City Walkabout / Livehoods.orgs maps a different view of our neighborhoods


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Many of us have emotional ties to our neighborhoods and know the boundaries, but what do those boundaries really mean to us?

They were fixed by historical use, geography, roadways, built barriers and urban planning. They are really fairly meaningless, and we prove that by crossing them frequently and regularly to do things we need and want to do.

Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have created a mapping system called "Livehoods" to show -- at www.livehoods.org -- a new kind of boundary, based solely on use.

For their model, they collected data from the smartphone application foursquare, via Twitter. Foursquare claims a community of 20 million people worldwide. It's a free application that you can use to check in at cafes, restaurants, stores and other sites, in part to get discounts, in part to get recommendations from other users and maybe to impress people you "friend." Foursquare friends can follow each other by name.

For privacy reasons, the researchers did not follow specific people. They didn't want to know who was checking in at, say, a building at Duquesne University and then at a South Side coffeehouse. They were interested in those check-ins as part of a larger pattern that shows Duquesne University students use the South Side mostly west of 18th Street.

These patterns of like-minded users create swarms of preference, which are mapped as like-colored dots into what the research team dubbed "livehoods."

Norman Sadeh -- professor and co-director of the Institute for Software Research's Ph.D. program in Computation, Organizations and Society -- is leading the project with Jason Hong, associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

Their team -- including Justin Cranshaw, a Ph.D. student in the Institute for Software Research -- will present its findings on June 5 at an international conference on Web logs and social media in Dublin.

The Pittsburgh analysis was based on 42,787 check-ins by 3,840 users at 5,349 locations. The research team also mapped New York and San Francisco.

Less than a month since they went public with the results, the scientists have been swamped with calls from around the world, and people are trying to get their cities on the short list for the Livehoods treatment on Twitter and other social media.

"We'll probably do London before the Olympics" based on demand, Mr. Sadeh said.

"We have been contacted by people who do urban design work, traffic planning, epidemiology," said Mr. Hong.

"We've gotten calls from marketers wanting to know the paths of their customers," said Mr. Sadeh. "There's lots of potential in helping stores identify the best places to open new sites."

But there are also limitations: Foursquare is not the only location-oriented app, and apps by their nature are used mostly by young, mobile and more affluent people, which explains gaps where nobody is checking in.

There are also gaps in use data because people don't check in at every place, although Mr. Sadeh said there are "some weird check-ins. Someone checked-in at the jail." He said it's unclear if that person checked in as a jail visitor or resident.

It is a static map now, based on a year of data drawn from a rectangle whose four corners, roughly, are Verona, West Mifflin, Bridgeville and Emsworth. It will remain static during analysis of data but will one day breathe and show shifts as they occur.

The site allows you to click on each livehood and learn about its attractions and its hourly and daily pulse.

Shadyside has two distinct livehoods -- one that doesn't spill into East Liberty and one that does, so much so that it gives credibility to the marketing designation "Eastside."

The South Side has three -- from about Fifth Street to 18th Street, with indications that this area is used by Duquesne University students; from 18th to 24th, a livehood that stretches across the Birmingham Bridge; and from 24th Street in a huge sprawl that goes up to Arlington and St. Clair and includes part of Hazelwood.

"Computers are good at dealing with maps but not very good with local cultural knowledge," Mr. Cranshaw said. "We wanted to extract the rich cultural flow of the city."

neigh_city - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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