, barriers and exclusion
  • Knowing your audience
  • Projects that have successfully increased inclusivity

Digital divide

Kicking off the discussion on the digital divide, Jane Mackey, Senior Research & Evaluation Manager at the Good Things Foundation highlighted three key areas when we think about the digital divide:

  • digital access (7million people in the UK are excluded on this basis)
  • digital skills (11.7million people in the UK don’t have digital skills needed to engage online)
  • motivation and confidence (people might have access and some skills but lack the motivation or confidence to use it)

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that a perceived lack of need, followed by a lack of digital skills are the main reasons given for not having household internet access.  The focus has mainly been on engaging and upskilling those who already have access to digital technology. But, as the discussion highlighted, the excluded 20% would be likely to benefit more from targeted action.

Jane noted that the digital divide is not static, but is more of a spectrum that people can move along throughout their lives. Based on its current research, the Good Things Foundation recommends that the arts and culture sector commits to be digitally inclusive by default. This will help to overcome barriers to digital by engaging directly with the digitally excluded and partnering with other organisations.

Zak Mensah, Co-CEO at the Birmingham Museums Trust, similarly highlighted barriers to digital, such as the infrastructural barriers depending on people’s location. Some rural areas, for example, do not have the digital infrastructure needed for access. Even in cities, which tend to have faster broadband, much of it is focused on the centre and businesses rather than individual households.

Zak also highlighted the importance of motivation, and giving people a reason to use technology.

Role of arts and culture

While some think the key is to get everyone to have the internet at home, Zak suggested that arts and cultural organisations can help people’s access by using their physical spaces better and also by taking the technology to the excluded.

Libraries have been successful over a number of years in providing space for people to access technology with free internet and support in using it. Similarly, arts and cultural organisations are in a position to do the same through their digital tools.

One suggestion was not switching off the Wi-Fi at close of business; another was potentially reducing restrictions on what people can access using their Wi-Fi (while obviously maintaining some control) so people can use it for wider purposes.

One project Birmingham Museums managed recently involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities. As Zac said “ultimately we have to go out more, we can’t always get people to come to you.”

Zak also explained that collaboration is key – sharing resources, ideas and skills – to reach as many people as possible.

Inclusive practice

Jenny Williams, Project Director at Revoluton Arts in Luton, also highlighted the importance of new partnerships.

She noted that when lockdown first started the staff wanted to keep engaging, so moved online with the help of Zoom. Because they didn’t really know about how it worked Revoluton called upon people within the community to help teach others.

They now have a suite of materials online that can help artists and others.

Revoluton has also worked with Marsh Farm Outreach who ran lounge sessions every night with live music, working with local artists and reaching huge audiences. One session titled The Creative History of Marsh Farm was about reminiscence, memory, sharing stories of place, and engaged 6000 people. While acknowledging that such online communication is great for international reach, Jenny noted that it can also make a big difference locally.

They have also used digital tech to create safe spaces online to attract members of the community that might not have otherwise engaged. One of their residency programmes, Touch Commission, was co-commissioned with Wellcome Collection which explored the theme of touch through arts and creativity. The project was centred on Bury Park, a predominantly Asian community in Luton. The dialogue and understanding that was shown helped to engage with those most excluded.

Another project highlighted by Jane was the Power Up initiative, a collaboration between the Good Things Foundation and JP Morgan Chase Foundation, which aims to drive economic inclusion through digital in communities.

Other partnerships showcasing inclusive practice include:

  • Engaging older audiences – Birmingham Museums Trust & Arts Council Collection partnership programme aimed at reaching the over 75s in care homes.
  • Dance and Time with the Museum – Presented in a partnership between University of Cambridge Museums and local sheltered housing and assisted living services; this blog outlines how the project was safely moved online.
  • Bussy – Prompted by Revoluton’s experiences of creating safe spaces for everyone online; this is an example of a creative organisation doing the same.

Way forward

There were a number of key takeaways from the discussion for arts and culture organisations. These include:

  • it’s about knowing your audience, knowing what their barriers to access are and planning an approach to these from the start;
  • empathy and understanding that happens as a result can be important; and
  • it’s about understanding the resources you have and how they can be used, particularly through partnerships.

There’s no quick fix for breaking down the barriers to digital engagement: as Zak eloquently put it, “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. But, as the many practices highlighted during this webinar demonstrate, the arts and culture sector has the tools to make a difference on the digital divide.


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Cities on the edge: edge computing and the development of smart cities

From Barcelona to Glasgow, across the world, a trend towards making our cities “smart” has been accelerating in line with demands for cities to become more responsive to the needs of residents. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a newfound urgency to ensure that the places where we live are more resilient and are able to respond to changes in behaviour. For example, the need to keep a two-metre distance from people outside of your household required cities to take action to widen pavements and deploy pop-up active transport infrastructure to prevent overcrowding on public transport.

