Cite as:

Urbano França, Hiroki Sayama, Colin McSwiggen, Roozbeh Daneshvar, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, Visualizing the “heartbeat” of a city with tweets, Complexity (April 21, 2015), doi: 10.1002/cplx.21687.


Describing the dynamics of a city is a crucial step to both understanding the human activity in urban environments and to planning and designing cities accordingly. Here we describe the collective dynamics of New York City and surrounding areas as seen through the lens of Twitter usage. In particular, we observe and quantify the patterns that emerge naturally from the hourly activities in different areas of New York City, and discuss how they can be used to understand the urban areas. Using a dataset that includes more than 6 million geolocated Twitter messages we construct a movie of the geographic density of tweets. We observe the diurnal “heartbeat” of the NYC area. The largest scale dynamics are the waking and sleeping cycle and commuting from residential communities to office areas in Manhattan. Hourly dynamics reflect the interplay of commuting, work and leisure, including whether people are preoccupied with other activities or actively using Twitter. Differences between weekday and weekend dynamics point to changes in when people wake and sleep, and engage in social activities. We show that by measuring the average distances to the heart of the city one can quantify the weekly differences and the shift in behavior during weekends. We also identify locations and times of high Twitter activity that occur because of specific activities. These include early morning high levels of traffic as people arrive and wait at air transportation hubs, and on Sunday at the Meadowlands Sports Complex and Statue of Liberty. We analyze the role of particular individuals where they have large impacts on overall Twitter activity. Our analysis points to the opportunity to develop insight into both geographic social dynamics and attention through social media analysis.

NYC geographical region with the locations of 6 million tweets shown. The sharp land-sea boundary is apparent as is the boundary of land area with high population density.

Activity pattern of the NYC area for a week. The difference from the average number of tweets is shown. Activity is higher (progressively red and yellow) or lower (progressively dark and light blue) than average.

Twitter activity with differences from the average represented as changes in height.

The same animation with a static viewpoint.