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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Uber has introduced a levy to fund electric vehicles in London. But who exactly is benefiting?

Bleurgh. Image: Getty.

Uber is introducing a levy of 15p per mile on London users to help fund a transition to electric vehicles and help tackle air pollution. Its goal is to encourage half its drivers to go electric by 2021 and to go fully electric by 2025.

There are a number of benefits to the idea. Moving to cleaner transportation is an important public good with a myriad of general health benefits. It should be an urgent priority for all UK cities. But the question of who pays for this transition is fundamental to whether it is done fairly. As a process, change needs be done in partnership with people, not to them.

So who is actually being asked to foot the bill for this much needed transition? Fresh analysis by the New Economics Foundation shows that while the PR benefits are likely to accrue to Uber, its consumers and drivers will foot the bill in its entirety, while also taking on much of the risk.

Uber estimate that drivers will be eligible for £4,500 in funds to purchase a new electric vehicle after three years of service – the maximum period of time for which drivers can accrue credit. By comparison, the cost of a cheap second-hand electric car meeting Uber’s requirements for UberX costs in excess of £12,000, while a second hand vehicle suitable for UberLux would set drivers back around £45,000.

For those drivers receiving around £4,500, this would still imply the need to contribute thousands of pounds, if not tens of thousands, in personal funds. Even after allowing for a fall in prices for electric vehicles, drivers are being asked to make a minimum contribution of between 55 per cent and 85 per cent towards the total cost of electrification. The remainder of the cost will be met indirectly by consumers – either in the form of higher charges or else being priced out Uber’s services altogether.


Where drivers don’t have access to this sort of cash, the expectation will be that they borrow – which means taking on the risk of debt repayments while earning close to minimum wage. Being able to keep the 15p levy once driving an electric vehicle is unlikely to cover the cost of new interest payments. But failure to use the scheme at all could mean unemployment after 2025.

While drivers are forced into arrears to consolidate their jobs, Uber may also find itself with a considerable surplus from the scheme, as a result of drivers leaving the platform early or choosing not to apply for the grant. Uber has suggested that any surplus will be reinvested into supporting facilities, such as charge points for electric cars. But this means that the cost of moving to green infrastructure is coming at the expense of extra private debt for drivers (which could otherwise have been funded out of the levy). Such a trade-off is simply incompatible with a green transition that is morally just.

The shift in strategy from Uber towards more renewable transport technology is clearly welcome on environmental grounds. Doing so solely at the expense of consumers drivers is not. For any transition to be fair, Uber needs to meet its share of the costs.

Duncan McCann is a Researcher at the New Economics Foundation. He tweets @DuncanEMcCann. You can find NEF’s work on transport here.