Where the Happy People Are


Instead of just asking "How ya doin'?," researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute used Twitter feeds and geo-location data to determine how New Yorkers feel.

During a two-week period in April 2012, the team collected some 603,954 tweets that were geo-tagged as originating in the Big Apple. They then applied a sentiment filter that looked for smiley or frowny emoticons to determine whether the tweet was positive or negative. The report is lyrically titled "Sentiment in New York City: A High Resolution Spatial and Temporal View."

The sentiment map shows high levels of happiness at Central Park (A1) and high levels of unhappiness at Penn Station (B4) and Maspeth Creek (E1).
The sentiment map shows high levels of happiness at Central Park (A1) and high levels of unhappiness at Penn Station (B4) and Maspeth Creek (E1).

The results aren't very surprising. People are happiest around public parks and most aggravated in heavy traffic. They're happier on weekends and sadder when plodding to work on Monday mornings. Those sentiments are not unique to New Yorkers, and, honestly, what else is new?

My first reaction is to lump this sort of report in with early sentiment analysis projects that aimed to parse social media posts and apply complicated language filters to determine whether they were positive or negative.

Several years ago, I was involved tangentially with a consulting firm that claimed to use sentiment analysis to track impressions of Windows Vista among IT bloggers (talk about a no-brainer). I lost faith in the accuracy of the analytical tool when its weekly report included results about contractors who install windows in Chula Vista, Calif.

The field has evolved significantly since then, though, and I think the correlation of NECSI's results to empirical reality makes some of the less-obvious findings worthy of consideration.

For instance, Maspeth Creek, a heavily polluted body of water in Brooklyn, is an area of singularly high negative sentiment. The report points out that city officials are on the record as saying they can't speculate regarding how and whether the malodorous sludge affects the local population. With this kind of spatial and temporal sentiment map, however, they can indeed. I think there are plenty of potential applications for this kind of analytics in terms of municipal management.

That said, there are some highlights of the study that show how Twitter and geolocation data may not be as scientific as we'd like. Hunter College High School shows up as the saddest place in New York City, but that's because the research team collected tweets immediately after spring break.

Emoticons used to create the sentiment filters in NECSI's study.
Emoticons used to create the sentiment filters in NECSI's study.

In another case, the study found that sentiment around cemeteries, Riker's Island (the site of a penal institution), and medical centers is generally negative -- except for Holy Cross cemetery in Brooklyn, which seems to show a higher level of happiness. The authors write, "It is unclear why the sentiment at the Holy Cross cemetery is positive."

I have a couple of ideas, actually. Holy Cross is surrounded by numerous churches, a preparatory school, and public school 181. It's possible that upbeat tweets from students and worshippers are showing up as originating in the Holy Cross area.

Similarly, the report shows Penn Station as a uniquely negative area, and that's probably because of frustrated travelers. But Madison Square Garden is directly above the station, and that's where the Knicks play, so I might blame them for the misery of that location.

It's possible that the research team accounted for my theories, but I still think these shifting variables underscore the unreliability of social media analysis as a discipline. More work needs to be done, in my opinion, to correct for the foibles of adolescent tweeters and inaccurate geo-tags.

Members, what do you think?

Michael Steinhart, Contributing Editor

Michael Steinhart has been covering IT and business computing for 15 years, tracking the rising popularity of virtualization, unified fabric, high-performance computing, and cloud infrastructures. He is editor of The Enterprise Cloud Site, which won the Least Imaginative Site Name award in 2012, and he managed TheITPro.com, a community of IT professionals taking their first steps into cloud computing. From 2006 to 2012, Steinhart worked as an executive editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise, writing and managing research reports, whitepapers, case studies, magazine features, e-newsletters, blog posts, online videos, and podcasts. He also moderated and presented in dozens of webinars and virtual tradeshows. He got his start in IT journalism at CMP Media back in 1998, then moved to PC Magazine, managing the popular Solutions section and then covering business technology and consumer software. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications/journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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Re: NYC Pennsylvania Station's tragedy
  • 9/1/2013 5:51:42 PM
NO RATINGS

..

Michael writes


This was slightly before my time, but it sounds typical of the kinds of thinking that dominated civic planning discourse in the 60s and 70s. Historic preservation has helped restore and maintain some of the city's architectural treasures, but many more have been lost to the vagaries of time.


 

Well, a lot more have been lost to the vagaries of official policy.

This is a long, long story — way too long to go into at great depth on A2 — but this period did serve as the cauldron for Jane Jacobs's classic work on urbanity and livable cities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was a major driver leading to the historical preservation, New Urbanism, and Smart Growth movements and other major shifts in modern American urban planning concepts and policies. New York was far from alone among cities in willfully destroying much of its historical legacy of infrastructure and architecture, but in some ways it serves as a kind of demonic Poster Child of this phenomenon.

