The outbreak of COVID-19 and the social distancing measures subsequently introduced by the British Government had an immediate and grave impact on transportation services in the West Midlands. Within days of the first reported cases of the coronavirus in the region, the number of passengers on busses, trams and trains dropped by more than 90%. Transportation operators began reducing services as their revenues fell and as more and more members of staff needed to self-isolate to contain the spread of the virus. Some bus, tram and rail services were suspended indefinitely, and fears began to emerge that many key workers, including doctors, nurses, carers and supermarket staff, might not be able to get to work to provide the vital services that everyone depended upon.
As Data Insights Manager at Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), Stuart Lester was among the first to step forwards with a practical approach to addressing this urgent issue. He and his strong in-house team used Esri’s ArcGIS platform to compile anonymised data on the home locations of key workers, supplied by the providers of essential services and employees themselves. They then added open source census data, showing the locations of households less likely to have access to private vehicles and plotted the locations of key workplaces like hospitals on an Essential Services Web Map. By analysing all this data with ArcGIS, the team was able to identify specific areas with clusters of key workers who are dependent on public transport. TfWM could then work with its partners to ensure transport services were maintained in these priority areas.
When the Government announced plans to set up an emergency field hospital at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham, Lester’s key worker analysis became even more invaluable. Public transport services to the NEC had all but ceased following the closure of the venue, but suddenly the NEC was the focal point for a massive logistics and emergency response operation. Lester and his team were able to use the Essential Services Web Map to identify the priority transportation services needed to get clinicians and vital support staff to the new Nightingale hospital.
The Essential Services Web Map is just one of many different ways in which Lester and his team used ArcGIS to gain and share insight about the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis. Using Esri’s Operations Dashboard, they developed and continue to enhance a website that gives the Mayor’s office, local authorities and the police instant access to the latest data about transportation services, passenger journeys and road usage in the region. This dashboard provides emergency planning groups with the insight they need to monitor the success of the Government’s ‘stay at home’ instruction and formulate new policies, as well as assess the impact of the crisis on the region’s economy.
Lester sees the TfWM COVID-19 response as the validation of a strategy that was formulated four years ago. Prior to then, transport data for the West Midlands was held and managed by an external service provider. Lester advocated bringing this data in-house so that it could be used more innovatively and accessed more quickly in emergency scenarios. Neither Lester nor his colleagues could possibly have anticipated then that they would be faced with a global pandemic in just a few years’ time, but their foresight has certainly paid dividends.
Over the last four years, TfWM has grown the team to ten people and invested in new technologies, including GIS, to enable the organisation to gain unprecedented insight from its data and share that insight quickly. “I have put the right team and the right tools in place to allow TfWM and its partners to manage business-as-usual and exceptional, unplanned events,” Lester says. “COVID-19 has demonstrated what we are capable of doing with GIS.”
Born and bred in the ‘Black Country’ region of the West Midlands, Lester has always been driven by the desire to help make the West Midlands the best it can be. Birmingham, the largest city in the West Midlands, is an epicentre for COVID-19 cases, and Lester feels proud to have been in a position to help people in his home area at such a worrying time. “COVID-19 may turn out to be one of the biggest global threats in our lifetime,” he says. “I will always look back and feel pleased that, when the virus emerged, my team and I were able to stand up and meet the needs of our local community. This is the proudest moment I’ve had in my working career to date.”
Stuart Lester - Transport for West Midlands