Small change

WHAT HAP­PENS WHEN A SMALL BUSI­NESS FACES THREATS FROM NEW COM­PETI­TORS, DIG­I­TAL DIS­RUP­TION OR CHANG­ING CON­SUMER DE­MANDS? THE SMARTEST ONES TRANS­FORM. BY BEV­ER­LEY HEAD.

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Jes­sica chris­tiansen-Franks “wasted many hours” of her life wield­ing a clip­board, try­ing to en­gage with lo­cals, and send­ing out opin­ion sur­veys, know­ing there might be a 15 per cent re­sponse at best.

Gov­ern­ments and de­vel­op­ers hired her non-profi­fit con­sul­tancy, CoDe­sign Stu­dio, to try to elicit from peo­ple in­for­ma­tion about the types of ameni­ties they wanted in their lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. “But we were in­cred­i­bly frus­trated by how man­ual it was,” says Chris­tiansen-Franks, who lamented the lack of deep data she could tap for in­sights.

At the same time, the very peo­ple that the ur­ban de­signer of 15 years was try­ing to in­ter­view were be­com­ing cyn­i­cal about these “fact-fifind­ing” ex­er­cises and the mar­ket­ing spin that some­times seemed to be in play. This was a busi­ness head­ing south un­less it made some sig­nifi­f­i­cant changes.

The clip­board had to go. Chris­tiansen-Franks de­cided to get the data a dif­fer­ent way. With her CoDe­sign Stu­dio co-founder, Lucinda Hart­ley, she set up Neigh­bourlyt­ics. If it worked the way they hoped, they’d have both a new busi­ness and fresh in­sights.

They took the idea to SheS­tarts, an ac­cel­er­a­tor for fe­male-led star­tups, se­cured $100,000 of fund­ing and found tech­nol­o­gists who could de­velop datamin­ing tools us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learn­ing and cloud tech­nol­ogy. Their aim? To sift through so­cial me­dia, make sense of com­men­tary on user­gen­er­ated re­view sites and ex­tract a raft of other la­tent data sources to get the in­sights essen­tial for suc­cess­ful ur­ban plan­ning.

Chris­tiansen-Franks says that while cen­sus data might sug­gest that peo­ple who live on Smith Street and Chapel Street are sim­i­lar, Mel­bur­ni­ans know they have com­pletely dif­fer­ent “per­son­al­i­ties”. As she ex­plains, “If we’re try­ing to cre­ate a city that peo­ple love and feel con­nected to, it’s im­por­tant that we try to un­der­stand the nu­ances that make neigh­bour­hoods unique.” Only by tap­ping la­tent data is it pos­si­ble to un­der­stand “the per­son­al­ity” of each of those sub­urbs that’s so im­por­tant to ur­ban plan­ners.

Chris­tiansen-Franks adds that to­day al­most eight in 10 Australians use so­cial me­dia and 35 per cent of them check it more than five times a day. “So­cial data is rapidly be­com­ing a valu­able way to un­der­stand how peo­ple live, what they value and how they spend their time,” she says. “In­sta­gram and Twit­ter anal­y­sis for a re­cent project in

il­lus­tra­tions by JON GRE­GORY

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