When Canada went into lockdown in March, once-bustling urban centres were left virtually deserted as the populace sheltered in place.
That includes Naz Ali, who heads up CBRE Canada’s Location Analytics and Mapping platform and manages Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for the company. Born in Fiji, this longtime Vancouver resident has a world view and love of data that is empowering clients. Part of her job involves using mobility data to decipher and display human traffic patterns. If you’re a retailer wanting to know where to locate a store that will attract your target customers, this information is invaluable and can be displayed in a variety of insightful ways, including heat maps.
Heat maps show traffic dynamics through the use of colour—a redder, more saturated spot could indicate dense population, educational attainment or, as we’re all too familiar with today, COVID-19 cases. Heat maps enable CBRE sales professionals to sharpen their insights and provide more precise real estate guidance than ever.
The trick, says Ali, is making sense of a ton of variable and different considerations. “We’re most helpful and successful when we come up with a story to tell from the data,” says Ali.
Illustrating COVID’s impact
As she sat quarantined in her Vancouver condo, with the economy frozen and the streets around her empty, Ali had a bold idea: how about creating a heat map that compares foot traffic levels in the downtowns of Canada’s three biggest cities before and after the lockdown went into effect.
She launched into action, pulling foot-traffic data from mobile devices that had been pinged by third-party tracking apps at Dundas Square in Toronto, Robson Street in Vancouver and Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal between January 1 and May 31, 2020. (Not all of the device data is made available for analysis purposes; just a sampling of five to 10% of the total traffic recorded by the third-party tracking apps.)
Ali took this information and indexed it to 2019 traffic patterns, creating a baseline of 100 devices. In Toronto, Dundas Square foot traffic was at just under 140 devices on March 11, the day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. From that point on, things took a precipitous plunge, bottoming out at under 20 devices in mid-April before slowly inching back up in May as some re-opening occurred.
When the data was plugged into a heat map, the results were as eye-catching as they were intriguing: a series of animated GIFs of those heat maps showed in stark relief just how dramatically traffic had fallen off in those urban nodes after quarantine went into effect, with thick splotches of dark red turning dark blue and cold post-quarantine. Montreal’s traffic decreased most sharply, by 88%, while Toronto’s dropped by 84% and Vancouver’s by 74%. “It was interesting to see how there was gradual but almost immediate change in foot traffic in those major cores,” says Ali.
A post detailing her findings and displaying the heat maps was one of the most read on CBRE’s Advantage Insights blog. And Real Estate News Exchange (RENX) interviewed Ali and spotlighted her work in a weekend feature: “Heat maps show COVID-19 effect on downtown cores, CRE.”
A visual journey
CBRE has taken a big step forward on real estate strategy by incorporating Geographic Information Systems into client work. GIS-driven applications give CBRE sales professionals a powerful tool to turn mobility data into compelling visual stories. This can help to identify otherwise unseen patterns in the data, transforming how clients select office, retail, and industrial sites. “The right location is critical and this brings the location story to life,” says Ali. “It takes you on a visual journey.”
The platform can reveal much about customer behaviour at a shopping centre; for example: which types of stores are the most visited at certain times of the day/week, where customers are coming from, and where they’re going once they leave the store. As such, GIS intelligence can reshape a retailer’s merchandise mix or the lineup of vendors in a shopping centre.
Ali’s team recently did a deep-dive analysis for a national restaurant chain that wanted to better understand its customer patterns. Using the company’s Vancouver and Toronto location data for reference, the CBRE GIS-based analysis was able to show the client where people are coming from for lunch, dinner and happy hour, where they were 30 minutes before, and 30 minutes after.
“It enabled us to create a custom trade area for that restaurant which could be replicated for future locations. In the past, restaurants would have been making their best guesses, but this makes a science of it,” Ali says.
She then took an even deeper dive, using consumer segmentation data to show where people living in that target trade area liked to vacation and what kind of cars they liked to drive. “For one location,” says Ali, “we were able to tell a client that their customers actually liked wine, not beer. That’s a potential menu adjustment that saves money and generates revenue at the same time.”
Enhancing site selection
Her team was called upon recently to assist a CBRE client who was contemplating sites for a new industrial property. The client supplied her with employee postal codes and wanted to know which locations would still be accessible to the company’s potential labour pool. CBRE created an interactive map that enabled the client to pick various locations and see the average commute times, distance, and costs for their workforce to reach each site.
This data was then incorporated into a labour force heat map to create a breakdown of the age groups in the area. The client could see if those living in their target regions were employed in construction and warehousing and if they had college-level educations. “It enabled them to understand and make a decision about where the best location would be for them to expand to,” says Ali.
Now, as Canadian cities begin to transition out of quarantine, Ali wants to undertake new analysis to determine how the re-opening of economies is evolving how consumer habits in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver change in the wake of the pandemic. “It will be interesting to do a follow up for those areas to see what’s changed with the increases in mobility,” she says. “There’s a sense that everyone wants to go back to normal, but the longer this goes on the more likely we are to see habits become ingrained.
“GIS analysis will be at the forefront of identifying these trends and helping our clients stay on top of them.”