Online Imagery in Measuring Urban Inequality

Media scientist Cesar Hidalgo on deciding which city is the safest, the beauty of social housing, and tracking municipalities’ spendings.

videos | August 20, 2014

How to measure economic stratification among citizens of a city without even travelling to it? Can there be some additional social housing properties, apart from water service or heating, that are rarely taken into account? Cesar Hidalgo, Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT Media Lab, and faculty associate at Harvard University’s Center for International Development, speaks on why he doesn’t like the question about “rich and poor countries”.

We did the pilot study, in which we collected hundreds of thousands of votes for four images: for Boston, New York, Linz and Salzburg. And what we found is that although the averages of all these cities where more or less the same respect to safety, uniqueness and how upper-class they look. The standard deviation of Boston and New York were significantly higher. So the best of New York and the worst of New York were much further apart than the best and worst of Salzburg. And the best of Boston and worst of Boston would also further apart.

I think that beauty is not something that is optional or something that is frivolous, I think that we are able to perceive beauty, because ultimately when we look at something and we found beauty on that object or on that landscape is because we have been able to detect some sort of highly complex form of order that maybe is not very obvious to us. And that beauty, that feeling of beauty, that feeling of the place being harmonious or safe or lively is telling us something that might be hard to quantify, but that might be important, might be fundamental.

Technically there are a lot of limitations which are involved in the statistics. So if we want to compare a city like New York with a city like Paris, how many images do we need? How many images are enough to have a good sample for both cities and to make a comparison and say that, for example, Paris looks safer than New York or New York looks safer than Paris? Do we need two thousand images per city? Do we need four thousand images per city? How many images per square kilometer we need?

Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT Media Lab; Faculty associate, Harvard University's Center for International Development
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