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Researchers Aim to Find the ‘Most Pleasant’ Way to Go Places

Crowdsourcing approach to mapping adds aesthetic options when walking or biking

By Stephanie Stewart-Howard on November 19, 2014

Mapping Researchers Aim for Prettier Routes
©iStock.com/Svetlana Damjanac

What if your GPS gave you the option to take not just the shortest route when walking between two places, but also the most pleasant? Researchers at Yahoo! Labs recently asked that very question in their study, The Shortest Path to Happiness: Recommending Beautiful, Quiet and Happy Routes in the City, in which they used a crowdsourcing platform and Flickr to determine the most “beautiful,” “quiet” and “happy” walks.

Enjoying a Beautiful Walk, Everywhere You Go

The researchers, Daniele Quercia, Luca Maria Aiello and Rossano Schifanella, wanted to discover short, pleasant paths between popular locations and destinations. They started with the city of London, dividing the city into “walkable cells” to build a location graph. To assess prevailing emotions about the actual locations on the graph, they used crowdsourced data from www.UrbanGems.org, a website where users choose between several series of two different London scenes to select which is most “beautiful,” “quiet” and “happy.”

They then developed a formula to recommend paths between destinations that would theoretically strike a balance between the shortest distance and the one offering an experience defined as most “pleasant” by UrbanGems.org use data. The last step enlisted 30 participants who took their path recommendations (without knowing which path they were being given) and provided feedback on whether these routes truly seemed “beautiful,” “quiet” or “happy.”

Mining Flickr Metadata for Pleasant Paths

The reseachers also looked for alternatives to UrbanGems crowdsourcing data, since it is limited to London. They turned to Flickr, where users upload images that contain metadata from which the researchers could pull geographical and emotional insight (number of photos, comments, favorites, views, tags) to develop a “beautiful” route.  Participants in London who took this fifth option did not strongly prefer it over the other four, however it went over well with the 54 participants in Boston, where the Flickr approach was the only method available for creating alternate routes.

Other Aspects

There is no question that tourists and walkers look for routes that meet more needs than simply short distance. The study acknowledges that other aspects of the routes can be used to appeal to the designers who might build applications defining such routes, including the listing of notable historic sites that contribute to a pleasant urban excursion. One respondent to the study said, for example, “I would have a lot to say on the way about buildings, history, events and people I met along this path.” This suggests the potential for creating more guided-tour formats for users.

The demographics of the study’s participants varied, in order to give the most thorough perspective, with London participants skewing 58 to 42 percent male to female, with the largest age block being 30 to 35. Most had lived in London for an average two-and-a-half years.

Further Development

Recent controversy over an app that allowed drivers specifically to avoid so-called “bad neighborhoods” (with the implication that class is a dominant factor) has resulted in scrutiny when the topic of “prettiest” routes is addressed. However, there is a distinct difference between the goals of those apps and what is proposed here by Quercia et al. This study aims squarely at pedestrians, rather than drivers, and often tourists looking specifically for beautiful, quiet routes. It must be underlined that the needs and goals of pedestrians, especially tourists, are not identical to those of driving commuters.

Crowdsourcing Needs

Crowdsourcing for this article itself via social media appeared to support that assertion. For example, “when I go backpacking, I aim for the scenic route,” says Ridgley Schlemm of Kansas City, Mo. “Commuting to work, whether on my bicycle or in my car, the object is to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time.”

Shawn Reed, of Nashville, Tenn., says, “For exercise, I go with what’s convenient, but if I have the opportunity, I prefer scenic and variety. The same route over and over sometimes gets boring. To work, [I drive the] same route, based on speed. I work far enough away from home that traffic is my determining factor.”

And Abby Stranathan of Lexington, Ky., says, “Scenic and quiet routes when I’m just out walking – the dogs and I walk through a lovely neighborhood that buffers the main traffic that runs by my apartment complex.”

Ultimately, the needs of the commuter may favor the shortest distance between two points, but the needs of the casual walker, runner or tourist may be for the scenic route that provides far more than getting from one place to another. This study by Quercia, Aiello and Schifanella suggests ways in which those needs for scenic spaces can be met, without sending pedestrians too far out of the way between points.

“For exercise, I go with what’s convenient, but if I have the opportunity, I prefer scenic and variety. The same route over and over sometimes gets boring. To work, same route, based on speed. I work far enough away from home that traffic is my determining factor.”

Shawn Reed, Nashville, Tenn.

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