The Baltigram project is analysing selfies to reveal links between history, identity and built environement

A montage of selfies taken in the old towns of the Baltic capitals. Image: Baltigram.

Selfies, in and of themselves, are universally boring. Talking about them is even more boring.

But the information captured within selfies can perhaps shed light on the way different societies make use of social media – and how people relate to their environment in different parts of the city.

The SPIN Unit (Spatial Intelligence Unit) is a small but global team of data scientists, artists, urban designers and one philosopher. In the “Baltigram” project, it’s compiled data from Instagram selfies taken in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius – the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania respectively – to deduce whether a shared identity is truly discernible across the three Baltic states.

Baltigram’s aim was to “explore how people living in these areas represent themselves in relation to their architectural environments,” in the words of the project’s tagline. 

“What we try to do here is find the pictures in their spatial context. So we study the pictures in the city, in the urban environment,” says project lead Damiano Cerrone.  He added that positioning of people in their environment and their activities can be pinpointed to specific locations. ”Each single picture has a GPS location and we are capable of studying the activities.”

SPIN Unit sifted through about 20,000 selfies, and eventually managed to sort them into three groups: those taken in the ‘old town’, those snapped in Soviet housing districts, and the pictures captured in the greener city suburbs.


“There was this striking fact that in these Soviet blocs, life was pretty much private,” says Cerrone. “The pictures were pretty much taken in very closed spaces. Like with teenagers – their own rooms, or inside the lift, there was almost nothing outdoors – the city was never depicted.” 

On the surface of things it seems obvious that pictures taken in private spaces at home would contain a higher proportion of person to surroundings than in the city centres. But Cerrone said that there may be a more specific reason for this in the Baltic capitals – especially in the deliberately homogeneous housing. 

“The pictures taken in the Soviet blocks in Riga would look the same as in Tallinn and Vilnius,” he said, speculating that “people are not attached to the place they live and they are not proud to show it”. He noted that pictures taken in lifts seemed to be more specific to the Baltics, although he added that he hadn’t yet conducted any comparative studies using data from other countries.

“The rooms are shared, so if you’re a teenager, very often, you have to share your room with your siblings. And maybe depending on the size of the house – because of the lack of privacy – the elevator is this moment of privacy,” he said.

Meanwhile, the architecture of the medieval old towns features prominently in selfies that can be traced back to the tourist centres. ”The cities are of course all Hanseatic League cities,” says Panu Lehtovuori, professor of planning theory at the Tampere University of Technology, School of Architecture. He also mentioned the potential uses for the project. “Baltigram was used to mount critiques of urban planning and bring things to public attention,” he says. 

The number of selfies taken at different times of the week: the cities appear to have more in common with each other than with their own suburbs. Image: Baltigram.

SPIN Unit argues that, through the photographs, they can connect with the cities” youth and engage with their needs without necessarily having to obtain their direct involvement.

“We get the info on how the city is used and what they feel about the city, without having to approach them and getting them physically somewhere to share that kind of you,” says urban planner Katherine Donaghy, referencing a different SPIN Unit project called Russalka.

That project used photographs from social media to prove to the city administration that a sandy beach they wanted to build a highway over was not a hotbed of antisocial behaviour. Rather, it was somewhere that was “bringing together tourists, locals and also ethnic Russians,” explains Cerrone.

The images used, unlike information from activists or the city, were not motivated by a specific political standpoint. “When we take a picture with Instagram or Facebook or whatever, we don’t have an agenda, we are simply expressing ourselves in space,” says Cerrone.

“It’s adding an extra dimension to your community’s stakeholders in the urban planning process,” concludes Donaghy.  

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Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.