Can Social Media Predict Gentrification?

Thousands of check-ins can signal broader economic trends.

Social media may be an untapped data source for government officials when it comes to predicting economic and demographic trends. A team of researchers from several universities in London (a major city that is facing gentrification right now) gathered data from an estimated 37,000 people and 42,000 venues. They examined over 500,000 "check-ins" left by people on FourSquare and Twitter, two very popular social media apps, over a 10-month period.

From there, they were able to determine what venues and what neighborhoods brought together people of heterogeneous background vs. those that attracted more homogenous crowds. At the same time, they deduced which places attracted a mix of strangers and those that brought together large groups of friends all connected together.

Overall, they found that neighborhoods undergoing gentrification had certain commonalities that preceded the "transition" of the area. These places tended to have much richer social diversity -- marked by an influx of social media users from disparate backgrounds. These data markers were linked to rising housing prices and lower crime rates -- two of the leading signs of gentrification.

Although the team of researchers acknowledge that their data pool may be biased (given the demographics of who uses these social media apps), they remain hopeful that government leaders can embrace these technologies to make smarter policy choices that improve people's lives.

When governments conduct official census polls, it can tell leaders a great deal about what's going on in people's lives. Census data provides a host of detailed information on demographics and broad trends and, hopefully, the government can take this info and make policy to improve people's lives.

However, governments tend to rely on outdated methods for gathering all this information. For decades, the U.S. government, for instance, has relied on census workers to walk the streets of the country and talk to people face-to-face. This could change in 2020, though, when the Census Bureau is aiming to account for the majority of U.S. residents by digital methods.

Top photo: A block in London's Hackney neighborhood, one of the areas used in this study on predicting gentrification. (David Holt / Flickr)