Guest blog by Jenny Nelson announcing the release of howbusyistoon V2 and open sourcing the code for other councils.

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Jenny Nelson

As digital programme manager for Newcastle City Council, I’m so excited to say that we’ve now released howbusyistoon.com version 2, and that the code is available in all its glory for you to take and use for your ‘toon’ (or town, if you’re not familiar with our local Geordie lingo).

Howbusyistoon (HBIT) was born in late June from a need to support a safe return to the high street, to support economic recovery and renewal, and bring back an element of ‘normal’ into our strange 2020 lives. Working collaboratively with partners across the city, we released a basic prototype which captured the imagination of thousands of users and demonstrated how urban data can be used to provide citizens with information upon which they can make individual decisions. In this case — how busy it is in the city centre in footfall and parking terms.

How Busy Is Toon Pt2
How Busy Is Toon Pt2

We were thrilled to be selected as a Local Digital C-19 Challenge project and since August we’ve been working with local digital agency, Hedgehog Lab.

You can see how the project has evolved through the show and tell slides and other blogs on our project website.

Introducing version two

The short version of events is that we went right back to user needs that told us that busyness wasn’t the only thing that concerned people about returning to the City. We’ve created a new version of HBIT (HBITv2) which reflects these broader needs and incorporates safety advice and links to other information. We also learned about the power of video stills; where showing people how busy an area is adds context to the analytics, and helps people see the situation with their own eyes.

Footfall shot up to 110% of pre-COVID levels in the 4 days prior to ‘lockdown 2.0’, so it’s a shame we didn’t have HBITv2 ready for that, but we’re absolutely ready for when the shops reopen on 2 December.

So without further ado, you can now access the code on Github! Some of the content and code would of course need to be changed to point at your own car park occupancy, footfall counters and CCTV still images. Work is continuing to make these analytics more accessible to local authorities through a footfall toolkit, meaning you may already have a lot of infrastructure in place to get started.

Reflecting on the project

Overall, our end of project retro was a positive experience and celebrated the fact that, as a team, we’d all found it a really interesting and enjoyable project to be involved in. Some frustrations and learning points included:

Thanks to Michael Mentessi, Delivery Manager at the Local Digital Collaboration Unit for facilitating our retro — and pointing out (many times!) the value of doing retros — you’re absolutely right and we all recognised that a mid-project retro would have been useful too.

What next for howbusyistoon.com

I think the jury is still out on how people will behave ‘post COVID’ and we need to wait and see whether HBIT is something that is very specific to here and now, or if there are longer term applications. For now, I’m just pleased we’ve got HBITv2 ready to go and supporting what is probably going to be a big rush to the shops.

A massive thanks from me to everyone who has supported the project, especially Dr Luke Smith at Urban ObservatoryEgle Shaw at the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, the team at Hedgehog Lab and the initial prototype team involving NE1, the National Innovation Centre for Data and the Research Software Engineering Team at Newcastle University.

Follow the project on Twitter using the hashtag #HowBusyIsToon.

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