Urban Observatories and COVID

What challenges did urban observatories face with COVID-19 and how did they contribute to city responses to the pandemic? Researchers Ariana Dickey and Carla Washbourne met with academics from a variety of urban research institutions around the planet to answer this question.

For more information on our work around Urban Observatories including the companion publication to this podcast episode visit research.unimelb.edu.au/connected-cities/projects/urban-observatories

This episode was written and performed by Ariana Dickey and Carla Washbourne. Produced and edited by Kate Murray. Special thanks to our guests Rob Moore, Joseph McCarthy, Nausheen Anwar, Alexandra Parker, Jessica Seddon, Aromar Revi, Aniruddha Dasgupta, Lia Brum, and Robert Ndugwa.

  • Transcript

    Ariana Dickey:

    Hello, I’m Ariana Dickey, research assistant at the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne. I, along with partners at University College London and UN-Habitat, have been working on a project about these boundary-spanning institutions that sit between research and decision-making called “urban observatories,” and when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the project took on new urgency. Here with me today is Dr. Carla Washbourne, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College London.

    [Ariana] So, Carla, I guess we should start first with, what are “urban observatories”?

    As you have already mentioned Ariana, observatories are boundary-spanning institutions - institutions that work between very different fields such as academia and decision-making. Their role is explicitly focused on urban knowledge about one or more urban settlements, and they perform an explicit monitoring role in terms of keeping a regular record of a range of urban issues.

    I have been involved in work on Urban Observatories for about 6 years now, having initially set up this programme of work at University College London with Professor Michele Acuto, now of U of M, and other colleagues at the Urban Innovation and Policy Lab. This work was initially particularly driven by a desire to understand how urban knowledge was being collected and mobilised to both address local level issues and respond to the global development pathways of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda.

    It occurred to us that UOs could play critical parts within these ecosystems of urban knowledge. They have existed in one form or another since at least the 1960’s, there are many of them (almost 200 by UN-Habitat’s most recent count), and they work across a diverse range of global cities.

    [Ariana] From what you’re describing I can really see how urban observatories might play an integral role in responding to the urban challenges a crisis like the pandemic would bring, especially with regards to addressing local level issues.

    Yes. The last 8 months have been a particularly unusual and challenging time and institutions supporting urban decision-making have been critical to the global COVID-19 response

    [Ariana] In August, Carla and I had the chance to speak with some of the urban observatories about their experiences with COVID-19 and the broader lessons that could be drawn from them. So what was it that positioned observatories to be able to quickly and impactfully respond to the pandemic? Rob Moore, Executive Director the Gauteng City Region Observatory, describes his experience here:

    [1min] – Rob on why GCRO was able to so quickly and effectively respond to COVID-19 thanks to skilled analysts and strong data [17:10-18:23]

    Observatories became important strategic partners to government throughout the crisis. The skilled analysts at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, for example, produced specialised, pandemic-specific outputs to clearly explain the impacts of COVID-19 on the region's population. Rob Moore here again explains:

    [1min] – Rob on using GCRO’s data to map vulnerabilities in Gauteng, including the challenges and benefits of using data to address vulnerability [10:31-11:49]

    The pandemic has provided numerous opportunities for observatories to play to their existing strengths. The Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre has been continuing to engage directly with their network of community resident co-researchers throughout the COVID-19 response period, as Joseph McCarthy, Executive Director explains here:

    [2.5 mins] – Joseph on producing action-based and participatory research with community residents during COVID, the value of having a legacy of capacity building during lockdown, and the technologies used to continue conducting research given the circumstances [29:28-31:02]

    This insight highlights the importance of having relationships, structures and capacity already in place to be able to continue engaging with and understand the realities for different communities and in supporting informal spaces in particular during COVID-19. Joseph McCarthy explains SLURC’s capacity building and support approach:

    [2min] – Joseph on capacity building and support for informal settlement residents during COVID [25:44-27:13]

    Continuing the theme of working with those on the ground to understand the real lived experience in a city, Nausheen Anwar, Founder and Director of the Karachi Urban Lab reflects on their experience in unraveling conflicting accounts of COVID realities from the government, international media and from informal settlement residents in Karachi.

    [3.5 mins] Nausheen on the conflicting accounts of COVID realities from the government/international media and from informal settlement residents [58:43-1:02:02]

    Nausheen Anwar and her colleagues uncovered many practical and ethical challenges in continuing their community-embedded research during COVID-19. Wresting with the need to ensure that vulnerable voices are heard while also protecting them from possible persecution:

    [1 min] – Nausheen on research methodology during COVID and ethical challenges in interacting with interlocutors remotely [40:56-42:00]

    While complex urban settings may often pose a challenge for robust data for a range of capacity reasons, sometimes data deficits or misinformation may be more intentional. Nausheen Anwar, spoke of their the Karahi Urban Lab’s experience of data deficits in the context of government intent to strategically obfuscate data to retain control.

    [1 min] Nausheen on Karachi’s data deficits and the government’s intent to strategically obfuscate data to retain control [1:02:05-1:03:09]

    [Ariana] In addition to data deficits, challenges regarding overloads of data occurred amidst the crisis as well. Alexandra Parker, Senior Researcher at the Gauteng City Region Observatory, discusses the importance of credibility and data analysis expertise during a time when more data exists than governments might know what to do with.

