In 2008, a book called The Big Sort posited a theory that America has undergone a slow but persistant reorganization over the past thirty years. The book's author, Bill Bishop, argued that Americans are self-organizing in cities and suburbs according to belief systems. In the 50s and 60s, Americans of differing political and moral beliefs lived in the same neighborhoods. But post-Reagan Americans, wrote Bishop, choose their neighborhoods according to the prevalent socio-political code.
A new app called Livehoods picks up where Bishop left off, using a new source of data: geo-located check-ins from smart phone apps.
Livehoods defines neighborhoods (or "livehoods") according to similarities shared between frequent local check-ins. The program identifies the top five most frequented check-in locations, as well as places and experiences that make the neighborhood unique. For example, Architizer's offices are in Livehood #57. Our neighborhood isn't the most exciting, and it shows: the top thing to do here, according to check-in patterns, is go to the movies.
The project, which comes out of a research initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, redefines our traditional understanding of "the neighborhood." As citizens move and change, so do check-ins, and so does the Livehood. Rather than depending on a definition culled from a real estate broker's lexicon, neighborhoods are reframed as dynamic patterns in flux with the urban actors that populate them.
One issue that remains unaddressed by Livehoods -- perhaps because of its growing irrelevance? -- is whether or not it matters that people checking in (or tweeting) are often visiting from another area. This phenomenon has been criticized as "urban tourism" by some city advocates, who see it as an offshoot of gentrification. For example, thousands flock to certain areas of Queens and Brooklyn on weekend days for the food and nightlife. Yet a fraction of those actually live or work in these neighborhoods. Livehoods doesn't (and can't) distinguish between data generated by neighborhood stakeholders (who invest and grow with the neighborhood) and urban tourists (who show up for the night and then leave). Either way, Livehoods' data-driven approach illustrates the increasingly ambiguous distinction between a person who is invested in a neighborhood and someone who goes to that neighborhood for fun. "Authenticity," also known as street cred, is on its way out as a token of urban value.
Right now, Livehoods is mapping New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh (where CMU is), but you can vote for your city to be next here.