How to Plan the Most Beautiful Stroll Through a City | Innovation | Smithsonian
Pedestrians cross London's Millennium Bridge at dusk toward the lit dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. (Marius Musan)

How to Plan the Most Beautiful Stroll Through a City

A team of researchers has used crowdsourcing to develop an algorithm that can map out the most eye-pleasing walks

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Who gets lost any more? Thanks to GPS, going from place to place has become so certain, so efficient, so…mechanical. 

Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that machines have made directions so precise. But a case can be made that the fastest route between two points is often not the most enjoyable.

That’s the motivation behind a clever project devised by a team of European researchers—Daniele Quercia and Luca Maria Aiello at Yahoo Labs in Barcelona and Rossano Schifanella from the University of Torino in Italy. They set out to invent a method for finding the most pleasing paths through a city.   

We’re not talking about circuitous treks designed to let you take in a lot of landmarks. No, they wanted to map out walks that get you where you want to go, but make you feel good while you’re getting there.

So they turned to a discerning source: Humans.

This way to happiness

The researchers crowdsourced pedestrian pleasure. They started by gathering 3.7 million images of locations in London from Google Street View and Geograph. The latter is an online project with the mission of collecting images of every square kilometer in Great Britain and Ireland. These photos were then uploaded to a website called UrbanGems.org, where visitors were shown pictures of London streets two at a time and asked to pick the one that looked “more beautiful, quiet and happy.” 

Based on those votes—roughly 3,300 people weighed in—locations were given a “beauty score.” The researchers then used an algorithm they created to provide directions that included locations that scored well. On average, according to Quercia, the visually pleasing routes were only 12 percent longer than the shortest ones with the same start and end points.

The “beauty dimension”

The team quickly realized, however, that this kind of beauty crowdsourcing for every major city would be an enormous undertaking. So they turned to another image repository that they thought could give them a pretty good idea of what sights struck people as beautiful—the popular photo-sharing site Flickr.

First, they needed to determine if there was any correlation between a location’s beauty scores in their London project and how it fared on Flickr. They found that the high-scoring locations also tended to be featured in more photos and have more positive comments on Flickr. 

The Flickr metadata, the researchers felt, provided a “beauty dimension” that would allow them to create happiness maps for other cities. To date, they’ve compiled only one, of Boston. But judging from the reactions of more than 50 Bostonians they recruited to review the results, the process seems to work. That group agreed that the high-beauty routes chosen by the algorithm made for much more pleasant strolls than those following the most direct paths.

Now they’re working on a mobile app that will take their “shortest path to happiness” concept and test it in other U.S. and European cities.

Local flavor

A startup in Massachusetts is taking a different approach to adding a human touch to robotic directions. It’s working on an app where the driving instructions sound like they come from real people who know their way around town.

That’s because the company, called Mapkin, is crowdsourcing its voice navigation, so that people who have the app will be able to submit more personal directions. If they hear instructions they want to change or enhance, users just tap on the screen and suggest their own, maybe throwing in a reference to a local landmark or an event that happened there. The staff at Mapkin reviews all the submissions, and if they like what they hear, that human tidbit is thrown into the mix with all the right and left turns.   

"GPS navigation does one thing extremely well, which is getting you to the destination as fast as possible," Mapkin co-founder Marc Regan told Boston.com. "But what if you want to point out the great coffee shop on the way or know about the most scenic route for a bike ride?"

Here’s a little demo of what the Mapkin app could sound like:

Power mapping

Here are other recent developments in how technology is changing maps: 

  • Thanks for phoning it in: Scientists at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology are developing a sensor that attaches to a smartphone and measures fine dust pollution, the cause of numerous health problems. The goal is to eventually get enough people with these sensors that cities could have crowdsourced pollution maps updated in real time.
  • Take the low road: One of the features in a new update to Google Maps is the ability for cyclists to see the elevations of hills on any route. That lets them select routes with the least amount of climbing—or the most, if they’re feeling feisty.
  • Shaking all over: Earlier this month, the U.S. Geological Survey released a new version of its U.S. earthquake map that shows a heightened risk of a quake for one-third of the states. Scientists pointed out that this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an increased threat, but rather that more sophisticated sensors and modeling technology have given them a better idea of how widespread the earthquake risk in the country actually is.

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