Place Pulse

Comparing images of cities and neighborhoods to gather data on perceptions of place

Imagine your street passing you a note. It says “Do you like me?” and asks you to circle “Yes” or “No.” There's no “Maybe” or “Kinda” or “Yeah, but… .” This should be an easy answer. Which do you circle?

Any question framed this way can seem not particularly informative. But take that same note and send it out to a couple hundred thousand people, and the results start to gather a little more meaning. That’s the thinking behind the web-based project Place Pulse, which seeks to collect simple binary responses about images of places in cities.

Visitors are shown two pictures and asked one of the following questions:

Which place looks safer? Which place looks more unique? Which place looks more upper-class?

The project has received nearly half a million votes, and from that pool of data they’ve been able to draw a few visual conclusions. Smaller, tree-lined streets tend to be perceived as safer, while wide and blank blocks seem less so.

Developed at the MIT Media Lab by the Macro Connections group, the site uses geo-tagged photos to create side-by-side comparisons from which voters are asked to select which photo better meets a certain criteria. Images are collected from New York and Boston, and also the Austrian cities of Linz, Salzburg, and Vienna.

Only the results of the safety question are available on the site, which presents the top and bottom ten from all the cities, as well as rankings for each individual city. Overall, the safest-seeming cities are in Austria and the least safe are in the U.S.

We're not yet sure what it means, but so far the vast majority of Place Pulse respondents are male. Nearly 13,000 votes have been cast by men, while only about 3,200 came from women. The age of respondents is also tracked, and the bell curve of ages is heavy on youth, peaking at about 25.

The project is still operating and accepting votes.

According to the Place Pulse’s creators, a “full-featured website will be launched to the general public, enabling anybody to create or participate in a study.” When that happens, it might be even more interesting to do a single-city study, or even single-neighborhood studies to gauge public perceptions of places. Even the questions can be expanded upon: Which place would you live? Which place would you never visit? Which place would you want preserved? Which place would you want demolished?

The potential of this kind of tool has a lot of relevance today. Developers and city officials often tout the importance of public participation in local planning and development issues. By framing simple yes-no questions based on existing conditions, officials can tap into some very general perceptions of the city that can help guide new design preferences and priorities. Obviously this method shouldn’t be given overarching influence, but it can be an interesting addition to a pool of information on public perception and preference. Understanding that a lot of people like a certain place or neighborhood is a lot easier than understanding why, but that yes or no response will undoubtedly help officials get closer to the answers they seek.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths

    Several years into a ten-year “Vision Zero” target, some cities that took on a radical safety challenge are seeing traffic fatalities go up.

  2. photo: Chris Burden's "Urban Light," installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features several of L.A.'s historic streetlight styles.
    Design

    The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past

    A new competition from the L.A. mayor’s office invites designers to reimagine the rich history of civic illumination and create next-generation streetlights.

  3. photo: Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
    Equity

    What a Trillion-Dollar Housing Pledge Looks Like

    Representative Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act would fund the construction of 12 million new homes in the U.S. over 10 years, mostly as public housing.  

  4. Life

    Talent May Be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

    According to a new analysis, places away from the coasts in the Sunbelt and West are pulling ahead when it comes to attracting talented workers.

  5. photo: A Starship Technologies commercial delivery robot navigates a sidewalk.
    POV

    My Fight With a Sidewalk Robot

    A life-threatening encounter with AI technology convinced me that the needs of people with disabilities need to be engineered into our autonomous future.

×