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Develop With Data: How Social Media Is Shaping Our Cities

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Developers can’t create human-centred places without data about people, Neighbourlytics chief innovation officer Lucinda Hartley says.

Hartley, along with co-founder Jessica Christiansen-Franks, founded Melbourne-based tech start-up Neighbourlytics.

Founded in October 2017, drawing on years of experience in urban planning, the duo created the data analytics company to pool publicly-available data from sources such as Facebook, Instagram and TripAdvisor to understand emerging habits and trends in a particular urban area.

The collective data aims to steer governments, town planners, property developers and asset managers in delivering “better economic and social value in communities”.

“Everyday we leave millions of data points behind about what we value and where we spend time through online platforms, consciously and unconsciously,” Hartley tells The Urban Developer.

“If you look at this at a population scale, from a neighbourhood level, you can pinpoint really interesting trends.”

Last month, Neighbourlytics attracted the backing of industry leader and Reserve Bank board member, Carol Schwartz, closing a $1.25 million seed investment round.

▲ The company’s global client list now includes over 60 of the world’s top city shapers. Image: Supplied
▲ The company’s global client list now includes over 60 of the world’s top city shapers. Image: Supplied


In the lead up to Urbanity ’19, we caught up with Hartley to discuss big data and its role in placemaking and city shaping.

You can catch her, and a host of other speakers at Urbanity, 23-24 October 2019.


TUD: What is placemaking? How has it evolved and how does it work?

LH: Placemaking in my view, is about creating places that people love and feel connected to. Because it involves human experience, it's as much a social process as it is a physical one.

You can plan building heights, footpath widths, the floor area of retail. Human experience and connection is messier, it's hard to understand and predict. But if we don’t get the human side right, places will fail.

For great placemaking to work it needs to involve the right mix of planning and design, as well as community engagement and local leadership to ensure that its fit for purpose and can be maintained in the long term. It’s top-down and bottom-up at the same time.


TUD: What is social data? How can it be useful for understanding places?

LH: You can’t create human centred places without data about people. It’s like trying to optimise traffic without any transport data. Neighbourlytics solves this problem by creating social data for places, based on the big data footprint of a neighbourhood.

We use this to measure and quantify the human side of places - the lifestyle, experience, social and cultural life. This is often the missing piece of the puzzle.

▲ “We know the building height, the traffic density or parking [square metres], but we don’t know if people like it, whether they use it or what they value. This is critical information for great placemaking.” - Lucinda Hartley
▲ “We know the building height, the traffic density or parking [square metres], but we don’t know if people like it, whether they use it or what they value. This is critical information for great placemaking.” - Lucinda Hartley

TUD: How did your experience with CoDesign Studio open you up to the world of prop tech/big data and understanding the value in mapping demographics, patterns and trends?

LH: I’ve spent the past decade working across a range of domains in city-making, from multi-national consultancies, to the United Nations (UN-Habitat) and most recently at CoDesign Studio.

CoDesign has a really innovative approach to placemaking which has spear-headed new approaches to placemaking which enables people and communities to more effectively lead local change.

I became interested in big data but I was really curious to find better ways to measure and quantify the things that really matter about cities.

We all know that lifestyle, experience, social and cultural life matter enormously, but you can’t manage what you can’t measure. I was frustrated doing surveys or standing on street corners taking observations about places.

These tools can be good for a one-off project but they’re very difficult to replicate and impossible to scale.


TUD: We now live in an age of social branding and a review driven thumb-up thumb-down culture, how is our digitised behaviour translating into useable data that is now shaping of our cities?

LH: Everyday we leave millions of data points behind about what we value and where we spend time through online platforms - consciously and unconsciously.

If you look at this at a population scale (neighbourhood level) you can pin-point really interesting trends.

Like in Sydney’s Mosman people value parks and nature, while in Randwick people spend the most time accessing community services.

