DEL AGUA Y DE LAS CIENCIAS AMBIENTALES
UNVEILING URBAN DYNAMICS: AN EXPLORATION OF TOOLS AND METHODS USING
CROWD-SOURCED DATA FOR THE STUDY OF URBAN SPACE
Jesús López Baeza
PROGRAMA DE DOCTORADO
Agua y desarrollo sostebible
Tesis presentada para aspirar al grado de
DOCTOR POR LA UNIVERSIDAD DE ALICANTE
MENCIÓN DE DOCTOR INTERNACIONAL
Dr. Pablo Martí Ciriquián
Universidad de Alicante
The following work presents several trans-disciplinary resources for understanding cities beyond just their
physical form and spatial processes. The conceptualization of cities from a top-down, modern and post-
modern approach to the form-function duality lacks multiple dimensions, which need to be studied in order
to gain a proper understanding of how contemporary urban societies perform nowadays. Instead, this work
considers settlements as a set of an innite number of individual perceptions and experiences, which construct
overlapping layers of hidden and intangible information that shape cities as complex systems.
Social relations that are moving progressively to the virtual realm are becoming major factors in decision-
making and location choices by citizens. This denition of a city’s hidden image is developed through the study
of data retrieved from online servers. To do so, this work focuses on spatial and temporal activity patterns,
values of certain places and their quantitative weight within the urban fabric, the distribution and nature of
places, the observation of people’s perception of certain places through the representation of activities captured
by pictures posted online, or several other theoretical and methodological approaches under the umbrella of
crowd-sourced data in the city.
Following the modern and postmodern approach on urban systems, the spatial distribution of places involves
acknowledging and dening the characteristics of urban morphology, which plays an active role in driving the
temporal patterns spaces host (Hillier, 2007). In this context, the spatial linkage between places would drive
location choice (Sevtusk, 2010) and consequently determine urban life. In contrast to this approach, the work
presented in this thesis hypothesizes that the social and behavioral dynamics of people are not only determined
and conditioned by the spatial form of places, but anthropologically based on social perception, cognition,
needs and desires, which are developed socially and inuenced by practices and narratives related to the
meaning of places. The conceptualization of something hidden beyond urban space has been evolving over
modern and post-modern times as a dualism between tangible space and people in it. This conceptualization
starts from the simple fact of an individual’s perception of space and the study of its role in identity generation
from a psychosocial perspective (Stokols and Shumaker 1981) and develops into complex socio-spatial
theories. Duarte (2017) focuses on human perception, conception, and relation to establish a denition of
spaces, places, and territories acknowledging the dening role of the human component, space being an
abstract substratum where places and territories are located.
As a multispectral approach on spatial denition, the human dimension of space is common to virtually all
descriptions. Rapoport’s (1977) man-environment studies formulate and dene a mutual interaction, where
people shape the environment and places affect people. The description of this process is unintentionally touched
upon by McLuhan and Fiore (1967) when claiming that the medium is the message. From this perspective
neither people nor places could exist without each other, since humans shape spaces as a consequence of
social practice, and places affect people’s perceptual cognition, behavior, identity, and eventually the whole
construction of the self. This dualism – man-environment, social-spatial – acknowledges space as a social
product, which is constructed from its use and the everyday experiences of individuals (Lefebvre, 1974;
Certeau, 1984; Neal, 2012). In a like manner, individuals consume narratives and values linked to specic
locations. The acknowledgement of values and narratives inherent to places and their intentional use to
reshape how an individual is dened – or projected in public – are explored by Schwartz & Halegoua (2014),
as a description of how space shapes people further from cognitive, perceptive or behavioral theories alone.
Places describe human geographies from a social-spatial dialectic in which the temporal dimension also has
a dening role (Soja 1985), cities being an addition of social events accumulated over time. In sum, cities
are complex systems composed of layers of different natures, with the characteristic of interconnectedness
as a relational network inherent to social and societal structures (Castells 2004). The human layers of cities
construct traces that embrace perceptual polysemy, which characterizes contemporary urban life (Lazzarini &
López Baeza 2017).
