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Livehoods Maps Neighborhoods For The Social-Networking Age

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Researchers at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science have developed a program they're calling Livehoods, which organizes "check-ins" from the popular social networking site Foursquare into a cultural database of local habits and trends.

Livehoods' organizers say the program provides an opportunity for city planners and others to track and aggregate the real-time cultural habits and diverse makeup of certain neighborhoods, from block to block, and to see how they change over time.

"A lot of people might look at this project and say at first, it's obvious," says Justin Cranshaw, a Ph.D. student at CMU and one of the project's leading researchers. "Maybe it's obvious to locals, but to people unfamiliar with that part of the city, this [provides] an accurate snapshot of what's really going on."

The program's algorithm examines the check-ins and identifies unique trends pertaining to that particular neighborhood. This information is then mapped to reveal an area's "Livehood," unique to each section of a city, displaying the most popular things to do and places to go. A user can browse the most frequented locations in a certain area, see what kinds of places they are -- restaurants, movie theaters, bars, etc. -- and learn where people with similar habits are hanging out across the city.

One wonders whether enough types of city-dwellers are logged onto Foursquare these days, but Cranshaw insists that the social-networking site has become more diverse. When Foursquare first started in 2009, it seemed primarily geared toward technologically savvy people in big cities who wanted to score the most check-ins at their local dive bar.

Though it still only reflects the cultural habits of those who own a smartphone and choose to use its service, the site has clearly expanded significantly. Today Foursquare boasts over 20 million users around the world, and it has racked up around 2 billion "check-ins" at various locations. Driving across the country last fall, it was even possible to check in at "the middle of nowhere" somewhere in North Carolina. There was a mayor and a badge and everything.

Cranshaw notes that over the years, computers have become more adept at map-making and providing detailed directions and reviews, but they're still "not that great at determining real cultural knowledge." Livehoods, he says, sorts the local "knowledge" of each community into browsable regions.

"In urban studies, researchers have always had to interview lots of people to get a sense of a community's character and, even then, they must extrapolate from only a small sample of the community," Raz Schwartz, a visiting scholar at the CMU School of Computer Science's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and another researcher on the project, said in a statement. "Now, by using Foursquare data, we're able to tap a large database that can be continually updated."

So far, Livehoods has maps for San Francisco, New York and Pittsburgh, and has analyzed millions of unique check-ins at various locations.

Cranshaw said that the project will not only help city developers and planners, but also business-owners looking to determine the best location to open a new store or restaurant. Certainly advertisers and other marketing agencies will be happy to gain access to the information as well.

Right now, none of the individual "livehoods" have titles -- only numbers. Another researcher, Jason Hong, told the MIT Technology Review that his team might eventually "crowdsource" new names for these areas.

"This is [something] you've never been able to do in the history of planning," he said.

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