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Seattle Street View Campaign gives ‘striking’ glimpse at how city has progressed during pandemic

To document how the pandemic has changed the city of Seattle, researchers are driving around the city collecting longitudinal street view surveys with a 360 degree camera.

The team behind the Seattle Street View Campaign is from the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and the College of Engineering.

“So this is a unique study because I’m aware of no other data set that exists that captures an urban region in the midst of a national crisis,” said Joe Wartman, UW professor of civil and environmental engineering. “And if we don’t capture this now, we will not remember what this looked like.”

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Since early April, researchers have been driving a 100 mile route every two to three weeks to collect street view data with a 360 camera that collects images as they drive.

“We’re going to use this so that you can move through Seattle in the midst of the pandemic to immersively revisit an area at a particular point in time,” Wartman said. “So this will be a tangible concrete record of that.”

“What I’ve seen is really striking — how many places are familiar to me and how empty they are today,” he added.

The project will run through the summer of 2021, Wartman told Seattle’s Morning News.

“The objective of the project is to capture data about the state of the city during the pandemic and then during its anticipated recovery,” he said.

Street View is the tool that’s being used get the data on the ground, Wartman explained, but that’s only the first step.

“We’re going to convert that into usable information with the aid of some AI algorithms that will count people, that will count cars, that will count other kinds of measures of business openings or closures,” he said. “We collect about a terabyte of data each day we do one of the drives through the city, so it’s an enormous amount of information, too much to really sort by hand.”

Some of the questions they’re trying to answer, such as mask use, is easier to find just by looking at images, so researchers are doing a bit of both but hoping to enhance the AI algorithms to automate more of the data extraction moving forward.

Researchers are hoping to understand simple things, like what was the average group size before and during the pandemic, and how it changes with time, as well as business closures, the types of businesses that are closed, and even the impacts on those who are living in homelessness. It can also track bus service and cars.

“This is probably our first opportunity as a society to see the impacts of a pandemic over time,” said assistant professor Nicole Errett. “From a public health perspective, we have the opportunity to evaluate the impacts of these really restrictive, non-pharmaceutical public health measures, like the Stay Home Stay Healthy order and the Governor’s Safe Start program.”

“We want to know, are people complying with social distancing guidelines?” Errett explained. “Are they using their masks? But we also want to know what happens, what are the side effects of some of these policies? Are businesses reopening? Are they shutting down? Are people using parks? How are they recreating? What are people doing differently as we go through the different phases of the pandemic?”

Anything that the human eye can see and detect, she added, the machines can be trained to detect.

The data collected will also allow the team to assess the community impact of the pandemic on business operations, transportation networks, and other community assets, as well as the rate and recovery following shelter-in-place, and how it varies based on a community’s socioeconomic characteristic. Researchers can also look at the impact of shelter-in-place policy relaxation on communities.

“What we’re going to be looking for are socioeconomic characteristics of a neighborhood,” Wartman said. “We’ll be able to get a sense of how that information varies and how we slowly start moving back to normal with time.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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