WatPop: understanding seasonal population change

Population fluctuations driven by tourism are not captured by traditional population statistics, yet in some localities tourism is responsible for huge population fluctuations during the peak summer tourist season, e.g. as experienced in Devon and Cornwall. Tourists staying within camping and caravanning sites, hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses or self-catering accommodation are poorly captured within official statistics at the small area level.

This research project is led by Dr Alan Smith in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science (University of Plymouth) and Dr Andy Newing (School of Geography, University of Leeds) with project partners South West Water (SWW) and the Office for National Statistics. The two year project with a total value of £300,000 is funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s (ESRC) Secondary Data Analysis Initiative.

The research benefits from access to water supply data provided by project partner SWW, the statutory water authority for south west England. Equivalent data are routinely collected by all statutory water authorities and, as non-sensitive and non-personally identifiable operational data, these data could have considerable potential as indicators of small-area or dwelling level population fluctuations driven by tourism.

The entire SWW network is split into supply areas known as District Metering Areas (DMAs), a contiguous set (without gaps or overlap) of around 900 metered supply areas each supplying c. 1,000 households. The project will also benefit from an anonymised sample of household level metering data.


The research team that includes the appointment of a new postdoctoral research assistant in Plymouth and a data science intern (hosted at Leeds Institute for Data Analytics). This research project will address two research questions:

1.     To what extent can DMA level high temporal resolution water supply data reveal area-based seasonal population fluctuations?

2.     Can dwelling level water supply profiles indicate seasonal variations in dwelling occupancy/usage driven by tourist activity?

This work is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/T005904/1]

High resolution water meter data is already routinely collected with high potential for research within population geography.