▲ “Neighbourlytics taps into this rich data to create insights about what people like and what they value.” - Lucinda Hartley
▲ “Neighbourlytics taps into this rich data to create insights about what people like and what they value.” - Lucinda Hartley

TUD: You have worked with big players like Lendlease and Stockland who see big value in big data. What have been the biggest takeaways from your experiences with some of Australia's leading property developers?

LH: We work across a wide range of portfolios with the big players, including the communities team, sustainability, retail and urban revitalisation.

Each of these teams is working to solve different challenges. Because social data is very dense and descriptive, it can provide insight across a range of questions. Examples include:

  • By communities and sustainability teams to measure liveability across new communities, including looking at the types of activity, use of different places and what people engage with.

  • By leasing agents and retail managers to identify the best tenants for a town centre or main street, based on an understanding of where people are spending time and what’s working well

  • Global benchmarking, comparing city performance of neighbourhoods around the world in order to help define what types of buildings, activities and programs have been successful.

Our biggest takeaways is that neighbourhoods are not always what they seem.

We make a lot of assumptions based on what we think people will do or how they will behave based on their demographic. People are much more complex than that. For example a lot of greenfield communities have really high densities of home-based businesses. They are not the family-based dormitory suburbs you might expect. They are business precincts.


What are your personal views on social media? What role does it play on a personal level and business level and where do you see information technology (especially social tech) heading in the next five to 10 years?

The volumes of data about cities, and particularly people in cities, are only becoming greater which offers opportunity for a whole range of insights to optimise how we work.

Neighbourlytics only looks at place data (how busy the park is, the opening hours of a cafe) not personal information, so while we don’t have personal data concerns we are actively involved in data privacy and data transparency. These are important debates for our sector.

In terms of where things are going, we believe that we are entering a new work era where it will no longer be acceptable to make decisions without a solid evidence base to back it up.

▲ “There will be no excuses. As data becomes more ubiquitous with practice we see that the role of consultants in the future will be to shape the parameters of data algorithms and exploration, rather than provide expert opinion.” - Lucinda Hartley
▲ “There will be no excuses. As data becomes more ubiquitous with practice we see that the role of consultants in the future will be to shape the parameters of data algorithms and exploration, rather than provide expert opinion.” - Lucinda Hartley

TUD: Can you talk about the seed round and what it means for your business and users?

LH: In the past year we’ve worked with customers around the globe - in more than 500 neighbourhoods and 10 countries. We have more customers than we can service which is a good problem to have.

We’ve raised capital to invest in building this new product and to accelerate our growth. We’ve learned a lot about our data and the opportunities in the past year. This has helped us identify a whole lot of new product insights we want to build to provide better value to customers - particularly the ability to benchmark cities and to compare change over time more easily.

Raising capital has also allowed us to align ourselves with strategic investors like Carol Schwartz's Trawalla Group and Scale Capital.


TUD: And finally, a few fun facts... A recent book you enjoyed?

LH: I recently read Michelle Obama’s Becoming which was challenging, inspiring, and made transparent some of the very systemic issues of privilege we all need to be more aware of.

Also Gino Wickman’s Traction, which is a must read for anyone thinking about implementing agile operations and structures to suit fast growing businesses.

TUD: A recent podcast you enjoyed?

LH: I’m addicted to How I Built This by NPR. Global startups, built by ordinary people.

TUD: Three must visit places in Melbourne?

LH: Preston Market (my neighbourhood), Yarra Bend and Royal Arcade in the City.

TUD: The best keynote you have watched/witnessed?

LH: I recently attended Singularity University’s Exponential Innovation Program based at NASA.

There was no one talk that stood out but rather hearing the world’s leading innovation from the people who are creating it was jaw dropping and mind stretching.

Think emotional robots, mars space travel, understanding the superpower of your gut’s microbiome and the exponential pace of technology: things are moving as slow today as they ever will again.


Over two days in October, Urbanity will bring together the leading creators of cities in the Asia Pacific to learn, connect and be inspired.

Click here to secure your ticket today

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Article originally posted at: https://theurbandeveloper.com/articles/the-power-of-social-media-and-how-it-is-shaping-our-cities