THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Their Boston, Our Boston

(Eric Fischer )
By Robert David Sullivan
June 27, 2010

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In the Age of Aggregation, even an impulsive click on your cellphone can become a piece of data for a project you never knew existed.

Where do tourists go in Boston? Where do locals stop to take pictures? On this map, the red dots mark photos taken by visitors to the city; the blue dots are photos taken by locals. You can see the red gathered together in huge clusters, forming a spine through central Boston, while the blue dots sprawl outward through the neighborhoods, a kind of anti-tourist guide to the city.

The image is the work of Eric Fischer, a 37-year-old computer programmer in Oakland, Calif., who plotted some 650,000 Boston photos that users had uploaded to the Flickr and Picasa websites. He drew similar maps for dozens of cities all over the world, sorting them into “local” and “tourist” based on how long people took photos in the same area. (A Flickr user who shot in the Hub for only a week or so was labeled a tourist, for example; more than a month is a local. Yellow dots represent users whose home base is unclear.)

The maps, in effect, divide each city’s most bustling areas into two territories, one for “them” and one for “us.” Bostonians are well aware of the boundaries — Faneuil Hall and Inman Square, for example, clearly come down on opposite sides of the red/blue divide.

The maps can tell other subtle stories about a city as well. In most of the cities Fischer mapped, the blue dots fan out in one direction — in the Boston area, they’re strewn toward the west and are especially thick in Cambridge. But the pattern is even more noticeable in Chicago and Washington, D.C.; in both of those cases, the blue dots lie almost entirely north of downtown, in relatively affluent neighborhoods that have not only more picturesque streets, but also more pedestrians with cameras, iPhones, and Flickr accounts. (See all of the maps at http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf.)

It’s easy to think of the tourist-free blue territories as more authentic slices of the city, yet they often lack the very things that give a city its identity. In New York, red means Broadway and Central Park; blue means neighborhood pubs and small playgrounds. In Washington, D.C., red means national monuments, and blue means Banana Republic stores. And in Montreal, red means escargot, but blue means Vietnamese pho shops and other eateries typically found in any city with a large immigrant population.

In Boston, red means Durgin Park and lobster dinners, while blue means Indian restaurants and sushi bars — more local, but perhaps less quintessentially Bostonian. The overwhelmingly red Fenway Park and the Freedom Trail stand out as our tourist hotspots, along with Harvard Square and Copley Square (not far from the Apple Store, where a lot of cellphones are sold). Locals have a few favorite sites of their own — Mount Auburn Cemetery is rich in blue dots, with few red — but their photos are more spread out, stretching down Mass. Ave. and Comm. Ave., and creating a spidery pattern radiating out from Somerville’s Davis Square.

“My hope in making the maps was that they would identify the good places in the world,” Fischer said in an interview. As it turns out, he says, they highlight areas that are “physically comfortable, economically successful, and photogenic.” Boston as a whole seems to fit that definition better than most cities; another set of Fischer’s maps ranks cities by the total number of photos taken in their central districts, and the Hub is behind only New York and San Francisco among American cities, and ranked seventh worldwide.

Fischer has other ambitions for his maps — he’s hoping next to track changes over time, and even show where people gather for popular events like New Year’s Eve. City planners may want to take note, and track whether Flickr photos increase in newly developed areas such as the Greenway and the South Boston Waterfront.

And of course, look for savvy event promoters to try to steer the results. Political rallies and performances of Shakespeare in the Park could begin with an earnest plea for all audience members to turn on their cellphones — so they can point, click, and be counted.

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Malden.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a map accompanying this story mislabeled an intersection. The pointer indicating Union Square, in Somerville, was incorrectly labeled Inman Square.