Dr. Shauna Brail, an associate professor at UTM’s Institute for Management and Innovation, is passionate about urban life, and her previous research endeavors have explored the transformation of cities following economic, social, and cultural changes. In early August of 2020, Dr. Brail and two University of Toronto students instigated the project “Toronto After the First Wave” as the city adapted to life amid the Covid-19 pandemic. As Torontonians wondered if a quick return to what they considered “normal” was forthcoming—or if a second wave would hit the city—“Toronto After the First Wave” set out to explore the impact of the initial blow of Covid-19 on Toronto’s urban vibrancy. The different possibilities and outcomes of Toronto’s fate motivated Dr. Brail and her team to collect and analyze data to understand the directions of trends in Toronto’s urban life as a result of Covid-19, and most importantly, to present their findings to the community in an approachable way.
Dr. Brail explains that at the very onset of the pandemic, the way data was used and collected changed. For example, public health dashboards were released, and the data was utilized to educate and persuade people to behave in certain ways—to set certain policies. “It opened my eyes to new ways of using and sharing data in a public domain as I have always had an interest in research,” elaborates Dr. Brail. In this novel public access to data, Dr. Brail saw a great opportunity to connect to the community by framing academic findings in an approachable manner. Her project utilizes dashboards—an easily digestible graphic interface that provides an overview of informative statistics—to collect and display data from many different sources and sectors, creating a bigger picture for the public.
When her team set out to create their dashboards, Dr. Brail emphasized the importance of addressing the question of how the dashboard topics affect urban life in Toronto. The team initially struggled to acquire data that catered to their geographical area of interest—Toronto—since data related to the pandemic was most often presented at the national and provincial levels but rarely at the local scale. This created a new challenge for many academics and curious minds.
Dr. Brail explains this situation by referring to surveys presented by Statistics Canada on the impact of Covid-19. These surveys almost exclusively report findings at the national and provincial levels. This is in part because, at the local scale, there is not enough data to make feasible promotions of policies. Dr. Brail’s project aims to provide insightful data to Torontonians, who have significantly been affected by Covid-19. “It has been a real journey in understanding real data sources, working with what we have, and trying to amplify it by looking at alternative sources,” explains Dr. Brail. Part of this process is accessing the data and teasing out the underlying messages—essentially to make it accessible to all. “Toronto After the First Wave” has analyzed Toronto in a way that has enabled its residents to realize that as a collective, they have undergone great change amid the pandemic, both for the worst and for the better.
“Toronto After the First Wave” measures Toronto’s urban vibrancy using six dashboards: public health, mobility, restaurants, economic vibrancy, work, and housing to create a holistic statistical overview of the city. The public health dashboard visualizes Toronto’s public health in the time of a pandemic. “It is really important to start with public health. If you are analyzing Covid-19 and you don’t begin by addressing the devastating public health impacts, then you are missing a key piece of information,” notes Dr. Brail.
The public health dashboard highlights the Covid-19 case curve in the city, likely sources of infection, active outbreaks during the studied period, changes in enrolment and screening methods in schools, healthcare disruptions (including surgical wait times and ICU capacities), and the surge of opioid-related deaths. Unfortunately, Toronto suffered 132 fatal opioid overdoses from April to September 2020—nearly double the number from the same period in both 2018 and 2019. With this painful observation, public health officials are urging the city to make safe supply programs more accessible.
The second dashboard focuses on mobility trends in Toronto. The first wave caused a disruption of mobility patterns and trends in Toronto. Toronto saw historically low TTC usage rates, vehicle congestion levels decreasing by 45 per cent, and a new-found collective passion for biking. Furthermore, Dr. Brail’s dashboard came to the following conclusions: visits to retail and recreation locations, workplaces, and transit stations decreased by 37 per cent, 55 per cent, and 61 per cent, respectively. Additionally, GO transit reported 7.6 per cent of last year’s ridership from April to September.
