In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure, from established leaders to agents of change, for their take on issues and challenges facing the industry.

This month we talk to Geoff McGrath. Formerly Chief Innovation Officer for McLaren Applied, where he took insights from the world of Formula 1 to drive change in the wider transport sector and beyond, Geoff now leads data science business, CKDelta.

Using anonymised data from across the portfolio of its multinational parent company, CK Hutchison Holdings, CKDelta provides insight into real-world problems and simulates potential solutions across a range of industry sectors including transport, utilities, and retail.

We asked Geoff how CKDelta can help to tackle some of the infrastructure sector’s biggest challenges.

What role can data play in supporting the case for infrastructure investment?

Whether you take the Town & Country Planning or Development Consent Order route, our system sets a high bar for developers when it comes to providing supporting evidence.  This can be time-consuming and expensive, and transport assessments are often months out of date by the time applications are considered.  We provide a more current view of travel patterns which enables developers to back up their proposals with confidence and sense-check them when challenged.

We can also get involved much earlier in the development process.  Having built models using anonymised data we can test and analyse potential solutions, helping to shape transport schemes to provide the optimal solution.  Because we can draw on more than just location data, we are able to add layers of insight that would be beyond the reach of mobile phone operators.  For example, our retail expertise might help identify commercial opportunities which developers may not have considered, or learnings from the ports sector could inform logistics plans for rail operators.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your work?

As a data scientist it is certainly an interesting time.  Coronavirus has been the catalyst for an explosion of data – from governments, the media and industry.  Over the last few weeks, we have sadly become all too familiar with a stream of statistics with which we are bombarded daily, from infection rates to hospital admissions.

What has been sorely lacking is meaningful analysis of this data to provide actionable insights.  That is something CKDelta has been working to rectify, alongside partners including the University of Oxford with who we are helping to predict demand for NHS resources.  We also ran some interesting analysis of journeys in and out of London as social distancing guidance hardened into lockdown.  This showed that, overall, the public responded well as the message evolved. However, it’s not just about looking back at what has already happened.  Our analysis could also help to highlight how the return of services could be staged to best serve key workers.

What changes will we see in a post-coronavirus world?

Many pundits are suggesting there will be irreversible changes in behaviour because of the coronavirus lockdown, with a shift to remote working the most popular prediction.  Just how sticky these habits turn out to be remains to be seen, and our data will help to monitor this.

I can certainly see there being some change to traditional travel patterns, potentially reducing rush hour travel for example.  This poses some interesting questions for transport operators who may need to respond with innovative approaches to tariff bands and more – all of which we can model, test and trial in a real-world environment.

Similarly, overseas business travel could be impacted, both because of individuals’ fears of exposure to risk and businesses choosing to source components from within their domestic markets as mitigation against disruption to international supply chains.

Has the current crisis pushed environmental concerns down the industry’s priority list?

If anything, this crisis has given us a glimpse of what the world could look like with lower levels of consumption and its accompanying externalities.  The challenge will be to maintain some of the silver linings of lockdown (such as improved air quality) while economic activity ramps back up.  We can only do this by combining diverse data sets to build accurate models with which we can trial different approaches.

For example, CKDelta works with power networks and urban planners to map future charging needs for electric vehicles.  Not only does this make for the most efficient use of electricity, it creates commercial opportunities for retailers by identifying where drivers will have most dwell time.  A perfect example of a win-win which can only be identified through a deep understanding of data.

What other big challenges should we be thinking about?

Almost every corner of the economy has taken a hit, but tourism must be amongst the sectors most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.  Cities and regions are finding out just how reliant they are on visitor spending, providing balance to the debate about over-tourism which was raging in destinations from Bath to Barcelona pre-coronavirus.  Being able to compare the visitor economy pre- and post-lockdown could help the tourism sector demonstrate its value – something it has sometimes struggled to do at both a regional and national level.

That said, it may take some time for consumer confidence to return, meaning intense competition for customers between leisure attractions.  Knowing your customer will be crucial in efficiently targeting marketing budgets which will themselves be under pressure.  Data combined with sector expertise could make the difference between full hotels or empty beds.

Are there reasons for the infrastructure sector to be optimistic about the future?

Infrastructure investment was at the heart of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ strategy and, if anything, will be needed more than ever before.   But we must make sure that, as far as possible, we future proof the networks we build.  That means understanding behaviour and modelling how it might change, something which CKDelta’s diverse data sets and sector expertise makes us uniquely positioned to do.