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Google Street View to help make voting predictions
January 7, 2018, 4:52 pm

Researchers at Stanford University have leveraged Artificial Intelligence (AI) to perform image analysis and make accurate predictions of neighborhood voting patterns. Using over 50 million images of street scenes and location data, collected by Google Street View cameras in the United States, the researchers were able to predict demographic statistics at the zip code and precinct level.

While other academic projects have used artificial intelligence to mine Google Street View for socio-economic insights (such as Streetchange), this project was notable because of the vast quantity of images that its AI software processed.

Analyzing the image data the AI could glean information, including the make and model of about 22 million cars, or about 8 percent of all cars in the country, in 3,000 zip codes and 39,000 voting districts. After cross-referencing that data with information from other sources, including the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and presidential election voting records, the researchers found that they were able to make accurate predictions about a neighborhood’s income, race, education and voting patterns.

In order to get their AI algorithms to classify cars accurately, the researchers trained it by recruiting hundreds of car mechanics and experts to identify vehicles in a sample of millions of pictures. In the end, their software was able to classify cars in 50 million images in just two weeks, a task that could have taken a human expert 15 years to finish.

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team wrote that their technology can supplement the American Community Survey, which costs more than $250 million each year to perform. Since the survey is also labor-intensive, with workers going door to door, that means smaller areas with populations of less than 65,000 are often overlooked. As technology improves, demographic statistics may eventually be updated in real time, though the researchers noted that policymakers will need to be careful to make sure data is collected only at the community level to safeguard individual privacy.

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