Over the past twelve months, cities across the world have taken a variety of different actions in order to support the almost overnight transition to what has been described as the “new-normal”. In the year ahead, it’s likely we will see further changes in resident behaviour, as the vaccine roll-out enables a transition out of the public health emergency and allows for the gradual reopening of society. Cities once again will have to be ready to react to changes in how people interact with their environment. However, the extent to which people will go back to pre-pandemic behaviours is not yet clear.

Not so smart cities

The ability to monitor and analyse the ways in which people interact with cities has been heralded as a key benefit of the development of smart cities, and as highlighted above, in some ways it has never been more important. However, the way in which smart city infrastructure currently collects and analyses data tends to be relatively “dumb”, in the sense that data is sent to a separate location to be analysed, rather than occurring on the device that’s collecting it.

Due to the sheer amount of data being transferred for analysis, this process can be relatively slow and is entirely dependent on the reliability and speed of a city’s overall network infrastructure. As a result, the ability to take real-time action, for example, to change traffic management systems in order to reduce congestion, is potentially limited.  

A good example of a device that acts in this way is a smart speaker, which is capable of listening out for a predetermined wake-word but is relatively incapable of doing anything else without a network connection. All other speech after a user has said the wake-word tends to be processed at a central server, Therefore, any disruption to the smart speaker’s ability to communicate with a server in the cloud will prevent it from completing the simplest of tasks.

This is why Barclays have argued that the future of smart city development will heavily rely upon a technology known as “edge computing”, which enables data analysis to be conducted closer to smart city infrastructure, rather than being sent to a distant central server.

What is edge computing?

Put simply, the concept of edge computing refers to computation that is conducted on or near a device that’s collecting data, for example, a smart traffic light. Data collected by the device is processed locally, rather than transmitted to a central server in the cloud, and decisions can be made in real-time locally on the device. Removing the need to transmit data before any action is taken facilitates real-time autonomous decision-making, which some experts argue could potentially make our cities operate more efficiently.

Additionally, as edge computing is not reliant upon a connection to a central server, there are enhanced security and data privacy protections, which will reassure citizens that collected data is safe and makes smart city infrastructure less vulnerable to attack. However, if an attacker were to breach one part of the edge computing network, it would be easy isolate affected parts of the network without comprising the entire network.

In the near future, smart city infrastructure will be vital to enabling autonomous vehicles to navigate our cities, making security of these technologies all the more important.

Cities on the edge

An example of the application of edge computing in smart city infrastructure can be seen in the development of smart CCTV cameras. According to the British Security Industry Association, there are an estimated 4 to 5.9 million CCTV cameras across the UK, one of the largest totals in the world. Each of these cameras is recording and storing a huge amount of data each day, and for the most part, this footage is largely unused and creates the need for an extensive amount of expensive storage.

Edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras could provide a solution to this issue through on-device image analytics, which are able to monitor an area in real-time and only begin recording when a pre-determined event occurs, for example, a vehicle collision. This significantly reduces the amount of footage that needs to be stored, and acts as an additional layer of privacy protection, as residents can be reassured that CCTV footage will only be stored when an incident occurs.

Additionally, edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras can also be used to identify empty parking spaces, highlight pedestrian/vehicle congestion, and help emergency services to identify the fastest route to an ongoing incident. Through the ability to identify problems in real-time, cities can become more resilient, and provide residents with information that can allow them to make better decisions.

For example, if an increased level of congestion is detected at a train station, nearby residents could be advised to select an alternative means of transport, or asked to change their journey time. This could help prevent the build-up of unnecessary congestion, and may be helpful to those who may wish to continue to avoid crowded spaces beyond the pandemic.

Final thoughts

Over the past year, the need for resilience has never been more apparent, and the way we interact with the world around us may never be the same again. The ability for cities to monitor and respond to situations in real-time will be increasingly important, as it’s not necessarily clear the extent to which residents will return to pre-pandemic behaviours.

As a result, smart city infrastructure may be more important than ever before in helping to develop resilient cities which can easily respond to resident needs. Edge computing will act as the backbone of the smart city infrastructure of the future, and enable new and exciting ways for cities to become more responsive.


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Guest post: Sustainable cities after COVID-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

Guest post by Anupam Nanda, University of Manchester

The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.

The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of COVID-19 could last much longer.

In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.

Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.

The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.

The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.

There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.

Green spaces have been shown to improve mental health, as well as lead to a reduction in risk of obesity and diabetes – conditions which significantly increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.

Barriers to green cities

A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.

The COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.

In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.

The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks work really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.

However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.

While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.

Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, COVID-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.

Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics & Real Estate, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more from our blog on tackling air pollution in cities:

 

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Garden communities – the sustainable dream or car-dependent nightmare?

Rather than being centred on sustainable transport, it looks like garden communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid.”

This is the conclusion of a recent report from Transport for New Homes, which examined plans for 20 garden communities around England.

The government’s vision for new garden communities, as set out in their 2018 Garden communities prospectus, is for “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come – communities which view themselves as the conservation areas of the future. Each will be holistically planned, self sustaining, and characterful.”

But rather than the self-contained communities where there is minimal need to travel, the Transport for New Homes report warns England’s new garden communities are at risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates – exactly what they are supposed to supersede.

Vision vs reality

Sustainable living, with walking, cycling and public transport playing a key role, is central to the vision of garden communities. Indeed, the documentation for each of the communities highlighted “very encouraging” intentions according to the report. Despite these visions, however, almost every garden community examined focused on major road improvements to accommodate the expected huge rise in car use:

  • around half of garden communities studied were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions
  • 90% of garden community plans appeared to be associated with road capacity increases
  • a popular model for garden towns was new estates on a new ring road. This was chosen rather than extending the town along joined up streets for easy walking or cycling into the town centre
  • a number of garden community locations appear to be actually selected to finance a new bypass or other new ‘strategic’ link

The researchers estimated that the 20 communities examined would create up to 200,000 households dependent on car use.

Far from the government’s vision of self-contained communities, “the vast majority of garden communities appeared to be put forward on the basis of fast travel out.”

Clearly, these results are at odds with the intended vision. According to the report, there were two main problems with the plans: building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport.

Opportunity missed?

With the recent recalibration of how people live and work, the need for great places to live is even stronger than ever. The current pandemic has placed a new emphasis on walking and cycling, with the benefits of living more locally coming to the fore. It has certainly accelerated more sustainable and equitable trends – to which garden communities, in the intended sense, are ideally suited.

But while new cycle lanes have been popping up in urban centres along with wider pavements in a quick response to the situation, the planned garden villages were found to be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling as a result of their remote location, layout and lack of safe routes in and out; despite active travel being an aim for almost every case.

Every vision also recognised public transport but were found to fail in delivery. Only one garden community was in walking distance of a station.

A lack of committed funding for place-making, sustainable transport and active travel, it is suggested, “may well mean any transformational potential is lost”.  Could this be a real missed opportunity to move away from the old way of place-making and embrace a new sustainable norm?

Consequences

The report warns that there are several consequences to continuing with the current proposals:

  • layout for cars not pedestrians
  • lack of green environment
  • expensive for those on low incomes
  • local shops and businesses don’t open
  • higher carbon emissions
  • inactive lifestyles; more stress
  • isolation
  • you have to be able to drive
  • parking city, not garden city, with parking taking the place of garden and public space
  • money wasted

Clearly these are undesirable outcomes. It is therefore suggested that continuing along the current path risks putting the garden community visions in jeopardy. But, the report argues, there is another way.

Way forward

It is argued that there is a need for integration of sustainable transport and land use planning so they are no longer treated separately, inhibiting the coordination of new homes along public transport corridors. A change in transport funding is also called for.

The report makes several recommendations to achieve the garden community vision:

  • Complete overhaul of planning so that sustainable transport and new homes come together.
  • Build in the right places for sustainable transport.
  • Make the funding of sustainable transport a priority.
  • Transfer funds for roads to funds for sustainable transport – be modern!
  • Change the way we assess the benefits of transport infrastructure.
  • Streets and pavements; cycle networks – design new places with layouts for pedestrians and cyclists, and public transport routes, stops and stations.
  • Quality low rise flats, mix of houses. More green, less tarmac, less space lost to parking.

Perhaps the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system will help the true garden community vision come to life. Indeed, some of the proposals have been welcomed, particularly in relation to simplifying the system to enable more homes to be built. Others, however, have been criticised with concerns raised over measures to speed up new housebuilding not resulting in well-designed, sustainable places. With the consultation due to close next week, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will ultimately do enough for the garden village ideal to be realised.


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Inclusive streets: from low expectations to big dreams

We’ve written before about the health, environmental and economic benefits of walking, and the importance of making our cities and towns more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. This was the theme of two recent webinars presented by Living Streets, an organisation that has been campaigning for better walking and cycling environments for almost a century.

The first webinar was presented by Stuart Hay, Penny Morriss and Robert Weetman from Living Streets, who explained that inclusive streets are defined spaces where all members of the community can walk or cycle.

But inclusive streets are about more than accessibility. Many streets and public spaces that might be accessible are not necessarily navigable. They can present social and physical barriers that mean the streets are not delivering equal access for everyone.