The dualism between space and people gives rise to further interpretations of deeper and more complex relations
between the characteristics of each side. An extensive body of literature on socio-spatial theory refers to space
as a location but also as the setting of physical tangible elements, whereas the social layers are often related
to immaterial values, thus acknowledging a dualism between tangible and intangible. Exploring the mutual
relation between the two sides of this dualism, Stewart (2009) denes a discursive space as a key element in
tangible space production. Specically focusing on the n de siècle period in German-speaking countries, she
claims that intangible discourses shaped urban spaces through disruption and discussion by means of collective
bargaining. With the involvement of designers and the general public, decisions were taken in a participatory
manner and had formal consequences. Similarly to contemporary participation methods, coffee discussions
among intellectuals about what places should look like were generators of a discursive space, which contained
intangible values associated with a tangible place and eventually had a direct effect on its physicality by
shaping it according to what was agreed upon through discussion; a physical location generated an intangible
discourse, which affected tangible space. The complex mutual relation between social-intangible and spatial-
tangible overlapping and interfering with each other is what shapes the reality of cities (Lefebvre 1974). In
this context, the relation between the socio-cultural intangible capital and its impact on contemporary service
economy is described by Zukin (1996) as a symbolic economy referring to representational agents with an
allegorical component beyond the physical layer of spatial reality, where cultural meanings construct social
identities through the built environment.
As mentioned above, the duality between the phenomenological component of places (social, symbolic,
discursive, intangible) and the Euclidean reality of space (tangible physical elements) has been studied for
many years and in different disciplines under a common topic: interaction between both. If these approaches
to urban reality based on relations and phenomena were extrapolated to the contemporary era, where some of
these processes take place on a virtual level, a virtual space generated from a socio-discursive fabric would
be dened. Starting with Castells (2004) at the beginning of the new millennium and the digital era, the
study of cities conceptualized as a set of human practices from an ethnographic perspective is rooted in Di
Masso and Dixon’s (2015) concept of “place-assemblage” as a methodological approach, acknowledging the
interconnectedness and interdependence of physical space as a continuum, and individual human practices,
discourses and interactions taking place on it. More in detail, Saker and Evans (2016) explore how not only
is online data a consequence of the use of space, but in many cases it also inuences users’ own spatial
experience by generating new interactions; they introduce the term “phoneur” to refer to users of urban space,
who use it simultaneously in the physical and virtual realms. Similarly, Boyd and Ellison (2007) discuss how
location-based social networks (LBSNs) and web services “are re-shaping ofine social geography” (Boyd &
Ellison, 2007, p. 224). Just as networks allow contact between people not sharing a common physical space,
they sometimes alter the way users act on it. For instance, social media may induce a sense of familiarity or
knowledge of a new space, or alter people’s path in the city to create an online practice (Humphreys, 2010,
With the birth of data-driven social relations and spatial behaviors, scholars acknowledge the complexity of
the current approach to space on several levels of tangibility. The term hybrid space denes a combination of
physical and virtual spaces in such a way that the activity in one involves a consequence in the other (Sutko
and De Souza e Silva, 2011; De Lange and De Waal, 2013; Saker and Evans, 2016), and therefore both become
mediators of each other (Campbell and Ling, 2009; Gordon, Baldwin-Philippi and Balestra, 2013; Martin,
2014; Saker and Evans, 2016). Saker and Evans (2016) conclude from previous research that “the ubiquity
of connectivity with mobile connections (Okazaki & Mendez 2013), perceptual contact with social ties (Frith
2014), the continual potential of social accessibility to create a continual co-presence (Ling & Horst 2011)
and the possibility of instant interactivity with other users (Campbell & Kwak 2011) are the features of mobile
web use that create the possibility and affordance of a transformed experience of place when using mobile
media” (Saker & Evans 2016, p. 1171).
