TAMPA — Lines on a map are one thing.
But maybe real-time data on where people shop, eat and hang out can reveal more about the life of the city.
That's the idea behind a new collaboration between the city of Tampa and computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
The two are teaming up for a project to analyze social media data that tags places its users visit — the coffee shop, the gym, a ballgame, a nightclub.
"As a planner, any time you can find a source of information about how people are interacting with the urban environment, it becomes an interesting piece of data to look at," said Randy Goers, Tampa's urban planning coordinator.
Or, as Mayor Bob Buckhorn says, "more data is better for us."
The initiative got its start last year when city planners began looking at data from Foursquare, a free application that allows mobile phone users to let others know about the places they go.
Big data sets of Foursquare check-ins typically are not available, but the company made two weeks' worth of data available to the city for April 16-30, 2012. The company did not turn over information that identified individual users, their ages or genders.
In all, there were 25,026 check-ins at 2,461 different places. All were in the area covered by the city's InVision Tampa plan, which includes downtown, Ybor City, Tampa Heights, Riverside Heights, West Riverfront, Old West Tampa, the University of Tampa and North Hyde Park.
The city mapped those check-ins to create "heat maps" showing the most active areas.
Even to Goers, a city planner for 27 years, the Foursquare information showed him things about Tampa he hadn't seen.
For example, information from the U.S. Census says virtually nothing about student activity at the University of Tampa.
But the Foursquare check-ins showed the campus to be one of the most active areas among the app's users. Others were the downtown core, Ybor City, the Channel District and the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The check-ins also suggested when different parts of the city are busiest. On Thursday, April 26, 2012, neither UT nor Ybor City saw much activity before 9 a.m., and the heat map for downtown went dark after 6 p.m.
"The biggest thing was you begin to understand this activity that is happening on both sides of the river and how it relates to the downtown as a whole," Goers said. Doing more research, Goers ran across the work of the Carnegie Mellon computer scientists and reached out to them about the idea of a joint project.
The Carnegie Mellon team was exploring whether an urban area's character is defined not only by its neighborhoods, but also by the way people move between different neighborhoods as part of their routines.
In 2011, the team did a study of Pittsburgh using Foursquare check-ins that had been made public via Twitter.
Looking at nearly 43,000 check-ins from 3,840 people at more than 5,000 different places, the researchers identified clusters of activity that they call "livehoods." And they observed that patterns of activity sometimes spilled across or blurred geographic boundaries between neighborhoods.
The team also has created activity maps for New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Montreal and Vancouver, but this is the first collaboration it has done with city planners.
The Carnegie Mellon researchers are not being paid by the city, and one said he can't guarantee that the city will get "actionable" data out of the exercise.
"This, from our perspective, is a research project," said Justin Cranshaw, a doctoral student in computer science, and one of four authors of a paper on the Pittsburgh research.
But he said the information is worth studying, the questions are worth asking and the analytical tools are worth sharpening.
"We're trying to see if we can identify future avenues for planning," he said, and if there are tools to "make it more well-informed and data-driven."
At Tampa City Hall, officials hope the Carnegie Mellon team's methodology allows them to analyze activity along the Nebraska and Hillsborough avenue corridors as part of the InVision Tampa planning process.
Goers said the city has identified seven potential development sites in the planning corridors and wants to see if there are any with lots of data around them. "We're trying to figure out if the data can suggest to us successful redevelopment scenarios," said Goers, the city's project manager for InVision Tampa.
For example, if lots of people are checking into one place for one reason, would it make sense to add a compatible type of development to give more people even more reason to patronize that place?
Buckhorn hopes to use this information — generated largely by tech-savvy professionals from their mid 20s to their mid 30s — to write a plan that helps identify, foster and accelerate the emergence of hot spots of activity.
"The people that are using Foursquare and Twitter are the types of people we're trying to attract and retain in Tampa, particularly in the urban core," Buckhorn said. "Those are the young best and brightest that I talk about incessantly."
Of course, there are pitfalls to working with this kind of data. For example, the check-ins reflect the places that Foursquare users want others to know they've visited — not necessarily every place they've been.
Also, the data can be muddied by misspellings and even the fact that Foursquare lets users make up their own place names. (In the Tampa data, users checked in from four different locations they labeled "hell.")
Also, Foursquare is a playground for young urban professionals, but not necessarily for older or poorer people.
So Buckhorn says the city will continue to engage residents in more traditional ways — like holding community meetings, organizing walking tours of neighborhoods and keeping in touch with civic associations.
"This will be done on top of all of that," he said. "This is just one more tool in our toolbox."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.