In the pandemic, cities are scrambling to expand cycling infrastructure: Big Data can help

post by Gregor Engelmann (2014 cohort) and Maria Catalina Ochoa

The coronavirus (COVID-19) and lockdown measures have created immense challenges for urban transport. But they also provide an opportunity for cities to rethink the future of mobility. Cycling, in particular, is enjoying renewed attention. This is not surprising, as biking offers many advantages that make it an attractive form of urban transport both during and after the pandemic: bicycles can ease the pressure on public transit systems, allow for easy social distancing, contribute to better public health, and reduce air pollution.

Yet we have a long way to go before cycling can become a mainstream transport option for urban residents. Motorized transport is often the default choice—even to destinations within easy cycling distance—and most observers are concerned that traffic will come right back once the virus subsides.

One major obstacle is infrastructure… or the lack thereof. Even in cities that have actively promoted cycling, such as Rome, Paris, or Bogotá, cycling networks are often fragmented, forcing cyclists to make use of busy and dangerous roads. Over the past decade, Bogotá has constructed 500 km of bike paths, locally known as ciclorrutas. These have contributed to a big increase in daily cycling trips, from 421,000 in 2011 to 635,000 in 2015. Despite this investment, gaps in the network and maintenance issues continue to affect the paths’ usage and residents’ overall mobility. 

If we’re serious about harnessing the full potential of cycling, it’s essential that cities address these issues and connect disjointed bike paths into cohesive, user-friendly networks. But where do you start? With limited fiscal resources, which parts of your city should you focus on to expand biking infrastructure? How can you ensure cycling investments benefit the highest number of people?

To answer these questions, urban planners traditionally rely on online or household surveys. But these are slow and expensive, often taking months or years from initial data collection to the planning stage. Recent advances in digital technology, however, are creating new ways to collect and analyze data. Insights from anonymized mobile phone data are particularly promising.

In our latest research together with the Secretaria de Movilidad de Bogotá and UC Berkeley, we used Bogotá as a case study to show how mobile phone data can improve our understanding of mobility patterns and inform the planning of new infrastructure. We first tapped into data from a local fitness app called Biko to analyze how cyclists move around Colombia’s capital and identify the biggest gaps in the ciclorrutas. We also mined data from cell towers to get a better picture of overall mobility across all modes, including private cars, public transport, and walking. We found that there are 4.1 million short- to medium-length journeys across the city every day that could be completed using a bicycle instead of a car. This clearly demonstrates that potential demand for cycling in the city is much higher than the 635,000 average trips in 2015.

Cyclist in Bogota, Colombia. Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad of Bogotá
Photo: Secretaria de Movilidad of Bogotá

Our analysis found a clear link between the presence of bike paths and the number of cycling trips tracked through Biko, while the inclusion of cell tower data highlighted how gaps in the ciclorrutas impacted the volume of potential cycling trips. We also noted that the cycling situation varies significantly from one neighborhood to the next depending on the socioeconomic context: this is particularly evident across low-income areas south of the center, where bike paths are less common and cycling accounts for a smaller proportion of trips vis-a-vis its potential. Hence the paper recommends prioritizing infrastructure investment in the southern area and in a series of specific links throughout the city to address the potential demand, where a lot of short trips are happening that are well-suited for cycling.

Already a cycling champion in its region, Bogotá is now better equipped to design a more comprehensive cycling network that would fit the projected demand and provide citywide connectivity. In an ideal scenario, that means cyclists would be able to complete their journeys safely and seamlessly without having to leave a bike path.

More broadly, our research demonstrates how mobile phone data can help gain insight into mobility trends and anticipate future needs. If used properly, Big Data can lead to better decision-making, improve development outcomes, and help decision-makers respond quickly and effectively to unexpected challenges such as COVID-19. And of course, as more and more people carry phones in their pockets, the approach we piloted in Bogotá can easily be replicated elsewhere.

Whatever the post-COVID reality looks like, it’s safe to say that data-driven planning will become an integral part of our new normal. We are excited to see what Big Data has in store for urban transport, and we stand ready to help cities make the most of it.

–originally posted on World Bank blog

Does our psychology impact our perceptions of COVID-19?

post by Vanja Ljevar (2017 cohort)

We all have a mixture of psychological traits, but we also have similarities with other people. This research was conducted to examine how people with specific psychology characteristics react to COVID-19. Who are they, what are they like and — what are they afraid of the most?