Thus, the concept of “gamication of space” (Jin et al. 2016; Perry 2016; Saker & Evans 2016) emerges to
dene space as an element within some data platforms, apps, and LBSNs. When physical space is linked to an
app, i.e. when access to virtual content is only available from a specic physical location, the use of space may
be subject to the use of the app (Jin et al. 2016; Saker & Evans 2016); consequently, the app is the generator of
a physical spatial practice. There are diverse motivations behind gamication, such as “bragging or showing-
off, self-promotion, making inside jokes, recording places as a memory aid, or receiving points or rewards for
particular habits or actions” (Schwartz & Halegoua 2014, p. 4).
In this context, the potentials of location-based data services in the eld of research on cities rely on (1) their
capacity of bringing a symbolic intangible dimension to a measurable form and (2) their nature as drivers of
unprecedented socio-spatial practices.
General approach to crowd-sourced locative data platforms
During the last decade and particularly since 2008, digitalization and the everyday use of technologies have
deeply inuenced individuals’ daily behaviors and routines. The study of these new contemporary everyday
practices offers unprecedented potential to observe urban life (Lazzarini & López Baeza 2017), thus enriching
the study of cities with new meanings in new intangible dimensions, which are now available for scrutiny (Sui
and Goodchild, 2011; Silva et al., 2014). These are able not only to contribute to the in-depth description of
space and spatial practices, but also to determine crucial factors of the urban environment (Cranshaw et al.
“What is currently the best way to study the dynamics of a city? How can we learn about the routines of their
citizens, their movement patterns, their points of interest, and their cultural and economic aspects?” (Silva et
al. 2014, p. 45)
Thanks to the data mining of spatial data resources, this virtual information can be accessed for analysis to
understand how spaces function under a wider perspective. In other words, layers of social, discursive and
symbolic information would transcend a reality with a major virtual element. In this regard, Kozinets (2002)
denes the term “netnography” to refer to the wide scope of research based on the traces of social practices
that take place in the context of internet-based technologies.
Cities have become very powerful generators of information, which remains stored in immaterial layers of
data overlapping physical places. Location-based data services can be used to extract such information and
facilitate the understanding of the urban and social dynamics found in them by further analysis (Cerrone et al.
2018) and research methodologies across several disciplines, namely social sciences, computational methods,
and urban studies.
A major source of location-based data, social networks are dened as online platforms where users produce
content that they share publicly and at the same time can access content published by other users (Manovich
2009). Since data are produced by users, social networks fall into the category of crowd-sourced data platforms.
Their deployment is linked to the term Web 2.0, coined by Tim O’Reilly in the mid-2000s (Manovich 2009)
to refer to websites characterized by “user-generated content, long tail, network as platform, folksonomy,
syndication and mass collaboration” (Manovich 2009, p. 1). After the birth of Web 2.0 and social networks,
a shift in online content access takes place: from content which one accesses to receive information – one-
directionally on traditional websites – to content which one generates and shares with other users resulting in a
network of interaction. Silva et al. (2014) talk about participatory sensing referring to this type of phenomena,
in which users voluntarily get involved in the daily use and production of content linked to contextual
information in different formats – text, images, etc. – to be publicly shared (Silva et al. 2014), and being aware
of the entire process.
Location-based social networks are those generally used on mobile devices and able to integrate a GPS location
with geo-coordinates within the information shared by users. Access to these information packages is possible
by mining the APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), from which several data elds associated with
each post or message – including location – can be downloaded. In this way, it is possible to visualize, analyze,
and operate spatially with information uploaded to an LBSN. Mining LBSNs is a crucial step for general data
analysis (Chen, Härdle and Unwin, 2008; Agryzkov et al., 2015), which is presented as a complementary or
alternative method to traditional research on mobility, activity patterns, urban complexity, social preferences,
or perception (Kheiri, Karimipour and Forghani, 2015). Eventually, it can also be used to dene guidelines
for further urban design interventions (Corinna, Riccardo and Ludovica, 2014; Cerrone, Lehtovouri and Pau,
“What do we learn about users from the growing number of views of their physical activity on social media?