The restaurants dashboard also presented certain surprising findings. Dr. Brail explains that its goal was to show how each dining category was uniquely affected by the pandemic, with more closures of business being observed in some areas and cuisines over others. Dr. Brail and her team also uncovered how, surprisingly, many new restaurants opened between May and November of 2020 despite many restaurant employees losing their job due to their establishment’s vacancy. Toronto saw 3.58 per cent of its restaurants close and the creation of 2.08 per cent of the city’s current food service establishments. This means the food industry suffered the loss of 214 restaurants, the gain of 244 culinary ventures, and the continuation of 5,516 restaurants between May and November 2020.
“I think it goes back to the point of people’s resilience, being forced by the circumstances to be innovative and creative to come up with new ways of creating sources of income,” says Dr. Brail. She attributes this trend in the restaurants dashboard to new innovations in the food industry, such as ghost-kitchens, which lack formal seating and exclusively offer takeout-only service. With the ban of indoor dining for the majority of the studied period, all culinary establishments had to swiftly adapt or fall under the novel pressures.
The fourth dashboard on economic vibrancy illustrated the disruption of the municipality’s revenue during 2020. The year-end financial impact of Covid-19 on the city amounted to a loss of $1.885 billion. Dr. Brail attributes this deficiency to the loss of numerous revenue sources, including transit fees, parking fees, business license renewal fees, all of which were significantly below pre-pandemic levels.
Dr. Brail’s last two dashboards, published in the new year, revolve around Toronto’s trends in employment and housingamid the pandemic. The employment dashboard’s data, released on January 12, analyzes numerous sectors, such as retail trade, food, finance, insurance, and real estate, to display how many jobs were listed, lost, and acquired. Dr. Brail highlights the unfortunate decline by 10 per cent of Toronto’s employment rate, the drastic rise in remote work, and the surprising office occupancy of seven per cent in the city as of December 2020. Toronto’s employment rate almost fell below 50 per cent in May 2020, lower than the national employment rate of 52 per cent in the same month.
Lastly, the housing dashboard was made public on January 22. It illustrates shifts in housing demand, causing a change in the city and its population. The city experienced a decreased demand in short-term rentals as 25 per cent of all Airbnb listings were removed from the vacation rental company’s platform.
Dr. Brail believes it is too soon to tell whether or not massive changes are permanent, but it is possible to look at the patterns and see which direction things are headed in Toronto to address growing problems. The trends that the team uncovered are all interconnected. For instance, Dr. Brail observed that Torontonians that used public transit to get to work were also the individuals that lived in crowded housing, communities facing rapid Covid-19 spread. As seen with the attempted $2 raise, Dr. Brail believes that this data can be used to help governments make better policy choices when addressing the socio-economic consequences of Covid-19.
On the timely creation of “Toronto After the First Wave,” Dr. Brail elaborates on the extensive work done by her team, “We have all worked hard, it is a lot more work than we thought and although rewarding—it is a very lengthy process.” The looming pandemic has made it even more difficult to work remotely while still being encouraging and supportive to her team. However, Dr. Brail’s team has developed a system that allows for faster coordination of data collection using weekly meetings and frequent email communication.
“Toronto After the First Wave” was always intended for a public audience as opposed to being scholarly work aimed specifically at an academic audience. Dr. Brail hopes she and her team can continue tracking data for the betterment of Torontonians. Currently, her team periodically updates the dashboards as they uncover new data. However, Dr. Brail’s aspirations spread beyond the interactive website. “The students and I are hoping to write a public-facing piece with a summary of our learnings because each of us has learned so much from the process, and we hope to help move it to different domains so that it stays with us,” closes Brail. Dr. Shauna Brail and her team have helped Torontonians realize that they are not alone in facing drastic change and adversity amid Covid-19. Her ability to present this data in a palatable fashion has allowed us to reflect on how we can contribute for a better future for Toronto.