CSCW’14: urbangems, crowdsourcing perceptions of London’s streets

Last year I had the pleasure of working with my Yahoo Labs Barcelona colleagues, Daniele Quercia and Neil O’Hare on the Urbangems.org project, started by Daniele when he was at Cambridge. Read the full paper “Aesthetic Capital: What Makes London Look Beautiful, Quiet, and Happy” here, presented this week by Daniele at CSCW’14 in Baltimore.

Urbangems is an exploration in crowdsourcing people’s perceptions of their urban environment and of how we can use that data. Over 3300 Urbangems.org visitors rated street views of London on three perceived qualities: beauty, quiet and ‘happiness’. We then used image processing to identify which visual features, color and textures led to higher and lower ratings. We found that greenery for example was related to the three qualities, whereas specific building styles (e.g. council housing) led to less enthusiastic ratings. This implies that we could use these techniques to better understand and predict people’s reactions to the built environment.

There is an interesting tension here: what if we just found the ‘average look’ that almost everyone likes? We definitely shouldn’t just strive for a lovable-but-bland mean in which every street looks the same, following some pre-calculated look that we predict a majority will like. Obviously, tastes vary and there is value in preserving what may not necessarily be perceived as pleasant by all. Beyond visual features, rich histories, social fabric, and the physical experience of being there all feed into our differing perceptions. This project is a starting point in exploring how crowdsourcing and different analysis techniques, here visual analytics, can be used to systematically understand those features that affect people’s perceptions – and to support actively taking into account the human experience.

More thoughts on “Understanding ‘there’ on a human scale”, in my position paper for last year’s GeoHCI workshop.

Also check out Daniele Quercia’s related BBC blog article.

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