3 things instagram can tell you about your neighbourhood

I remember in one class at university we had to draw a ‘mind map’ of our experience of the city. You know, the kind where you draw bubbles and arrows to show the different interactions in your life, you’ve probably created one at some point. (I couldn’t find my original one, but drew another one here - my life circle has expanded a bit from that time, yet got more local in other ways).

I like these diagrams because they illustrate our experience of the city. Where we go, what we value. Who’s important to us. Our social interactions. It's these experiences that shape the places we love and feel connected to. These are the invisible attributes that matter.


Our digital behaviour – how we post and interact online through social media, ratings and reviews or location data – presents a similar ‘mind map’ of our behaviour: where we go, what we like, how we spend time. This says a lot about us. In my last post I cited MIT’s research on how location data is up to 5 times more accurate than demographic data in understanding behaviour.

I recently mapped my own personal data from Twitter using TweetsMap (kind of fun if you have 5 minutes). Around 50% of my followers are in Australia, not surprisingly, 15% in the US, the rest distributed. I have some work to do to make stronger connections in Asia and Africa.


Neighbourhoods also have digital footprints. Social data captured from unconventional online sources like from social media, crowdsourcing platforms, geo-tagged data and events creates a snapshot of place’s social life. Collectively this data, collected from thousands of places, presents game-changing information about how neighbourhoods work.  

Here are 3 things we can learn from the ‘digital footprint’ of neighbourhoods:

  • Local assets and strengths: Understand what local places are great at, not just issues, gaps and needs.

  • Social interaction: see how people use places, what they're connected to and why they’re there.

  • Identity and place attachment: gain insight into how locals describe their neighbourhood and see what’s important.

1. Local assets and strengths

What’s there: View the full inventory of a place’s functionality at once. The includes the things you can see - community infrastructure, public spaces, businesses, bars and restaurants, retail etc. More importantly, it also captures the things you can’t see – like how popular places are, how long people typically spend in a place, or something that only happens on a Tuesday afternoon.

2. Social interaction

See how people participate in local activities and events, as well as how local places influence local activity and social interaction. This matters enormously, because we know that social interaction and wellbeing are directly correlated. So more social interaction = better health and wellbeing. 

3. Identity and place attachment

One of the indicators of neighbourhood strength is a ‘sense of belonging’, or place attachment. How people collectively describe a place through images, tweets and posts, is enormously insightful into how they view the place.

instagram neighbourhoods.png

Public spaces feature strongly in this image analysis undertaken for innovation districts, undertaken by Neighbourlytics for Impact Investment Group.  

Significantly, place attachment, or what makes places ‘loveable’, is not correlated with liveability. Liveability typically describes access to facilities and services – schools, employment etc. Loveability describes people’s sense of wellbeing, social connection and belonging in a place. Both are important, of course, but the research from the Knight Foundation shows that focusing on liveability without an understanding of identity and belonging won’t lead to place attachment.

These are just three key insights, and there is much further analysis that can be drawn from the data we leave behind us every day. 

So, what aspects of neighbourhoods would be most useful to understand in your work?

Lucinda Hartley

I’m an urban designer and social entrepreneur who has spent the past decade pioneering innovative methods to improve the social sustainability of cities, now being implemented around the world. 

As a co-founder at Neighbourlytics, I bring my social innovation and entrepreneurship strengths to harness big data, and deliver community insights that inform evidence-based urban development decisions. Neighbourlytics is backed by BlueChilli Group’s highly competitive She Starts program.