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What Artificial Intelligence Reveals About Urban Change

A team of Harvard and MIT researchers takes a new approach to figure out why some neighborhoods improve while others decline.
The researchers' map shows how neighborhoods in five cities have physically changed between 2007 and 2014.
The researchers' map shows how neighborhoods in five cities have physically changed between 2007 and 2014.MIT Media Lab

Google Street View is like an urban time machine. In the 10 years since it launched, it has captured how neighborhoods have transformed over time—for the better or for worse. What’s not apparent, though, is why some neighborhoods improve and others decline.

To dive into that question, a team of Harvard and MIT economists and computer science researchers is turning to a combination of Street View and artificial intelligence. In a study of neighborhoods’ physical changes and perceived safety, the researchers ran nearly 3,000 images through an algorithm to determine the predictors of neighborhood improvement. While some of the conclusions may not be bombshells for urban experts who study neighborhood change, the researchers say the study, published last week in the journal Proceeding of the National Academies of Sciences, highlights the potential of artificial intelligence to give policymakers and urban scientists a more robust way of testing longstanding theories.