Cellphone data shows New York City is back in business after the pandemic

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Thursday, June 29, 2023
Cellphone data shows NYC is back in business
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New York City wants to use anonymous cellphone data to determine new traffic patterns after the COVID pandemic.

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- The city of New York is trying to figure out who's coming back to the city after the pandemic using something everyone has in their hands - cellphone data.

When you move throughout the city, your cellphone pings off different cell towers, tracking how far you travel and how long you stay.

The city wants to use the anonymous data to determine new traffic patterns after the pandemic. The city is spending half a million dollars to hire a contractor to study that data.

Eyewitness News already did some of the work, analyzing cell location data from this spring and comparing it to the same time period in 2019. We found in the downtown areas, including both Midtown and Wall Street, there is about 71% of the cellphone activity compared to before the pandemic started.

"There's a vast amount you can do with this kind of data," said Lance Ulanoff, a tech expert in New York City. "Otherwise it's guess work."

The data shows some people are continuing to work from home.

"Here I am, over three years later, and I'm still here," said Roxanne Kirsch, whose company has no immediate plans of requiring employees to return to an office. "That period of time that I would be commuting, I'm already at my computer."

According to those surveyed by Census in April and May of 2023, more than 4 million people in New York City worked from home at least one day out of the last week.

"We're all working typically three days a week in the office, I carry my phone in with me, it knows that and knows that probably on Mondays and Fridays in New York City, there's probably a third of the number of phones that are actually in the city," Ulanoff said.

The city's seeing more activity than most other big cities across the country. Chicago's cell activity is at about 56% of what it was before the pandemic according to the same analysis, and San Francisco is at the bottom at just 29%.

A few cities like Salt Lake City have more activity than before the pandemic.

"Every city is different, every city has its own problems," Ulanoff said.

In New York, there's enough vacant office space to fill the Empire State Building 26 times over, according to a recent study.

"If you're in your office only half the time, then that's half of the services you need in New York City in and around your office," said Partha Deb, an economist with Hunter College.

"We're getting close to whatever the new normal is going to be but I'm not sure we're quite there yet, but again, we'll see what the data tells us probably 6 to 8 months from now," Ulanoff said.

Here's something else the data showed - out of 60 cities Eyewitness News analyzed, New Yorkers have the longest commute of more than 41 minutes on average.

Eyewitness News analyzed cell phone activity data for downtowns from the University of Toronto's School of Cities.


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