2020 has been marked by Coronavirus and by this point in time we all found our ‘methods’ of dealing with the situation. The motivation behind this research was to highlight different perspectives that exist about Coronavirus: we are all worried about something, but we also have different priorities.

511 people were surveyed and K-Means clustering was made based on their psychological traits, demographics and fears related to COVID-19. These people can be best described with 3 groups and to respond to the question from the title, yes, there are some similarities and differences between them. Everybody is worried the most about dying (as a result of getting and spreading the virus). However, our priorities change after that, depending on what kind of personality we have.

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Critical and reserved care about their finances, paying the mortgage and losing their job more than non-critical people. There are also many implications about why taking care of our mental health during this period is equally important as taking care of our physical health. Anxious people worry about the quality of their relationships and their own mental health much more than calm people. This emphasises the effect of mindfulness. This was described in the segment of ‘Mindful Empaths’, who are worried but dealing with the situation by finding their peace and optimism. On another hand, the ‘Realists’ are worried about pretty much every aspect of the virus, but their worry could arguably quickly grow into anxiety.

As a take away for future interventions, it would be worth examining the segment of ‘Relaxed Players’. This segment of young people (who like to exercise a lot) seems to be the least worried about spreading the virus. However, this research is, first and foremost, an invitation for everyone to reflect on their own traits and needs during these trying times. They are, apparently, different for all of us, but taking care of ourselves has never been so crucial. We all need to listen more closely to what we need to do for ourselves— whether it is to go for a run, invite our friend for a socially-distant walk or simply, make a plan for our finances with a warm cup of tea.

So, which group do you relate the most?

–originally posted on Vanja’s blog

Covid-19 and Cybercrime

Post by Neeshé Khan (2018 Cohort)

After being in self isolation for what feels like an eternity like many others I am also starting to get warped for what time it is. It’s hard for me to remember when things happened or which day we’re on. I’m experiencing a weird fatigue setting in which is the same for many of the people I’ve been speaking to, despite LinkedIn being on steroids. The fatigue also means that I’m finding it hard to find inspiration to write this blog but here we are – it’s Friday and things must get done. So, welcome to another blog post!

In my earlier posts I wrote about remote working and some pitfalls this could bring for your cybersecurity during Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, as more people have shifted to working from home (WFH) cyberthreats have been on a sharp increase. Some of you might be aware of Zoom (group meet up software) vulnerabilities that allowed hackers or unauthorised users to attend closed sessions which quickly became known as Zoom Bombings. Some kids innocently did some Zoom Bombings to prank their teachers while hackers used this to cause disruptions to virtual classrooms in Singapore.

The National Centre for Cyber Security (NCSC) and the National Centre in the US have issued a joint statement this month to announce that cybercriminals are using Covid-19 themed content to lure in users that are then cyberattacked.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise. There was an interesting mapping done by one of the US universities that showed how the virus moved across the US after spring breakers partied and went back to their respective homes. In the UK there have been several news stories on the BBC talking about an app by the government which will track Covid-19 infections. Given this context it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the easiest bait is for a cybercriminal. To me it’s the same as discussing that you’re planning to upgrade your home with new windows in public places (either online or in real life) and then suddenly seeing adverts that talk about a local window company or worse, getting cold calls from them. Plus, with a pandemic that’s sucker punched economies, had impacts that were unforeseen or unknown and where you have authorities proactively conceal the number of infections, it’s not surprising that Covid-19 becomes an interesting concept to explore, track and be ‘in the know’ for.

So, what can you do to stay safe online. I would suggest reading the news once or twice a day from a trusted source, ideally in static text (such as articles as opposed to interactive graphs), avoid disclosing your location to check the number of cases in your local area and always be wary of clicking links that are from people you don’t know. Even if the links are from people you might frequently speak with, be alert and notice if something ‘doesn’t feel right’ because their account could’ve been hacked. Trust your instincts with content online, listen to that small voice in your head that’s usually right and try to supress (if not temporarily extinguish) your curiosity for the time being. While you’re focusing on suppressing your curiosity, practice some mindfulness or Netflix binge watch the Tiger King.

Stay safe and my best wishes your way. Until next time!

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog