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Social-media data for urban sustainability


A voluminous and complex amount of information — ‘big data’ — from social media such as Twitter and Flickr is now ubiquitous and of increasing interest to researchers studying human behaviour in cities. Yet the value of social-media data (SMD) for urban-sustainability research is still poorly understood. Here, we discuss key opportunities and challenges for the use of SMD by sustainability scholars in the natural and social sciences as well as by practitioners making daily decisions about urban systems. Evidence suggests that the vast scale and near-real-time observation are unique advantages of SMD and that solutions to most SMD challenges already exist.

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Fig. 1: The wide range of emerging opportunities for urban-sustainability research provided by big data from social media.
Fig. 2: Evolution of key big-data sources and technologies, and the rise of social-media data.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the authors on reasonable request.


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T.M. was supported by the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN; NSF grant no. SES 1444755). T.M.’s research was also carried out as part of the project ENABLE, funded through the 2015–2016 BiodivERsA COFUND call for research proposals, with the national funders The Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences, and Spatial Planning, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, German Aeronautics and Space Research Centre, National Science Centre (Poland), The Research Council of Norway and the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.

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Both authors contributed to the writing of this manuscript and the ideas it contains.

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Correspondence to Rositsa T. Ilieva.

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Supplementary Information: Sections A, B and C

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–6, Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary References

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Ilieva, R.T., McPhearson, T. Social-media data for urban sustainability. Nat Sustain 1, 553–565 (2018).

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