    [2mins] – Alex on the importance of credibility and data analysis expertise at a time when we are inundated with data without necessarily knowing what to do with it [45:34-47:12]

    [Ariana] This observation about data overloads raises an interesting possibility for the role urban observatories might play in the future. Here’s Jessica Seddon, Global Lead for Air Quality at the World Resources Institute Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities

    [1 min] – Jessica on the tensions between speed of analysis and depth/correctness of data at the height of a crisis like COVID, highlighting the need for credible and nimble institutions who can do both [37:50-39:04]

    Looking beyond the boundaries of COVID-19, observatories have provided an important role in acting as collective memory by providing continuity and acting a bridge between how things were, how things are, and new imaginaries of how things could be. Aromar Revi Founding Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements explains more:

    [2 mins] – Aromar on gaps exposed by COVID-19 and value of observatories acting as collective memory by providing continuity and acting a bridge between how things were, how things are, and new imaginaries of how things could be [1:09:22-1:11:13]

    As well as providing an important knowledge resource, in a setting where there is a very real lack of state-level data, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements were also engaged in very practical ways during the pandemic, acting upon their explicit social inclusion mission through engagements and experiments:

    [2 mins] – Aromar on institutionalising social protection through social experiments during COVID [50:05-51:52]

    The pandemic has been ultimately a city-level crisis – and yet recovery funds are primarily being directed towards national ministries. Aniruddha Dasgupta, Global Director of the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities explains here why these funds should be directed towards cities instead.

    [1min] Ani on why funds should go to cities because COVID is a distinctly city-level crisis but are being allocated to national ministries [50:30-51:27]

    The crisis has revealed the vulnerability of urban systems, such as health, job markets, and infrastructure. Urban observatories thus play an important role in advocating to government to invest in "building back better" for a more resilient and equitable future.  Aniruddha Dasgupta explains further:

    [2mins] – Ani on why we need to “build back better” and fears about recovery fund allocation that will not go to cities – where it is needed, especially in light of this crisis [34:21-35:10]

    As I mentioned at the start of the podcast, our work on urban observatories was originally particularly driven by a desire to understand the relationship between urban knowledge, local and global issues. Lia Brum, Metropolis Observatory Officer at the Metropolis Secretariat General reflects here on how these can positively align through a common set of indicators.

    [1.5 mins] – Lia on the importance of sticking to a common set of indicators for global comparison and the possibility of making better use of SDG indicators rather than trying to re-invent the wheel [1:43:05-1:44:36]

    Throughout these examples, the work of observatories has been shown as demonstrably important to local-level decision-making and action. However, bringing these insights together to look at and compare good work being done across a range of international contexts is still very challenging. Lia Brum explains more:

    [3mins] – Lia on the challenges of working internationally and comparatively, highlighting the need for finding common ground and working systematically – how can we make observatory outputs to be valuable in decision-making process? [1:21:34-1:24:12]

    These cases and stories have shown us the positive impacts of observatory work at the local scale. Simultaneously, the networking activities of urban observatories have been equally important in order for learnings and responses to the crisis to be shared between localities. Robert Ndugwa, Head of Data and Analytics at UN Habitat, explains:

    [2mins] Robert Ndugwa’s closing on the need for local data to complement global narratives in order to make a difference in the lives of people and on the importance of city networking for facing contemporary challenges [1:45:46 – 1:47:56]

    The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore a number of existing strengths and opportunities for improvement for urban observatories. Having a repository of baseline data, access to research knowledge, and networks of information that can quickly be acted upon in a time of crisis has proven to be invaluable for observatories as boundary institutions driven by the production of advice and evidence-based input into decision-making. This baselining approach can ensure some resilience of the data systems to the next crisis, whether that be another pandemic, a natural disaster, or another unexpected fault. And, in fact, this approach has perhaps revealed the weakness of state data capacities that was larger than previously known. Observatories have also performed significant work in mobilising communities and standing in to form effective bridges between communities and decision-makers.

    As a result of restrictions in place due to the pandemic, we also heard about new research methods as well as the challenges associated with them – both technologically and ethically – which perhaps underscores the necessity to think carefully about the subjects of research and the providers of data.

    These insights are incredibly helpful in illustrating why, how and where the knowledge and experience of observatories has been leveraged in the COVID-19 response. But they also speak much more broadly about the role and value of observatories in urban knowledge and decision-making. The pandemic has required a modal shift in some areas, expanding observatories roles in direct community support, and knowledge coordination and brokerage. But, in large part has required existing observatories to perform their day to day functions more rapidly, under greater demand pressure and scrutiny and in the context of ever more intimate entanglement between the different institutions that their work spans. This has been a challenging but illuminating time for the role of urban observatories and I hope to see their role further studied and recognised in future.

    [Ariana] Thanks, Carla, for joining me today, and thank you to our colleagues at the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Gauteng City-Region Observatory, Karachi Urban Lab, World Resources Institute: Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, and Metropolis for their invaluable insights.

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Ariana Dickey

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