Who are the people in your neighborhood (according to Google)? Chicago Neighborhoods According to Google, Part 3

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This is part of an ongoing series discussing how Chicago neighborhoods are described through the lens of Google's search results. You can find a list of all four articles at the bottom of the post.

Today we'll be looking at how Google's search results portray the racial and economic breakdown of Chicago's neighborhoods. As I mentioned last week, I tallied mentions of race and class separately from the emotional terms. While calling a neighborhood "poverty-ridden," "affluent" or "Swedish" might have a positive or negative impact on your overall impression of a given area, it won't necessarily have the same impact for everyone in the same way as something like "dangerous," "pretty" or "boring."

In some ways, Google's take on the race and class makeup of Chicago is far more important than any adjectives sprinkled through its search results. It's crucial information for many newcomers that real estate agents cannot discuss. In fact I would argue that race and class information are probably the main things that would prompt someone to Google a neighborhood in the first place.

Race and National Origin

Chicago is infamous as a highly segregated city. Maps such as the one featured on Radical Cartography use census data to highlight exactly how clustered we are along racial lines. Google's map, by contrast, looks like a crazy quilt that's been nibbled by moths.

Unlike the clear bundles of color in the Radical Cartography map, the Google map gives a more mottled view. However, it's important to note that enormous gaps are present in the northeast and mid-south sections of the city. If I had broken down the "White" grouping into all the individual countries that were named (Swedish, Polish, German, Irish, Serbian, etc) it would be even more of a rainbow.

Also worth noting are the races and cultures that are present in this city but not mentioned at all by Google. The Asian communities are predominantly East Asian. The strong Southeast Asian communities have no presence on the first page of Google search results. Also missing are the many pockets of Middle Eastern residents. I suppose the bulk of the Google search results reflect the census, which focuses on race more than national origin. Perhaps if we had looked beyond the first page of results we would have found mention of these communities.

Economic Class

For all that Chicago's racial boundaries are decried in the media, less is mentioned about clustering by economic class. Perhaps some feel that it makes more sense - looking at the Radical Cartography income map, the wealth is clustered downtown, decreasing in rings as you move outward. There is a heavier trend towards poverty on the south side, but one could suppose that goes hand in hand with the cost of living. Housing is much cheaper once you get south of I-55.

Google mentions class far less often than race. It also prefers to call out poor neighborhoods over wealthy ones. Looking at our map, you'll see a large chunk of reds and oranges - these are neighborhoods defined as "poor" or "working class" respectively. The "affluent" blues cover a much smaller area.

Of particular note is the rehabilitation of Cabrini-Green. We had expected the first page of results to be obsessed with the area's history as a notorious housing project. Instead, the only mention we could find was of its current state as a mixed-income neighborhood.

Lifestyle is a privilege

Regular readers will know that I didn't only tally race and class - I also noted the neighborhoods where a predominant lifestyle choice was mentioned. Some will criticize me for selecting the particular groups that I chose to highlight here. I 100% agree that sexual orientation, religious affiliation and the presence of children are not necessarily "choices" to many. However, I would argue that openly focusing on any of those three things is as much of a choice as being a hipster, yuppie or hippie.

Google has something important to teach us about race and privilege here. Of the 18 neighborhoods where Google mentions a predominant lifestyle, only 2 of them (Marquette Park and Back of the Yards) do not have a predominantly white, wealthy population.

We can infer a couple of things from this information. It could be that lifestyles are mentioned as a way to differentiate between and "spice up" the assorted white neighborhoods throughout Chicago. It might be a way of telegraphing political affiliation, as some lifestyle groups lean more towards the left or right by default. It could also be that the ability to openly choose a given lifestyle above and beyond just getting by is a privilege of the upper and middle class white population. I'm not one to say where the truth lies - the data is not sufficient to draw a conclusion.

Is Google Accurate?

If newcomers were to use this data to choose their new location, would they be making an accurate decision? I compared the Google maps against the Radical Cartography maps to verify.

Out of the 45 neighborhoods where Google mentions race or national origin in search results, it corresponds to the 2010 census in all but 11. That's 76% accuracy for race. I'm not impressed.

In terms of economic class, Google is far worse of a predictor. It disgrees with the census figures in 12 out of 31 of the cases where income is mentioned. That's a 61% accuracy rate - yuck! In most cases it's just off by a tick, defining poor or middle class neighborhoods as "working class." However, in 4 cases it's egregiously wrong. Of particular note is Belmont Cragin, which has an overall income in the top 20% per the census, but is described as an area of extreme poverty by Google.

So to answer the question of accuracy, no, I wouldn't recommend using the first page of Google search results to give you the correct impression of the people in your new neighborhood. It may give you an idea of how the population is perceived - either by residents or outsiders. It may link you to actual statistical data that you can use as a more reliable source. But if the past two articles haven't already proven it, the race & class data nails it down - the first page of Google search results should not be the last stop in your neighborhood research.

Still to come: Rent or Buy

We've got one more factor to go. Google likes to suggest "homes for sale" and "apartments for rent" as related searches for many neighborhoods in Chicago, but it doesn't use the two terms simultaneously for every neighborhood. Find out which areas are for renters and which are for buyers in Google's eyes next week.

In the meantime, please take a moment to share this series with your friends! We love doing research like this and would be happy to take on projects that answer the nagging questions that float through your mind.

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