May 04 2011

2011 APA Conference Goes Social Media Crazy Using Twitter

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?

Barrett Lane

Barrett Lane is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania where he is pursuing a Master of City Planning with a concentration in Urban Design. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell University. Prior to joining The Grid, Barrett was the Director of Creative Content at Yipit, and most recently interned with the New York City Department of City Planning. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 at 5:14 pm and is filed under Content, Internet Marketing, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “2011 APA Conference Goes Social Media Crazy Using Twitter”

  1. Kristen Carney Says:

    Great summary of Twitter use at the APA Conference.

    I think Jennifer Cowley’s presentation about SNAP ATX demonstrated that there ARE clear means of analyzing and quantifying micro-blogging & social media participation.

    The point of failure was getting government official buy-in. The officials had all of this wonderful detailed data, but did not use the data to make decisions. They didn’t understand the data; they didn’t trust the data; they thought the data came from only a very small segment of the population; they couldn’t verify that all tweets came from residents & thus, voters (really? can you verify that all participants at a public meeting are residents/voters?). My $0.02.

  2. barrettlane Says:

    Exactly. What I got out of her presentation was that right now there is no proven, quantifiable means to analyze and interpret the data despite the level of richness. It’s not as concrete as say, a census, or a carefully conducted survey. What Austin and other cities need is a way to properly and scientifically quantify the data so that it can be reliable and thus usable in a citywide project.

    One other fault I see with using Twitter as hard data is your concern about Twitter hitting only a small portion of the population; that feedback on Twitter is self-selecting. In comparison, so are Town Hall meetings (usually the same people come to these events again and again, representing a small portion of the population). I think Twitter’s initial audience now is self-selecting (those who know how to use it and those who use it often), but current trends show that it’s use and reach is growing. They recently passed 300 million users worldwide (or to put in into perspective, one account for every US resident). In the long run, Twitter might represent a broader segment of the population than a meeting. Governments need to plan for that kind of representation.

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