Pretty much the central villain (widely considered however a hero at the time) was Robert Moses, mainly a key lobbyist and political advisor to the power structure of NYC and in fact NY state. Moses favored remaking cities to facilitate private automobiles and suburbanization, while disfavoring mass transit, particularly rail (regarded as moribund and of dubious value). Likewise older, historic structures were seen as old-fashioned and out of synch with the adoration of technology.

The result was the wrecking ball for numerous heritage structures like Pennsylvania Station, and abandonment and dismantling of the once-pervasive networks of electric urban railways that formerly permeated NYC and many other cities coast to coast. NYC's Third Avenue El was caught up in the campaign of destruction (although the promise of a Second Avenue Subway, made at the time the El was dismantled, is now being fulfilled, about 60 years later).

Anyway, that's my highly opinionated summary, but I do think it places the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in a realistic context.

 

Re: Interesting study
  • 9/1/2013 2:28:22 PM
NO RATINGS

@Michael Perhaps airports can take lessons from Disney. The company trains its employees to do whatever possible to take the pain out of delays. 

Re: Interesting study
  • 8/31/2013 9:42:16 PM
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I'll grant you that JFK delivers proximity for your area, Ariella, and perhaps for Brooklyn, as well. But for anybody in Manhattan or Queens or the Bronx or further upstate, LGA is the most convenient choice. In my opinion.

I'd love to see all the New York airports studied for happiness/sadness, and then see whether that data correlates to delays, weather, etc. I mean, I know what the results will be. But there will be insight there for the airlines and airport services to glean, I imagine.

Re: NYC Pennsylvania Station's tragedy
  • 8/31/2013 9:40:05 PM
NO RATINGS

This was slightly before my time, but it sounds typical of the kinds of thinking that dominated civic planning discourse in the 60s and 70s. Historic preservation has helped restore and maintain some of the city's architectural treasures, but many more have been lost to the vagaries of time.

Re: Interesting study
  • 8/31/2013 9:37:50 PM
NO RATINGS

The truth is that I haven't been to JFK in years, but I hear it's been modernized a bit more than La Guardia. I'm at LGA several times a year, and the roads are pitted, the traffic ridiculous, the cops surly, and the whole experience very hostile and miserable, but it's so. much. closer than JFK! I'd still choose La Guardia over JFK just because of the location. And if I need international travel, there's always Newark.

Re: Happy place marketing.
  • 8/31/2013 9:35:38 PM
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That's an interesting idea, Maryam. It could work the other way, too. Companies could offer soothing music or some other form of stress-reduction product or service to those stuck in negative areas.

Re: Interesting study
  • 8/31/2013 9:33:53 PM
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That's a whole other issue, isn't it, Broadway? I think cities should do more on the social services side, so as to minimize what you call the 'diniest' aspects, but that still shouldn't get in the way of fostering a little goodwill and pleasantness.

Re: NYC Pennsylvania Station's tragedy
  • 8/30/2013 7:30:42 AM
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Not being a New Yorker I can't say that I was aware that these historic stations were done away with.  I have to wonder though how much more efficient the new facilities are.  Is the operating cost that much lower?  Do people move through that much faster?  Looking at the two I know which one I'd rather be walking through on my way to a train but I can't say that I wouldn't trade a little scenery for an experience that removed bottlenecks and got me through with less frustration.

Re: Interesting study
  • 8/29/2013 3:05:52 PM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon, you wondered "is LaGuardia that much worse than JFK?"

The short answer is Yes...LGA is a mess. JFK is better, though not as modern as many other airports, including Minneapolis.

NYC Pennsylvania Station's tragedy
  • 8/29/2013 1:51:15 PM
NO RATINGS

..

The destruction of Pennsylvania Station and its replacement by the "airport terminal" plus Madison Square Garden is adequately summarized in a Wikipedia article:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_Station_(former_building)

The following excerpt gives some idea of the societal and historic impact:


The demolition of the head house—although considered by some to be justified as progressive at a time of declining rail passenger service—created international outrage. As dismantling of the structure began, The New York Times editorially lamented, "Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance."
Its destruction left a lasting wound in the architectural consciousness of the city. A famous photograph by Eddie Hausner of the ruined sculpture "Day" by Adolph Alexander Weinman in a landfill of the New Jersey Meadowlands struck a guilty chord. Pennsylvania Station's demolition is considered the catalyst for the enactment of the city's first architectural preservation statutes.


 

 

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