Using Twitter Bots to Assess Risks to Land Development and Planning


Justin Hollander, PhD, FAICP
Tufts University

Dr. Hollander is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts and a “thought leader” at the intersection of cognitive science and the design of cities.  He co-edited the book Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm (Routledge, 2020) and authored seven other books including Cognitive Architecture Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment (with Ann Sussman) and Urban Social Listening: Potential and Pitfalls for Using Microblogging Data in Studying Cities. 




The first phase of the study focussed on the risks that social media manipulation poses to online community discourse around land development and planning topics. In the second phase the research team developed its own Twitter bot, Urbanist Uma, with a core set of artificial intelligence and a unique personality with topical interests around key development and planning issues.

Twitter has been identified as a platform that can be used as a means of building social capital, improve information sharing or simply to learn about a community. For some, use of Twitter is a logical progression of participatory planning. There are risks. It can also create an echo chamber leading to creation of homogenous groups that display only ideologically aligned content and rarely expose to conflicting ideas. Participants may not even be real.  Automated bots may augment a minority view, influence others, or create a spiral of silence benefitting specific viewpoints.

The researchers analyzed tweets a pro- or anti-development, the kinds of sentiment words employed and the volume of likes or retweets; all aimed at gauging the actual risk these bots pose. The researchers further explored the question: do social bots encourage debate or create an echo chamber? A social bot ‘Urbanist Uma’ was created to test this question. By May 2022 Uma had 247 followers from 27 countries.

Below is a link to an Executive Summary of a Final Report to LAI Land Economics Foundation prepared by the research team. 

Thanks to Justin Hollander PhD (Tufts University), Maxwell Hartt, PhD (Queen’s University), Ruth Potts, PhD (Cardiff University) and their contributors, Alexander Seto, Lily Kramer, Johanna Riddle, Stephanie Cantlay and Emilia Dick Fiora del Fabro.

The first LAI Global Initiatives webinar on this presentation on December 4, 2020 can be found on LAI TV through the following link:

The second LAI Global Initiatives webinar on Dr. Hollander’s project was presented January 13, 2023. To view, go to LAI TV through this link.

Photograph courtesy of Justin Hollander

KeyNotes article submitted by :
Richard Cook, MLAI,  Vancouver Chapter





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