The rise of the drones: Why the UK should empower cities to shape urban air mobility

There! Up in the sky! Image: Getty.

Innovation charity NESTA on what drones mean for our cities.

As the UK and Europe seek to integrate cutting-edge aerospace and smart mobility technologies in cities, the UK needs to take on a clear leadership role or risk falling behind. It must provide cities and the people who live in the information and power to shape this future.

Earlier this month, as part of the first anniversary of the government’s Industrial Strategy. business secretary Greg Clark attended a roundtable discussion in London about the future of technology and mobility in the UK. To reinforce and grow the UK’s global leadership in aerospace and mobility, Clark announced a new joint government-industry Aerospace Sector Deal to develop “Future Flight”. The deal aims to transform urban mobility through greater use of city airspace, and to spark the development of the next generation of electric planes, drones and autonomous aircraft by 2025.

Investing in technology and enabling new mobility solutions is a critical opportunity for the UK. But developing an entirely new sector requires understanding and using perspectives and capabilities across many different disciplines, centred around the public interest. This is particularly poignant when it comes to drone technology and interaction with the public and surrounding infrastructure.

Under the Flying High programme, we partnered with cities to explore the potential benefits that drones could bring as well as the risks. It was important to focus on cities because there is a significant potential market in urbanised areas; but cities, with all their complexities, present some of the greatest challenges when introducing a new form of transport and service delivery.

What has been learned so far?

In the first phase of Flying High, cities are keen to take advantage of the potential public service uses of drones (such as assisting with urgent medical transport or responding to emergency incidents) but want to place parameters on their use to protect safety and privacy and limit noise and visual blight.

Also, if drones are to bring cost savings and societal benefit to cities, they need to fly out of sight of an operator and in many cases autonomously. And it goes without saying that safety and security are non-negotiable.

A central challenge is developing technical systems alongside policy and regulations to enable drones to work in places with many people, tall buildings and varied land uses. This means involving many actors beyond the traditional aerospace sector, including local government and transport authorities, experts in ground transport and logistics, construction, planning, communications, and potential service users (such as the NHS and emergency services).

Most importantly, these systems need to be designed with input from the public.


European-wide urban air mobility

The recent announcement from government comes on the heels of the launch of a European-wide initiative, the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) Urban Air Mobility Initiative. Nesta is the UK ambassador for this initiative and at Amsterdam Drone Week in November, Nesta took part in the first forum of the network of cities across Europe engaged in shaping the future of urban air mobility (UAM).

The UAM initiative is an effort to bridge the gaps among city and regional governments and the drone, transport and urban planning communities, to shape the next generation of urban mobility at it incorporates aerial transport.

More than 20 cities have signed up to the initiative, with a number of others committing to participate and learn from its activities in the coming year, and current aims are to launch practical demonstration projects over the next 18 months. Similar to Flying High, a central tenet of the European initiative is the empowerment of citizens as the key driver in shaping technology.

Technology demonstrators and public trials of drone technology are now happening all over the world (see, AfricaUS). More than ever, the UK needs to work out its position or risk falling behind, and cannot succeed without engaging the public.

What’s next?

To build on the momentum we’ve built so far, the next steps are to develop and prove place-based urban drone use cases demonstrating technological capabilities and public benefit based on viable business cases. We are engaging with potential users – policymakers, regulators, industry, end-users, citizens – to develop the use case envelopes and design the testing environments in early 2019, to enable the launch of urban drone challenge competitions later next year, culminating in the world’s first live urban drone trials in UK cities.

Kathy Nothstine is lead for Future Cities in the Challenge Prize Centre at NESTA, working on the future of urban transport and global cities. Click here to find out more about the Flying High programme.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.