Tracking People Movement During the Coronation

Over the weekend of the coronation of King Charles III, I was given the opportunity to experiment with O2 Motion. This is a tool that measures connections to Virgin Media O2’s mobile masts and Wi-Fi hot spots in the UK, generating anonymized crowd movement data. Businesses can use this insight to map population footfall and plan their marketing strategies, for example.

Virgin Media O2 says that it observes between 10 billion and 12 billion “events” each day, such as connecting to a new cell or sending or receiving a text, call or e-mail. It reckons that about 35% of the adult UK population accesses its network services, and it uses algorithms to extrapolate this data to represent the entire population. The company says that the data is governed by strict privacy and security processes and is fully GDPR-compliant. It doesn’t capture data from international visitors or children.

From early morning on the day of the coronation, I noted clear people hot spots at Buckingham Palace and along the Mall toward Westminster Abbey, with crowds lining the route to be taken by King Charles and Queen Camilla. After the service, at about 2:30 PM, I saw an even greater concentration close to Buckingham Palace as people gathered to catch a glimpse of the royal family as they appeared on the balcony (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. O2 Motion’s mapping of network users at 2:30 PM

Source: O2 Motion

To anyone who followed the coronation, this will come as no surprise. But what I found interesting was just how quickly the crowds dispersed. By 3:30 PM, the capital’s population hot spot had moved north to popular tourist destinations such as Soho and Covent Garden. This probably included many royal fans seeking refreshment after a long day of flag waving and cheering.

Figure 2. O2 Motion’s mapping of network users at 3:30 PM

Source: O2 Motion

Citing its own analysis, Virgin Media O2 said that 114,000 people travelled to central London to mark the coronation. It also noted celebrations in other cities, where people watched on public screens: 2,800 at Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester; 2,100 at Millennium Square in Leeds; and 1,600 at Centenary Square in Birmingham.

Virgin Media O2 doesn’t disclose how much revenue O2 Motion makes, but its website lists a small number of case studies. One is from ExterionMedia, which uses passenger insights from the London Underground to support its clients’ targeted advertising campaigns at different stations. Another is the UK government’s Connected Places Catapult, which is using data to assess travel patterns for sustainable transport solutions in rural areas.

In May 2023, Virgin Media O2 launched its Business Movers Index, which combines data collected by O2 Motion with polling data from businesses and consumers. Published quarterly, it will highlight trends in the behaviour of the UK public and businesses.

Insights in the first report from O2 Motion show an increase in UK retail footfall in the first quarter of 2023 despite the weak economy, poor weather and train strikes. In a welcome boost to an embattled sector, high streets and shopping centres saw weekend visitor numbers increase by an average of 6% from January to March, including growth of more than 10% among people aged 65 or older (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Virgin Media O2’s findings regarding growth in weekend shopping trips by age

Source: Virgin Media O2

The report also revealed considerable growth in the number of people commuting. For example, the number of weekday rail journeys on the West Coast Main Line jumped 34% between January and March, including those originating at Liverpool Lime Street, which were up 45%, and Carlisle station, which rose by 62%.

Last year Virgin Media O2 shared data showing that peak commuter volumes into the City of London had almost doubled in the 12 months since the capital’s complete easing of Covid-19 restrictions, although they were still 27% below levels in February 2020. It also found that Wednesdays and Thursdays were proving the most popular days for people to come into the office. And, significantly for local businesses, crowd volumes at roughly 7 PM on Thursdays were 68% higher year-on-year as many stayed into the evening to enjoy “Thirsty Thursday” drinks.

Data is a vital commodity that underpins many crucial business decisions. Although I was only given limited access to the tool, I could see how a range of organizations, from city planners to retailers, could benefit from O2 Motion. As operators seek to make better use of pricey network investment in their digital transformation journeys, this is exactly the sort of service they should be pushing.