London

Transition tales #23: On the pursuit of happiness

Experience a different path in London with Happy Maps, a map algorithm that suggests beautiful routes, rather than the shortest ones.

In a city build on time efficiency, map apps become essential in finding out the shortest paths to your destination. This is usually the best option when driving, yet walking or cycling can have different priorities. To this highly mechanised cartographic system, a group of international researchers offers a more humanised approach – the Happy Maps algorithm. Time to discover the ‘happier’ side of London.

Daniele Quercia, together with Rossano Schifanella and Luca Maria Aiello came together as goodcitylife.org, a research team that uses the smart-city rhetoric to map the emotional layers of a city, such as beautiful roads, quiet streets and happy routes. The first test of this ‘happy’ initiative took place in London.

 The various faces of London ©Yahoo!

‘Happy Maps uses geo-tagged pictures and the associated metadata to build an alternative cartography of a city weighted for human emotions’ – source: goodcitylife.org

The project started by creating a photo database with images taken from Google Street View depicting the centre of London. What followed was a crowdsourcing process using the website UrbanGems.org. The idea is simple: each user on UrbanGems is shown two pictures side-by-side from which he votes on which one is more beautiful, or quiet, or happy. Although working with highly subjective concepts, the researchers had a large number of participants in the study – over 3,000 users in the first four months, which helped establish consensus. The winning locations were used to create a new map of London, as a visualisation of human emotions.

'Beauty' test ©urban gems.org

In order to test the accuracy of the results, they recruited 30 Londoners familiar with the area to make an evaluation based on their knowledge of the city. During tests, the Londoners found the new routes more pleasant, while having to adjust the timeframe by only a couple of extra minutes. In a city like London, which is highly mechanised, it is good to be reminded now and then that efficiency isn’t everything.

‘Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” So with a bit of imagination, we needed to understand which parts of the city people find beautiful.’ – Daniele Quercia, source: TEDTalks

The 'happy' route through central London © TED Conferences

The next step was to upscale the project and test its applicability in other cities. For that, the crowdsourcing process was replaced with an alternative that offered a wider selection of photographs, namely the phototsharing site Flickr. Basing the experiment on the idea that people more often take pictures of beautiful cityscapes and interesting streets, they tested their algorithm in Boston. They then asked 54 locals to evaluate the new city maps, and just like the case of London, the participants found the alternative maps more relevant for Boston.

‘Happy Maps might well contribute in changing the way engineering products are designed: often they are designed with the concept of efficiency in mind. But, being more efficient does not necessarily make us happier.’ – source: goodcitylife.org

Nevertheless, there are still potential problems with this project, as some of the locations in London are ‘less beautiful’ during certain times of the day, and subjective indicators such as happiness are always difficult to tackle. Still, this is an interesting approach that can change the way people experience the city. When in London, do not hesitate to discover the ‘happy’ side of the British capital.

Feeling inspired? Watch the video below.

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