See Your City’s Unique Visual Signature, Created By Its Instagram Photos

Research project Phototrails creates patterns from big social data–conjuring visual signatures from the Instagram photos generated by 13 cities around the world.

If you live in New York City, you might take a photo of the fireworks over the East River on this Fourth of July. If you’re also an Instagram user, you may apply an orange-hued, retro filter to that photo, and when you do, you’re probably only thinking about your own limited social network checking it out. Maybe your sister will post an excited comment or you’ll get a bunch of likes from your pals. But the new project, Phototrails—a joint venture between the University of Pittsburgh, the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information, and the Graduate Center at CUNY—is seeking to map our city-specific behavior by looking at the thousands of images that pour in each day, particularly on holidays.


As Dr. Lev Manovich, a professor at The Graduate Center and University of Pittsburgh PhD student Nadav Hochman explained to me via email, they studied over 2 million Instagram photos from 13 different cities, including New York, Tel Aviv, and Bankok, and using the software they developed, showed how each city has its own unique “visual signature,” which is the visual preferences of its citizens. They found that the use of filters in different cities was remarkably similar–for example, the proportion of Toyko denizens who use the Lo-Fi filter is roughly equal to the proportion of Londoners who use that filter.

Though they found Instagram users across the world had the same affinity for filters, when the Phototrails researchers zoomed into each city on a granular, day-by-day basis, they could see how cultural differences were mapped via images. The academic term for this kind of mapping is data ethnography or data anthropology. Specifically, the researchers looked at Instagram use in Tel Aviv on three separate occasions in April: Holocaust Memorial Day, Soldiers Memorial Day, and Israeli Independence Day. According to Manovich and Hochman, “during the Holocaust Memorial Day, the numbers of captured and shared photos surprisingly hardly change.” A week later, during the Soldiers Memorial Day, though, there were significantly fewer pictures taken in Tel Aviv, and those pictures taken were of the two main ceremonies that marked the day.

When the researchers drilled down even deeper in the Soldiers Memorial Day photographs, they found that the people at different observances in the city used Instagram in different ways. “During the Soldiers Memorial Day eve, there were two main memorial ceremonies: a national (mostly center-right-wing) one, and an alternative (left-wing) ceremony,” the researchers say. “We found that during the national ceremony, many people took pictures. However, in the alternative ceremony, hardly any of the participants shared Instagram photos.” They used their software to show how those differences made particular visual patterns.

Another event that Phototrails mapped was the impact of Hurricane Sandy on Brooklyn. According to the researchers, the Sandy visualization, “reveals the intensity of the event, manifested in the sudden dramatic decrease in the number of photos and their different colors after the power went out. We see a clear line that separates ‘before’ and ‘after’ the event. This sudden and dramatic visual change reflects the intensity of the experience.” The visual significance of the event is especially stark when you compare the Brooklyn patterns during Sandy with the visual patterns of other cities that were not affected by the storm.

Hochman and Manovich say their next project is to look at Facebook photos using their software to see the behavioral patterns that might emerge. So when you’re snapping those patriotic photos over the long weekend, you might stop and think about how you’re not just showing your little corner of the world; you’re part of an interconnected, visual cultural movement.


About the author

Jessica Grose is a regular contributor to Co.Create. She is a freelance writer and editor who writes about culture, women's issues, family and grizzly bears.