What are the intentions, conditions, and situations under which these digital traces are produced and
understood? How do these geocoded data inform our understanding of mobility, the meaning of physical
place, and identity performance that occurs via location-based social media?” (Schwartz & Halegoua 2014,
In this context, crowd-sourced spatial data represent a fundamental eld of research for the visualization
and analysis of spatial and temporal patterns and social dynamics of cities at different scales (Hochman &
Manovich 2013). In addition, due to the popularization of these services among smartphone users, the range
of the data samples obtained is innitely wider in terms of number, spatial extent, and temporal framework
than any other methodological approach developed so far, while maintaining a granular resolution (Kheiri,
Karimipour and Forghani, 2015) and being accessible remotely (Manca et al. 2017). This is precisely the
denition of crowd-sourced big data according to Jiang et al. (2016): a large amount of data obtained from
application users who share info from their devices, with an individual level denition for each point in time
and space, and other associated data (Schwartz and Halegoua, 2014; Jiang et al., 2016); acknowledging a
major potential in the possibility of operating on a granular scale, and a largescale simultaneously (Luo et al.
2016). Thus, location-based services in the eld of urban planning aim to offer researchers a representative
sample of what happens in physical reality (Agryzkov et al., 2015), as well as to publicize the meta-dynamics
or urban social processes beyond the physical form of cities (Cerrone 2016).
On the content
Considering that the virtual realm is an agent with potential to drive and store social-spatial intangible layers
of urban space, further study is needed to gain a wider understanding about cities by researching these joint
layers of information together with their spatial form: hybrid spaces considered as a set of unique experiences,
signications and perceptions constituting complex systems with a phenomenological approach (Wong 2013;
Saker & Evans 2016). Thus, spatial conguration of places cannot be considered the only driver of life in
the city, as online interactions take a role in the process that must be acknowledged. Unprecedented tools,
methods, techniques and trans-disciplinary perspectives are currently being tested and deployed in this new
eld of research.
However, the novelty of this research eld and the enormous creative and evolutionary capacity of data
platforms constitute a challenge in the sense that no study can be considered ultimate or decisive. Since
the starting date of the present work (2015), virtually all of the data sources considered initially underwent
major modications – Instagram closed access to GPS locations in June 2015, Panoramio was shut down in
November 2017, Foursquare released Swarm in August 2017 and redened its entire structure, and Twitter
started losing users dramatically in 2018. Moreover, general data protection regulations such as the GDPR
came into force in May 2018, thus raising awareness in the general public on privacy and data usage. The
validity, segmentation and ethics of analytic methods using crowd-sourced data have also been questioned on
several occasions. In the near future, many of these services will be modied, affecting the methods employed
and challenging possibilities of research on their content and performance.
Therefore, this thesis aims to be an initial study that provides a multidisciplinary discourse to support further
studies on why and how to approach research on cities, acknowledging their multiple and contemporary
dimensions, and testing innovative methods and perspectives to exploit these resources. The work presented
in this thesis encompasses a variety of papers under the umbrella of crowd-sourced data to study cities and
developed under four major topics: Theory, Computational Methods, Observational Methods, and Education.
Socio-spatial Theory Computational Methods Observational Methods Education
Introduction: Shaping space
Revisiting the spatial
denition of neighborhood
La producción de identidad de
los nuevos desarrollos urbanos
a través del place-based social
big data: los crecimientos
del área metropolitana de
Madrid durante la burbuja
Sobre la percepción:
Etiquetado de material gráco
en talleres compartidos por
Arquitectura y Sociología del
Optional and necessary
Jan Gehl’s analysis of urban
space with Foursquare data
Mobility solutions for
cruise passenger transfer:
An exploration of scenarios
using agent-based simulation
Percepción y uso social de
una transformación urbana a
través del social media: las
setas gigantes de la calle San
Workshop Report – Urban
meta-morphology lab Alicante
Comparing two methods for
urban complexity calculations
using the Shannon-Wiener
Use of applications with
georeferenced contacts ‘dating
apps’ to identify creative areas
Table 1. Summary of content. Source: Author.
