Meet Australia’s data-powered suburbs

Governments are leveraging data insights from social media to quantify the urban life of suburbs, improve planning and boost tourism. 

At the City of Canterbury-Bankstown, in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, officials have been leveraging social media data to profile the services that are popular in the community to inform their planning decisions.

With one of the most culturally diverse communities in Sydney, the council hoped to better understand the different services that various segments of the community valued.

Authorities were surprised to find a “very distinctive” social chatter in the suburb of Lakemba around street food, mosques, a Nepali radio station and a refugee advocacy group being “massive anchors in the community,” says Jessica Christiansen-Franks, co-founder and CEO of Neighbourlytics, which aggregates social media data about neighbourhoods and presents it to government.

“We’re in a digital world where everything we do is online one way or another,” she says.

“Every time we post a photo of smashed avocado on toast or accept an invite to dog training in a park, we create a digital footprint of our city.

Jessica Christiansen-Franks and Lucinda Hartley.

“As urban planners and community development workers, we were interested in how we can use that data to understand city performance,” she tells Government News.

Social media insights are helping governments understand the zeitgeist that is powering the success of Australia’s most vibrant suburbs, says Ms Christiansen-Franks, who will be discussing the topic at the upcoming Place Branding Australia Conference.

The event, hosted by Government News, is bringing together government leaders and industry practitioners to discuss the practice of place branding.

Ms Christiansen-Franks says user-generated content, found on Facebook, Instagram, travel wikis, review sites and maps creates a “digital footprint” of insights that can help city planners create thriving urban spaces.

To ensure that insights from social media offer a holistic perspective of community viewpoints, she says the Neighbourlytics tool gathers information from multiple sources and uses an algorithm to collate it.

This social data, while not offering a complete picture of a particular community, highlights things that may otherwise be “hard to understand”, such as commonly used facilities or services, and can enhance community consultation.

“What we’re trying to do is bring some data and rigor by showing the things that you don’t see walking down the street, showing the wine bars, Zumba class or parent group meet up,” says Ms Christiansen-Franks.

Lucinda Hartley, co-founder and CIO of Neighbourlytics, says governments can leverage this trail of insights to develop a “values layer” of what communities like and dislike about certain spaces and what it is that is unique about Australian neighbourhoods.

“The vibe of a place is authentic and local and a feeling – it’s hard to describe. What social data does is put metrics and data behind that authenticity,” Ms Hartley says.

Building a place brand through data

With 15 million Facebook users in Australia, Ms Christiansen-Franks says social media data offers governments invaluable, large-scale, and at times surprising insights that may not be channelled in demographic profiles or community consultation. These are “much stronger” determinants of communities than gender or income, she argues.

City-planners can utilise this digital footprint to inform planning decisions and build unique narratives about a place that can improve neighbourhoods and stimulate tourism, Ms Christiansen-Franks says.

She adds:

“The industry is talking a lot about human-centred cities. But we can’t design a city without understanding the humans. Rather than reducing communities to a series of personas based on age and income we look at what people are actually doing with their lives to create those cities.”

Ms Christiansen-Franks says that too often in urban planning governments focus on developing demographic profiles or limited community consultation and overlook what locals value about a neighbourhood, frustrating communities and dampening the appeal of suburbs.

“In local governments there are often great projects overrun by fear of whether the community will get angry. We’ve done a lot of bottom-up work and what we find is once you scratch past that you find people who are really passionate about their community and we were really interested in highlighting those voices,” she says.

At the Place Branding Conference Ms Christiansen-Franks will discuss how governments can channel these passionate voices in neighbourhoods to develop a narrative about a place, which can then be used to steer decisions about city planning.

Councils talk place branding

Canberra’s bustling suburb of Braddon is another council using insights from social media to better understand the forces powering the vibrant urban culture that typifies the neighbourhood.

Decorated by offbeat cafes, quirky eateries and stylish shops, the area’s local authority was surprised to discover through social data that most people visiting the neighbourhood were in fact locals.

Ms Hartley says this insight is essential to help inform authorities’ planning decisions and to promote tourism to the area.

“If we want to understand the brand of a place we need to understand its heartbeat. Understanding its heartbeat means knowing the range of factors people might go there and we’ve used that in a lot of tourism applications,” she says.

For more information visit the Place Branding Australia website.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter.

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required