Measuring and reducing social segregation in cities

MIT Media Lab / Human Dynamics

We use high-resolution geospatial data collected from mobile phones to measure social segregation at an unprecedented resolution in cities across the United States. Social segregation happens when people of varying socioeconomic groups in a city have little opportunity to be exposed to people different than them.

To construct this measure, we aggregate high-resolution data from over 4.5 million users in the principal metro areas in the US to characterize places in the city by how mixed their visitors are by income. Using this measure, rather than traditional residential metrics, reveals that social exposure in third places is crucial to understanding economic segregation patterns in cities. In fact, the social segregation of different economic groups is dependent on an extremely small proportion of overall venues in a city. 

We also look at how much individual citizens would need to change their behavior in order to make their patterns of exposure more integrated. Surprisingly, small changes in the amount of time people spend in different categories of places—changes as low as 2-5%—can reduce their social segregation by half. 

We're currently working on finalizing these results and exploring how we might translate these findings into policy.