, Cities

What Social Media Activity Reveals about Russians under Lockdown

Author: Kirill Golowkin

Translator: Anastasia Basova

Strelka KB analysts studied publicly available data from 16 major Russian cities to see how people are interacting with the urban environment under the conditions of quarantine.

The authors of the research analyzed photographs posted on Instagram, VKontakte, and other social networks between March 23 and April 5, 2020, when Russia went into a nationwide lockdown. They were compared with the photographs taken within the same period in 2019.

A total of 785,000 images were analyzed. The study used only publicly available anonymized data.

It covered 16 Russian cities, fifteen of them with a population over one million: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Ufa, Krasnoyarsk, Voronezh, Volgograd, and Perm. The southern resort city of Sochi was the only city in the study with a population under one million.


Rediscovering the neighborhood

The study indicates that different cities have been reacting differently to the outbreak. At the same time, Strelka KB experts can name several trends common for the whole of Russia.

Firstly, user activity declined faster in the cities where public places were shut down immediately and commuting was restricted.

Secondly, despite the outbreak, people continued moving between cities. At the same time, migration from inside regions to their respective regional centers stopped earlier than tourist and business travel from one big city to another.

Thirdly, people did not start taking photos more often at home. Instead, they preferred to go outside and take photos in their local areas, trying to stay within 100 meters of their homes when possible.

The analysts consider the last observation to be one of the most important in the study. According to heat maps, citizens began to spend more time in their own neighborhoods, started to rediscover it, and search for new attraction sites within them. This phenomenon meets the modern demand for the decentralization of cities. If this trend continues after the quarantine, it will favorably affect the development of local communities and the urban periphery.


Fewer photos posted on social media

Because of the lockdown, citizens did not start taking more photos in their apartments. The analysts looked at the data from various social networks from the beginning of lockdown in Russia and compared it with the figures from 2019.

It turned out that in almost all of the cities covered in the study, the number of photographs fell sharply compared to the same period a year before.

The dynamics of the decline varies depending on the city. From March 23 to March 29 this indicator in Kazan was –43 percent compared to the previous year, in Novosibirsk –31 percent, in Moscow –19 percent, in St. Petersburg –17 percent. In Sochi, the number of photographs did not decrease, but grew by 43 percent.

The first non-working week in Russia began on March 30. After that, restrictive measures started to be introduced across the country. During this period, the decline in the number of photos posted intensified: –53 percent in Moscow, –34 percent in Ufa, –76 percent in Kazan. The indicator for Sochi was also negative. In these four cities, the difference between the first and second weeks is most clearly visible because strict restrictions were introduced on residents. In some cities, the threat was not taken seriously—in Chelyabinsk, Omsk, and Volgograd, photo activity remained unchanged for two weeks.



Researchers initially suggested that the decline in the number of photographs was affected by a decrease in the number of tourists or the number of people coming to the city from neighboring regions.

However, it turned out that in almost all cities, the correlation between the number of photographs taken by visitors and locals did not change significantly compared to last year—no more than 5 to 7 percent. The decline in the number of visitors turned out to be really visible only in three cities: Kazan, Samara, and Perm.

The empty bridge across the Kazanka River

Kazan was first to lose visitors from other areas of Tatarstan and from the Samara region. At the same time, the influx of people from Moscow and St. Petersburg did not change significantly during these two weeks.

At the beginning of the lockdown, the media reported that Russians fled en masse to the resort city of Sochi to self-isolate there. Nevertheless, the increase in photographs taken by tourists there was small. Immediately after the announcement of non-working days (starting on March 25), it was only +2 percent compared to last year, and by the end of the first non-working week, there was a decrease of –8 percent.

In St. Petersburg from March 23 to March 29 the number of tourist photographs increased by 10 percent compared to 2019. By the end of the first non-working week, the indicator was already –2 percent.



Unexpectedly, the сorrelation between the number of photographs taken outdoors and indoors remained the same. Compared to 2019, it either did not change at all (as in Omsk and Chelyabinsk), or even slightly grew in favor of pictures taken outdoors (in Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod).

With the start of the outbreak, Muscovites and tourists started taking fewer photographs on central streets and near places of interest. The area with high photo activity in the left part of the map is the Moscow Zoo, which was closed on March 17.

In the cities covered in the study the number of photographs taken in the city center, large parks, and forest reserves far from residential areas, decreased. At the same time, the number and density of digital footprints in courtyards and small parks in residential areas increased.

For example, in the center of Moscow, the distribution of activity remained the same, but it decreased in all tourist places: at Red Square, on Nikolskaya Street, in Zaryadye Park, on Old Arbat, and near the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

The number of photographs decreased in Kolomenskoye Park but increased on the banks of the Moskva River close to residential areas.

At the same time, the number of photographs on social networks taken on the outskirts of Moscow was on the rise. On a map of Nagatinsky Zaton district and its surroundings, one can see an increased digital footprint in the residential area, on the bank of the Moskva River and Pechatniki Park. At the same time, in large parks, such as Kolomenskoye and Sadovniki, which were closed for visitors, the density of digital activity decreased.

On the map of Kazan, it is visible how the usual walking route was split up: the bridge across the Kazanka River was almost empty, fewer photos were taken in the Kremlin and on main streets.

The highlighted area on the map is the center of Ufa, where the number of photographs posted on social networks decreased. The number of photographs increased in residential areas.

Photo activity decreased in the center of Ufa, but in the areas dominated by detached housing, the activity increased significantly.

A decrease in the number of photographs taken in the center of Ekaterinburg and an increase in the number of photographs taken by the lake in Shartashsky forest park

The situation is similar in Yekaterinburg. The density of the digital footprint sharply decreased in the city center. At the same time, people began taking more photos while walking along the lake in Shartashsky forest park, although usually, the end of March to the beginning of April is too early for such photographs.

Even in the cities where the changes were not so striking, photo activity shifted from the center to the periphery as citizens across the country tended to avoid big crowds of people, fearing infection.

The research was conducted by Strelka KB, Daria Radchenko, Daria Bokadorova, Sergey Tyupanov, Alexander Kamenev, Arseny Plyusnin, and Sofya Lobanova. The multidisciplinary team behind the study includes digital anthropologists, data analysts, GIS analysts, and machine learning and machine vision specialists.

Cover image: Saint-petersburg, Russia - 31 March 2020. Source: istock / Aleksandr Zotov

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