Brick Lane in Numbers

Stuart Aitken, Head of Content at DigitasLBi, introduces a new piece of research which demonstrates what social media can tell us about places. ‘Brick Lane in Numbers’ was first presented at the Social media, policy and place event hosted by DigitasLBi, which explored the ways that commercial companies, researchers and policy makers can use social media data to understand interactions with place.

“During the time I spent looking for it, Brick Lane changed for ever” – Rachel Lichtenstein

What can social media tell us about an area and how people interact with it? Can it be used to help businesses and policy makers make more informed, better decisions at local and regional levels? And what use can researchers make of social media data and the specific content that users share on social media sites?

DigitasLBi’s latest piece of research ‘Brick Lane in Numbers’ focuses on the famous London street which is home to our London office. To give the research some context, DigitasLBi is a marketing and technology agency that brings together hard data with the power of imagination. We use data in our daily work to help brands to make better decisions. Key to the strength of our work is that we bring together lots of data, from many different sources. Understanding which data sources to tap into for a given project – and also how to understand the findings – is of course key to reaping the full rewards, giving brands the ability to make more informed decisions that help them to provide better products and services for their customers. The days of unreliable survey data are long gone.

Often we need to be imaginative about how to get hold of this data. On a recent project for example, we identified difficulties in accessing reliable and accurate air pollution data. Undeterred we devised a scheme to strap miniature pollution sensors to the backs of racing pigeons and set them off across London to gather the information we needed.

In terms of the Brick Lane research, we looked specifically at two types of data (throughout the whole of 2015) to show what different data sources can reveal about the ways that people interact with the spaces around Brick Lane, and – importantly – their feelings and opinions towards them. In the first instance we looked at Instagram data.

A total of 42,859 authors were analyzed. From this data set any account which posted more than 30 times was removed to avoid skewing the results. Data was collected by creating a geo-fenced area around Brick Lane and excluding any imagery that fell outside of this area.

The Instagram data revealed that bricks and mortar music retail is alive and well in Brick Lane with the iconic record store Rough Trade topping the list as most Instagrammed business in the area. The Big Chill bar was second on the list and the only bar to feature in the top ten. Food traders were well represented with Sticky Wings chicken shop, the famous Beigel Bake and French restaurant Chez Elles making up the top five. Surprisingly, none of the curry restaurants – which once made the street famous – featured in the top 20.

The data also revealed insights into the daily ebb and flow of the lane. For example we were able to see the most popular times for Instagram activity with 55.4% of all activity occurring Monday to Friday and the remaining 44.6% occurring over Saturdays and Sundays – illustrating just how busy Brick Lane is during the weekend period. Overall, Sunday was revealed to be the busiest day with 28.4% of all Instagram activity occurring then.

Looking at activity throughout the year, October was the most popular month for Instagram posters on Brick Lane, most likely fuelled by high profile art fairs such as the Moniker Art Fair and the Other Art Fair, both of which took place in the Old Truman Brewery. This was followed by September when Brick Lane played host to FriendFest, a high profile celebration of the US TV sitcom Friends.

Next we looked at data from the Santander Bike Scheme in order to illustrate what can be revealed by analyzing open sources of publicly available data. The analysis here focused on all bike rides ending at Brick Lane – a total of 16,009 rentals.

We discovered that the most commonly occurring start station was Brushfield Street, one of the nearest bike racks to Liverpool Street station, which is only a 0.5 – 0.7 mile ride away from Brick Lane. This represented 5.6% of all journeys made to Brick Lane over 2015. Other prominent locations to cycle from included Regents Row in Haggerston, Old Street Station and Pott Street in Bethnal Green.

When looking at journey durations we discovered that the longest rides are made at the weekend, in particular, Sunday. The average ride duration on Sunday is 28 minutes compared with the day with the shortest ride duration (Wednesday) which clocks in at 14 minutes. Overall, week day ride average durations are 16.2 minutes and weekend ride durations are 25.8 minutes.

The event that we hosted explored the value of these kinds of data not only for business, but for researchers and for policymakers. For both of these kinds of data users, social media data and transactional data has value in that it reveals not only what people say they are going to do, but what they actually do. However, when looking at Instagram behaviours, the data also reveals users’ emotional and aesthetic reactions to the space around them. Furthermore, it reveals something of people’s personal reactions to place, as well as data valuable for local planners and policymakers on when people visit and how they use the space.

Of course, these data sets represent only a portion of the people that use Brick Lane, and there is no guarantee that the attitudes conveyed via Instagram are genuine and unconsidered. However, they do provide value in understanding many of the interactions that people have with a place such as Brick Lane.

As the quote from Rachel Lichtenstein which begins this piece suggests, Brick Lane is a street that is – and always has been – in flux. This unknowableness is part of the charm of the place. Analysing the data around Brick Lane – or any location – is of course not enough to fully understand everything about it. However we would be unwise to ignore some of the tools at our disposal as we seek to understand it better.