Few cities compare to Edinburgh during August.
Millions of visitors flood into the city to enjoy opera, theatre and classical music at the Edinburgh International Festival and the stand-up comedy, theatre, late-night music and crazy improvisation of the Fringe.
And that’s before you add in the book festival, art festival, jazz and blues festival, Royal Military Tattoo, mela and the scores of other events taking place. Anyone who’s ever tried to fight their way down the Royal Mile during the summer festivals will instantly understand the stresses and strains of coping with such a large influx of tourists.
The Fringe is the largest arts festival on the planet, and the combined summer festivals are the third biggest global event after the Olympic Games and football’s World Cup. Yet, while other cities put detailed plans in place to cope with major one-off events, Edinburgh sometimes feels like it’s creaking under the pressure.
Joshua Ryan-Saha thinks that harnessing data may hold part of the answer. As the tourism and festivals lead at the Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative, he has a grasp of the challenges being faced by different groups in the city during each summer and how data could help them.
“The busy-ness of the festivals is part of Edinburgh’s unique charm and feel, but there are challenges about managing that busy-ness and about people navigating around the city,” he explains.
“From the performers’ perspective, there’s the challenge of how do you consistently attract people who want to see your show. From the residents’ point of view, how do they get to work, how do they live without being overly ‘infringed by the Fringe’?”
Ryan-Saha points to lessons that could be learned from other European cities. In Amsterdam, imaging data from social media was used to build up maps of where tourists visited and to predict which places would be busy at which times, allowing the authorities to move people around by using longer-term marketing strategies to encourage them to visit other parts of the city.
On the island of Rhodes, Harvard Univerity’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative was used to examine the infrastructure cost of tourists coming to the island, such as energy, water and rubbish. They calculated that it needed to supply more electricity and so built a whole new power station to cope.
Yet Ryan-Saha also has a warning for those who think data could be the silver bullet for tourism. “Data is not a panacea – it’s not going to solve everything, but if used intelligently, data insights will produce marginal gains in the way people experience the city, which collectively would be tremendously significant,” he says.
“Reducing the commuting times for people by ten minutes through optimised transport planning could have a big impact for residents and students, or in helping festival-goers to navigate between venues and accommodation.
“The better use of data could allow us understand the flows of population movement, possibly through anonymised city-wide wifi or through credit card transactions, which has been used to great effect in Madrid.
“If you could make information about events as ubiquitous as a weather forecast, then that would make it easier for people to decide how they will navigate the city.
“Perhaps, if you’re looking for somewhere to go out to eat that night and you see there are 50 events on around Lothian Road, then maybe you can pick a different part of the city for your dinner.
“If you have access to data like that, you can then do some interesting analytical work to predict which transport routes will be busy and help transport providers devise new ones.
“Maybe we could also recommend walking routes for shorter journeys, especially to encourage people to explore less congested and more scenic routes.
“You can then begin to look at how you market different city neighbourhoods or the wider region to encourage people to explore beyond where the traditional coach tours would take them.
“Tourists would then get to see more of Edinburgh’ and have amazing , often unique, experiences.”
As part of the City Region Deal, the City of Edinburgh Council is keen to harness the power of data in Scotland’s capital. Councillor Alasdair Rankin, convenor of the council’s finance and resources committee, says: “Edinburgh is increasingly a data-rich city and it’s vital that, in this information age, our citizens can better connect with their city and with each other. The options for the good use of data are limitless and, as a council, we have embedded data innovation into many of our core services.
“We are already using big data to find new solutions to service issues – like our ‘bin monitors’ which help us improve our waste and street cleansing to keep the city looking its best.
“Collaboration will be key to unlocking the potential of big data in Edinburgh and we are involved in major projects as part of the Edinburgh & South East Scotland City Region Deal. As part of this, we are also working with the university and festival organisers to build a picture of our busiest streets in August – this will help us as we continuously improve the public realm and our management of the city’s festivals.”
Ryan-Saha will be casting his data net even wider on 7 October when he addresses the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) annual gathering at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It is one of the biggest events each year for businesses working in the sector.
“The power of data within Scotland’s tourism industry lies in prediction; the way we can use data more efficiently to enable tourism businesses – from transport operators, visitor attractions, hospitality businesses to events and activities operators – to plan, market and even staff efficiently and effectively,” says Marc Crothall, chief executive of the STA.
“Having access to up-to-the-minute insights also allows tourism businesses to target customers at every stage of their visit and offer an experience that exceeds expectations by signposting to destinations, events, attractions and experiences tailored to each particular audience.
“Key to making all of this work of course is data sharing across all sectors and destinations within Scotland’s tourism industry and creating a data framework that will allow that to happen. Growing Scotland’s tourism industry through the use of data is something that has become a priority for our sector and is a topic that we’ll be exploring in much more detail.”