Tapping social media for unbiased community input on planning issues

Photograph of housing stock in Tartu, Estonia.

UB urban planner Daniel Hess is turning to social media to collect resident perceptions of Soviet-era housing estates, like the one picture above, in Tartu, Esonia. Photo Credit: Camden Miller

by Stephanie Bucalo

Release Date March 28, 2018


A team of planners from the University at Buffalo and University of Tartu in Estonia are tuning into chatter on social media to gather valuable unbiased data on resident perceptions of urban neighborhoods across Estonia, especially neighborhoods with Soviet-era housing blocks.

Researchers Daniel B. Hess, professor of urban planning at UB, Annika Väiko, a researcher at the University of Tartu, and Evan Iacobucci of Rutger’s University, have tapped into Twitter’s public feeds to assess user perceptions of aging housing estates in the city of Tartu, Estonia. The work is part of a multi-year research project funded by the European Commission and led by Hess.

The team, which published their findings in the Journal of Architecture and Urban Planning, argue that unlike survey data, social media feeds are not biased or influenced by the language and framing of a researcher’s questions. Using social media postings for research is like eavesdropping on people’s conversations, and it avoids the need for rigid surveys in which interviewees are aware they are being surveyed and may behave accordingly. The article is entitled “Network Connections and Neighbourhood Perception: Using Social Media Postings to Capture Attitudes among Twitter Users in Estonia.

The team focused its research on Tartu, where new housing developments are emerging to replace the aging housing towers developed during the Soviet era across the Baltic States. After decades of limited options for housing – and discouragement for open public discourse - residents across the city are employing social media to discuss options and share opinions.

This study is among the first to explore social media platforms like Twitter as a tool for empirical data collection for scholarly studies. The researchers suggest such applications will increase community members’ look to social media – still in its infancy in Central and Eastern Europe – as a forum for public debate on shifting patterns of urban development there.

Hess, recently appointed as chair of urban planning at UB, recently completed a two-year research fellowship in Estonia as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellowship. Evan Iacobucci is 2016 graduate of UB’s Master of Urban Planning program; he is pursuing a doctorate in urban planning from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy at Rutgers University. Annika Väiko is researcher in the Department of Human Geography at the University of Tartu.