Walking Connects

In this context, Penny Morriss highlighted the work which she’s been doing with older people in a project called Walking Connects. A rising proportion of the UK population is over 65, and while many older people remain active, a lack of facilities – seating, shelter, hand rails, public toilets,  pedestrian crossings and well-maintained streets – can hinder to their ability to access services and meet other people.

In one Airdrie community studied by the Walking Connects team, residents found the lack of pedestrian access at the end of their housing complex a significant barrier to accessing the shops, community centre and church.

Robert Weetman of Living Streets noted that this community’s experience was by no means uncommon, and is not confined to older generations.

“We’re not talking about a small number of people not being able to get along a particular street; what we’re talking about actually moves into a large number of people not even being able to get to the end of their own local streets, or even outside of their gate.”

The reasons for this largely rest on the longstanding assumption that everyone in towns and cities wants to get around by car. Today, the need to tackle climate change and the recent improvements to air quality due to the pandemic restrictions, is driving a reappraisal of our car-centric cities. At the same time, local authorities, who are mostly responsible for the design and maintenance of streets, are under greater financial pressure than ever.

Challenging the authorities

The webinar stressed that citizens are not powerless when it comes to challenging councils to improve their streets. Penny highlighted another Walking Connects project in Edinburgh, where a number of tenants in a retirement development had experienced falls because of poor paving. The problem had been reported to the council many times, but residents were repeatedly told that the faults were not bad enough to warrant resurfacing. However, after working with Living Streets to document the number of falls, they persuaded the council to resurface the pavements.

Penny explained that this pro-active approach was vital, but that marginalised groups in the community often felt that their voice didn’t count:

“One of the first things that we need to do is to make sure that they understand it’s okay to ask for an issue that they encounter on a day-to-day basis to be resolved.”

A common message throughout the webinar was the need to bring local people, councillors and road technicians together. As Robert Weetman observed, once that happens communities can drop their low expectations and start to dream big:

“I think that our biggest and in some ways our most difficult priority is to create and communicate a vision of how different our streets could be, and why that would be so much better for everybody.”

People with disabilities: overcoming the barriers

The second webinar included contributions from  Keith Robertson, an advisor to the Scottish Government through the Mobility and Access Committee Scotland, and  Catriona Burness from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who spoke about the particular barriers faced by people with disabilities when navigating urban streets.

These include temporary road signs, advertising boards, bins and seating. For wheelchair users, blind or partially-sighted pedestrians, this ‘street furniture’ can make a simple journey more like an obstacle course, and can also have serious consequences. Barriers can cause accidents, and if people are deterred from getting out and about, they may experience mental ill health.

Both Keith and Catriona stressed the importance of local authorities engaging with disabled people and disability organisations, not as a tick-box exercise, but to really take their needs into consideration. The results of such consultations can be dramatic.

In Perth, for example, a pedestrianisation project did away with grilles where trees were planted, removing a hazard for wheelchair users and people using canes. At the same time, all of the signs, seats, bins and other items of street furniture were aligned, giving pedestrians unimpeded access along the street. Restaurants, cafes and shops placing advertising boards outside their establishments have to follow these regulations, or face a fine from the local authority.

People with sight loss: the challenges of social distancing

Catriona highlighted the numbers of people in Scotland who are blind or partially-sighted, amounting to over 200,000 people. This figure is likely to rise further over the next decade due to an ageing population and greater prevalence of diseases such as diabetes.

Pedestrians who are blind or partially sighted have found the context of coronavirus especially challenging. Social distancing, which is such a crucial part of preventing the spread of the virus, is very hard for people with sight loss to deal with.

One particular challenge has been the increasing use of ‘floating bus stops’. Councils have been responding to the need for greater social distancing on pavements by creating more pop-up cycle lanes, which in turn has led to bus stops being repositioned from the kerbside to ‘floating’ in-between bike lanes and the road.

For blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, such arrangements make boarding a bus more inaccessible and potentially hazardous. As Keith pointed out, accidents are usually a signal to local authorities that a design isn’t right, but if people with sight loss don’t feel safe going out, there will be no accidents to report, and the situation will be unchanged.

Final thoughts

If there was an underlying message emerging from the two webinars, it was that when it comes to accessible streets, design matters to ensure fair access for all. Badly designed streets can be frustrating, and dangerous, leaving some groups of people feeling excluded. On the other hand, well designed streets can help all of us feel good about getting around, and can especially help people with disabilities feel more independent. The key is to enable engagement between the people who design our streets and those who use them.

There was so much more useful content in both of these sessions, including a discussion on how to raise issues on street accessibility with the authorities who have the powers to make changes.

Living Streets have provided recordings of both webinars, along with transcripts of the proceedings.

Living Streets Webinar One: Video Recording; Transcript

Living Streets Webinar Two: Video Recording ; Transcript


Further reading: more from our blog on accessible streets