Photos on social media can predict the health of neighborhoods

Tech 1 week ago TechCrunch 15

The images that appear on social media – happy people eating, cultural happenings, and smiling dogs – can actually predict the likelihood that a neighborhood is “healthy” as well as its level of gentrification.

From the report:

So says a groundbreaking study published in Frontiers in Physics, in which researchers used social media images of cultural events in London and New York City to create a model that can predict neighborhoods where residents enjoy a high level of wellbeing — and even anticipate gentrification by 5 years. With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, the model could help policymakers ensure human wellbeing in dense urban settings.

The idea is based on the concept of “cultural capital” – the more there is, the better the neighborhood becomes. For example, if there are many pictures of fun events in a certain spot you can expect a higher level of well-being in that area’s denizens. The research also suggests that investing in arts and culture will actively improve a neighborhood.

“Culture has many benefits to an individual: it opens our minds to new emotional experiences and enriches our lives,” said Dr. Daniele Quercia. “We’ve known for decades that this ‘cultural capital’ plays a huge role in a person’s success. Our new model shows the same correlation for neighborhoods and cities, with those neighborhoods experiencing the greatest growth having high cultural capital. So, for every city or school district debating whether to invest in arts programs or technology centers, the answer should be a resounding ‘Yes!'”

The Cambridge-based team looked at “millions of Flickr images” taken at cultural events in New York and London and overlaid them on maps of these cities. The findings, as we can imagine, were obvious.

“We were able to see that the presence of culture is directly tied to the growth of certain neighborhoods, rising home values and median income. Our model can even predict gentrification within five years,” said Quercia. “This could help city planners and councils think through interventions to prevent people from being displaced as a result of gentrification.”

The team expects to be able to assess the health of citizens using the same method, overlaying pictures of food on maps in order to find food deserts and spots where cafes and croissants are on the rise. Just imagine: all those Instagrammed photos of your favorite sandwiches will some day help researchers build happier cities.


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