Three weeks ago, the American Planning Association (APA) held its annual conference in Boston. Over 5,000 urban planning professionals and students shared their ideas, exchanged business cards, and learned about emerging trends in the profession. This year, social media, particularly Twitter, played a big role in keeping conference attendees connected and aware of lectures, activities, and what people were thinking, including:
- Encouraging new users to sign up for the service via APA booths;
- Live “twitterfalls” and keynote lectures;
- Streaming qualitative data on all levels.
As Plannovation documented on their blog, Over 200 users sent approximately 1,300 individual tweets about the annual APA conference, with ¼ of the tweets being from other conference attendees. User @cubitplanning continued to document, most of the planning related tweets. Most of the tweets focused on food systems, social media, jobs, and the economy. There were also some tweets concerning conference-specific issues (the lack of seating, crowded rooms, etc…) Presentations from Jennifer Cowley of Ohio State University, Robert Goodspeed of MIT, Stephanie Brooks of Baker Engineering, and Shana Johnson of the APA focused on the current role of social media in planning research, data collection, and information sharing. Aside from planners engaging with each other in virtual space, the presentation on social media also brought forth current issues regarding Twitter and Facebook being used for planning research.
I noted earlier, in this blog, that planners have the potential to use social media data to help plan for their cities in real time. Cowley and Goodspeed noted that many planning agencies, city governments, and authorities do not have a quantifiable means to analyze Twitter data. Citing her work in Austin, Cowley presented her work with planning researchers. They used Twitter to gauge how residents feel about traffic conditions in the city by engaging users in mini-dialogues using the platform. Cowley and her team were able to track any single user's location, time of day the tweet was sent, and using linguistic decoding, their tone and true feelings (i.e. detect sarcasm or not). Sadly, because the City of Austin did not have a precedent means for analyzing such research concerning Twitter, they labeled the findings as “experimental”.
The trend of increased social media usage among planners and the field should be translated into government work and precedent. As Cowley noted, micro blogging gives planners incredibly complex and rich layers of data and information. That information can help inform city officials about how constituents feel about their city. Still, without a clear means to analyze and quantify the data, the tweets are not seen as a reliable research method. Should cities, therefore, invest more time into finding ways to be able to use tweets as scientific data?