Insights Build Cities

How social media analytics can influence urban development

Two proposed development projects in the UK — HS2 and the Goodsyard — have launched significant conversations and diverse opinions, especially on social media. In this post, we look analyze the conversations surrounding these two development projects, and discuss how social media monitoring can serve as the “modern town hall” — a place for citizens, developers, lobby groups, and politicians to exchange ideas and better understand the public sentiment surrounding large-scale urban development projects. 

There are few undertakings as complex and nuanced as urban development. The private and public organisations that carry out large-scale urban development projects are a little like plate spinners, constantly trying to keep dozens of items in balance at once — form and function, the environment and the economy, efficiency and urgency. And that’s just the top of the list.

But one thread binds these competing interests together: public opinion. Cities are not built in a day, nor are they built in a vacuum — they are created incrementally over time, and the best cities respond directly to the needs of the citizens.

As the architect I.M. Pei once put it, “It is not an individual act, architecture. You have to consider your client. Only out of that can you produce great architecture.”

Whether referring to a single building or an entire public transportation system, Pei’s point is the same: An urban development project is exactly as successful as the citizens who use it deem it to be.

But there’s a problem. How can urban developers reliably understand their client? How can they not just react to but predict the needs, opinions, and concerns of the public it serves?

Luckily, an answer is emerging: social media. Social media analytics offer a window into the minds of residents to help local governments, developers, and public organisations understand in real-time how citizens feel about a specific project.

In this post, we look at two large-scale urban development projects through the lens of social media — HS2 railway and the Goodsyard development, both in the UK. We will explore the ways in which social media analysis can help developers understand the conversations surrounding these two enormous projects as they unfold in real-time.

Let’s start with HS2.

Full speed ahead?

Few projects are as massive and multifaceted as HS2. The proposed high-speed railway would connect London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds, Sheffield, and Manchester. Construction is scheduled to begin this year and be completed in 2033.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a project this extensive (and expensive) generates a lot of opinions among Britons. Indeed, there are vocal contingencies on both sides of the fence. Some argue that it will improve the lives of residents and make England much more traversable. Others wonder if it’s worth the investment and worry that the project will spiral out of control.

But which side is bigger? Who are the major participants in the conversation? How has public sentiment changed over time.

For those answers we turn to social media.

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Sentiment

When we divide the social media conversation into three groups — pro-HS2, anti-HS2, and news about the project — we start to get a clearer picture.

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There is much more conversation about the negatives of HS2 project than there is about the positives. And despite some minor fluctuations, that proportion has remained fairly consistent since early 2014.

But what are the main topics that these groups are discussing?

Conversation Trends

A project as multifaceted as HS2 cannot be boiled down to simply positive and negative. It is important to dig into the specific topics and concerns that citizens are voicing if you want to truly understand the topic. Luckily, social media analytics is perfect for surfacing the specific conversations and topics that compose the larger discussion.

Here are the most common topics mentioned in HS2 conversation, as well as some actual example posts about the topic.

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As you can see in the topic wheel above, there is a lot of conversation centered around #StopHS2. When we explore the specific topics within the larger negative conversation, we start to see the exact reasons that citizens are concerned about the project — what we call the “drivers of negativity.”

Drivers of Negativity

As we mentioned earlier, there are many things that can torpedo a development project — expense, environmental concerns, poor management, cultural ramifications, just to name a few.

What are those reasons for HS2? Here is a chart breaking down the negative conversation into its most common topics.

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Like a focus group — but in real-time and magnitudes larger — social media acts as a window into the minds of citizens.

Unsurprisingly, the expense of the project (and its perceived value) top the list. Indeed, when we look at example posts from each of the main categories, a story of overspending, environmental concerns, and misguided policies emerges.

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Looking at the specific posts that make up the negative conversation as a whole leads to a natural next question: Who are the major voices in the discussion overall?

For that we turn to influencers.

Influencers and Community Engagement

Social media is known for its democracy, for its ability to give everyone a voice. But, to misquote Animal Farm, on social media all voices are equal, but some voices are more equal than others. The voices that carry the most weight belong to people with disproportionate reach and influence.

This concept is especially important in terms of urban development, because it is critical for developers and local governments to know who is driving the conversation around large-scale projects. In a project as important and complicated as HS2, influencers act as megaphones, amplifying the views of the constituencies they represent.

When we look at the authors behind HS2 conversation and sort them by influence, we can get a better idea of which individuals and media outlets are driving the conversation.

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We’ve looked at the overall sentiment, key topics, and important players in the conversation surrounding HS2 — but how does this translate into action? How can city planners and urban developers transform social insights into real-world strategies?

For that, let’s look at another high-profile development project, The Goodsyard.

All for the Goodsyard?

Like HS2, the Goodsyard is a complicated development project with (at least) two vocal sides. The proposed development would link two London boroughs — Hackney and Tower Hamlets — and was originally intended to include 12 buildings housing 1,356 homes as well as retail spaces, offices and a 2.4-acre park.

For a proposal so large, it’s not a surprise that the Goodsyard has come under a lot of scrutiny. For now, the plans have been paused, as the two developers work to redesign them to fit in with government and public opinions.

This leaves the developers in a tough position. How can they tweak or overhaul the plans to be more appetising to the public if they don’t know precisely what the public thinks of the plans?

Again we turn to social media analytics.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

If the developers behind the Goodsyard want to know how to message and iterate on their plans, they must understand the topics driving the public conversation.

When we analyzed the conversation on social media, we found this list of commonly discussed topics:

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If the developers behind the Goodsyard wanted to tweak their plans (or messaging) to account for public opinion, this would be a good place to start.

However, the larger topic groupings are most valuable when they are married to specific conversations and opinions. Knowing, for example, that 41% of social posts are about lobbying against the development is more useful if you know who is vocalising the dissent and how. Responding to specific criticisms is much more effective than responding to a group of related but not identical arguments.

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To the left are a few examples of actual social posts that fall under the “lobbying against the plans” umbrella.

 

Although these posts are all united in their worries about the plans, they reflect different reasons: cost, gentrification, and effects on the landscape, just to name a few.

Conclusion

Any time a major urban development is proposed, it sparks controversy among the citizenry. This doesn’t mean that all development is inherently controversial or ill-planned, just that the private and public organisations responsible for the projects must understand public sentiment if they want to be successful.

Historically, this process has been a bit touch and go. Developers attempt to predict public response, rely on experts to preempt criticism, or use focus groups to adapt plans. While these tactics can be effective, they miss a large piece of the public: real-time feedback straight from the horse’s mouth.

Social media monitoring and social media analytics can act as the “modern town hall” and help developers and government agencies understand sentiment and opinions as they evolve in real time.

To learn more about how social media and government go hand in hand, download our case study with Bell Pottinger on using social conbined with in-house expertise.

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