The secret life of Scottish towns

What is it about a small town that makes you want to go there?

Why do people flock to Beechworth, Australia for a weekend away, instead of nearby Myrtleford?

Is it the local brewery, the historic buildings, or the local ghost stories?

Perhaps it’s the Beechworth honey shop, or the nearby cycle routes. Most likely it’s the unique combination of these things, and the specific identity Beechworth embodies because of them.   

Studies have shown that tourists around the world are weary of superficial tourist activities and value authenticity above all else. People want to experience and understand places the way locals do, as well as encounter the unique brew of lifestyles, histories, places, stories, aesthetics and cultures that are specific to place.

In a globalised world where you can buy the same hamburger in Berlin as you can in New York, how can city-makers help sustain and encourage place distinctiveness?

We believe the first step is to measure and understand it. 

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Visit Scotland recently engaged Neighbourlytics to analyse 9 towns in Southern Scotland, with the goal of using social data to gain insights into the local character of these towns.

Using unconventional digital sources, we looked at the way locals describe their neighbourhood, what they post about and what places they interact with. This allowed us to gain insights into what people value about these places, what people do within them and what lifestyle patterns exist.

Our aim was to capture the essence of each town.

Here are 4 things we learnt about southern Scotland using social data

1. Place Attachment: a connection to nature

The main commonality between the 9 sites was the connection and appreciation locals had for the natural environment.

Images of waterfalls, lochs, harbour views, beaches, forests and farmland dominated social chatter, and physical places were deemed the most relevant to local people, despite only making up 8.11% of the total places (a place in this context is a data point of a physical place – such as a café, school, museum, market, park or small business).

When we consider the full Neighbourlytics database of >300 neighbourhoods, we’ve found that people posting about places (as opposed to people or activities) is correlated with how strongly they feel about the place.

Geotagged images can also be useful in gaining an understanding of not only the main natural assets or landmarks that exist within that area, but the hidden gems.

Source: Instagram

2. A diverse range of local activities

Patterns in social chatter as well as data surrounding place interaction can be used to gain an insight into the types of activities people partake in based on location. This can help us understand the culture and lifestyle of a place and what it has to offer.

Analysing our data, we found a strong link between the geographical surroundings of a town and the types of activities, places and businesses that were popular. In seaside towns such as Stranraer and Eyemouth, we found people posting about water-based activities such as fishing, sailing and diving, as well as local seafood, coastlines and beach walks.

Popular places included fish and chip shops, beachside holiday parks and diving stores. In comparison, social chatter in the town of Peebles (a town close to mountain biking tracks) was dominated by images of people mountain biking, with a local cycling store receiving a significantly high relevance score.

Source: Instagram & Neighbourlytics International Dashboard

3. Strong community networks

One of the weaknesses of traditional data sets is how difficult it can be to work out what community groups, activities and events exist within an area. Using digital data, we’re able to identify not only what community groups exist within an area, but the relevance they have to the community based on rates of interaction.

This allows us to gain insights into local activity, lifestyle and culture. This may include religions that are significant within an area, as well as the types of professions, trades, sports and hobbies that may be prominent. Of most importance is the fact that this data is real time.

While government statistics may be able to tell us how many people of a certain religion lived in a neighbourhood three years ago, it can’t tell us that the popularity of the local Sikh temple has grown over the last 6 months, or the that the local Christian women’s group has been particularly active lately.

Using the data we were able to identify a huge range of thriving community organisations within the 9 townships. Viewing our relevance score for each of these organisations allowed us to identify the importance of the Eyemouth Coastguard to the local community of Eyemouth, the popularity of the Wigtownshire Rugby Club in the community of Stranraer, and the value of the Galloway Fisheries Trust to the people of Newton Stewart.

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Source: Neighbourlytics International Dashboard

4. Strong and active local economies

Local businesses and their online interaction rates can also provide us with valuable information about neighbourhoods. Place popularity scores and social chatter suggested an appreciation of local, historic and family run businesses within all of our 9 Scottish towns. Local businesses make up a large proportion of the most relevant retail destinations, with many of these reflecting the country lifestyle and history of the area. This is an important insight into town culture and identity. Support of local business maintains diversity and local flavour in a small town and supports its local economy. It also demonstrates the value people in these towns put on their locality.

Source: Neighbourlytics International Dashboard

Source: Neighbourlytics International Dashboard

By using digital data, we can identify the assets of a town in a fast and affordable way. Once these assets are identified, they can be embraced and protected. This can be useful not only for tourism projects, but the encouragement of place pride and informed planning.