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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To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.