What If You Could Choose Between the Fastest Route and the Most Beautiful?

In the future, GPS directions may not always be destination-driven.

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Crystal Palace Park, London. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mapping apps are a fantastic tool, but they can be a little soulless. They'll get you from point A to point B quickly, but the route itself might make for a garbage-strewn, treeless journey. After all, how could a mapping service know how to take the scenic value of a route into account when calculating directions? Soon, one might.

Inspired in part by psychogeography theory (which emphasizes playfulness in travel), a group of researchers from Yahoo! Labs in Barcelona in collaboration with University of Torino sought to add a bit of pep to these services. In a newly released paper, they explore how mapping apps could theoretically generate short walking routes that are more beautiful or quiet than standard offerings.   

“We quantify how people psychologically perceive the urban environment, and using existing algorithms, we identify pleasurable detours,” the researchers told CityLab in an email.

But how do you quantify concepts as nebulous as beauty or happiness? In this case, the researchers turned to crowdsourced data obtained from UrbanGems.org. The website juxtaposes photographs of two locations in London, the test city for the experiment, and asks users to choose which is the more beautiful, happy, or quiet of the pair. The researchers received input from more than 3,000 participants over a four-month period beginning in September 2012.

Crowdsourcing beauty. (UrbanGems.org)

“Concepts like beauty and happiness are subjective indeed,” the researchers say. “But, in our crowdsourcing experiment, we found that if you ask a large enough number of people to pick between two pictures [and choose] which one is more beautiful or which one makes them happier, consensus usually emerges.”

Once they had their consensus, the researchers ranked locations according to their pleasantness and combined those ranks with pre-existing algorithms to propose new routes. They then enlisted 30 people familiar with London as judges. In order to control for other factors that might influence their perception, such as weather or time of day, the participants did not actually walk the routes, but evaluated them based on their knowledge of the city.

From Euston Square to Tate Modern: The routes through London that were evaluated by the 30 judges. (Yahoo! Labs)

“This approach turned out to give very promising results,” explain the researchers. The respondents not only managed to identify the quality correlated with each path, but gave detailed rationales for why they imagined a path to be more beautiful, happy, or quiet than another.

Ultimately, the recommended routes ended up only being about 12 percent longer than the shortest route produced by common mapping services. Translated to real life, that 12 percent equates to a not-so-whopping seven-and-a-half minutes tacked on to your trip. For most people, that is a totally doable trade-off for a more delightful walk.

The next question is how to export this experiment to other cities. Crowdsourcing this sort of data is too intensive a strategy to use for every city worldwide, so the researchers turned elsewhere, namely to the photosharing site Flickr, which is also owned by Yahoo!. They were able to prove that Flickr metadata acts as a good alternative to crowdsourcing and, using the metadata, successfully expanded their routing experiment to Boston.  

Some people might not be charmed by an experiment that relies on squishy concepts like beauty and happiness. But the researchers chose those particular  characteristics because “they are at the core of academic work on urban well-being.” If you prefer to investigate the more unusual corners of your city, you could, in theory, tweak this experiment to focus on whatever aspect of a city beguiles you most by crowdsourcing locations that fit your chosen variable.

Whatever you think of the experiment itself (which may eventually become a mobile app), the underlying gist of the proposal is valuable: Small interventions in your everyday routine can generate a more comprehensive urban experience. Your commute to work and your walk to the shop don’t have to be so myopic and destination-driven. If you give yourself an extra 10 minutes for a small detour on your journey, it can transform your experience of the city into something altogether more enjoyable.

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