Texts developed under the topic of Socio-spatial Theory set the theoretical background upon which the other
contributions are based. As mentioned above, this thesis rests on the dualism between the spatial conguration
of cities and the human layers that overlap them. More specically, Introduction and Conclusions establish
a theoretical setting while “Optional and necessary activities: Operationalising Jan Gehl’s analysis of urban
space with Foursquare data” focuses on human actions understood as what people do in cities. This last paper
conceptualizes a theoretical approach according to which traditional research on activities, i.e. Jan Gehl’s
methods, are operationalized to (1) apply them not only to public space but to cities as a whole, (2) allow
replication, and (3) test further spatial computations.
As for the aforementioned spatial computations, contributions developed under the topic Computational Methods
constitute a set of methodologies using tools to extract data by developing initial sources further. These papers
are based on comparative approaches, as the methods developed are too recent. The paper “Comparing two
methods for urban complexity calculations using the Shannon-Wiener index” tests two different approaches to
calculate an index to measure how complex urban spaces are, understanding complexity as a unit of entropy
that considers the number of places where activities can take place, and the number of types of activities to be
hosted, simultaneously. Secondly, “Revisiting the spatial denition of neighborhood boundaries: LBSN-based
Functional Clusters versus Administrative Neighborhoods” proposes a methodological approach in which a
spatial cluster calculation is utilized to characterize urban areas, and consequently dene boundaries between
them. The generation of these new areas based on activity is compared with the administrative boundaries
of neighborhoods in the city. Finally, “Mobility solutions for cruise passenger transfer: An exploration of
scenarios using agent-based simulation models” utilizes crowd-sourced data to feed agent-based models
(ABMs) which are used to simulate and compare different urban scenarios from the process-chain perspective
(a general process made up of smaller actions affecting each other) and relational network theory (a system
composed of individual elements affecting others).
Articles under the topic Observational Methods also present novel methodologies based on the study of
specic social phenomena utilizing crowd-sourced data as a qualitative source of information. “Percepción y
uso social de una transformación urbana. El caso de la calle de las Setas” (The Mushrooms’ Lesson: Instagram
as a tool to evaluate user’s perception of urban transformations) delves into the social practices driven by a
design intervention on a small street segment, focusing on self-representation and representation of space
through photographs posted on social media. “La producción de identidad de los nuevos desarrollos urbanos
a través del place-based social big data: los crecimientos del área metropolitana de Madrid durante la burbuja
inmobiliaria (1990-2012)” (Identity production in new urban development areas through place-based social
big data: urban growth in the metropolitan area of Madrid during the real-estate housing bubble) studies
individuals’ urban social identity and the key role of places in generating this identity through their symbolic
values. In this context, the article (1) studies how urban areas developed during the Spanish housing bubble
– believed to be related to fast and serialized urbanization – can inuence the generation of identity and
(2) explores new potential contemporary symbolic values associated with recently developed urban spaces.
Finally, “Use of applications with georeferenced contacts ‘dating apps’ to identify creative areas” studies
the correspondence between gentried areas and areas with high activity levels on homosexual dating apps,
relating this phenomenon to the concept of creative capital.
The authors of the contributions presented above share a strong interest not only in shedding light on and
producing new knowledge, but also in sharing and spreading it. The close cooperation with them has allowed
to publicly present most of the methods and theoretical approaches addressed in this work, in academic
environments as well as for educational purposes, in order to transfer this knowledge to future urban experts.
Under the Education topic, the contribution “Sobre la percepción: Etiquetado de material gráco en talleres
compartidos por Arquitectura y Sociología del Derecho” (Image tagging and gearing resources applied to
students’ graphic materials: Learning techniques in pursuit of inclusiveness for urban and landscape design) was
developed to document an evaluation process in which students produced metadata later utilized to establish
similarities between work produced by them during the exercise, and reference materials they received at the
beginning of the course. Finally, “Workshop Report – Urban meta-morphology lab Alicante” compiles work
developed by students of a workshop on social media data to observe and characterize social dynamics in
urban space. This last contribution is included as a small sample of the many excellent works developed by
students attending workshop sessions held in Europe and Asia during the years this thesis was developed.
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