Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: New mapping algorithm poses problems and promise for cities
Technology is allowing city residents to interact with their surroundings in new ways, which can have both the benefit of advancing sustainable development and the drawback of reinforcing social divisions. Photo by Daniel Chavez/Flickr.

Technology is allowing city residents to interact with their surroundings in new ways, which can have both the benefit of advancing sustainable development and the drawback of reinforcing social divisions. Photo by Daniel Chavez/Flickr.

Yahoo Labs has recently created a mapping algorithm that helps pedestrians find not the shortest route to their destination, but the most attractive one. This is great for visitors who want to spend every second of their time sightseeing in a new city, or for residents who want to explore their surroundings in a new way. However, although the algorithm was meant to showcase the beauty of cities, we must not forget what is covered up in this data-centric quest for the most aesthetic path. While well intentioned, this algorithm allows city residents to systematically bypass areas of poverty and blight, and it raises more than a few ethical questions about how emerging digital applications are changing the way people interact within cities.

The makings of a happy journey

The algorithm was created using data from a range of websites – including UrbanGems.org, which allows users to choose between two photos of different locations which they prefer, together with Google Street View, Geograph, tags of #happy or #pretty attached to photos posted on Twitter, and 3.7 million Flickr photos that people found “quiet,” “relaxing,” or “cheerful.” Although this algorithm has only been tested within London, Boston, and Barcelona, it is set to be released to application developers around the globe. This creates an almost limitless set of applications. On Halloween, pedestrians can take scarier routes; on Saturday nights, people can navigate through cities based on the highest concentration of pictures that use the words #fun or #party.

However, there are some immediate limitations to the application. The “happiness” of a place is easily influenced by the time of day people take a route, which the algorithm does not take into account. Some streets might have musicians playing and families leisurely walking on the weekend, but are packed with grumpy commuters during morning rush hour.

The formula for what the algorithm’s makers define as a happy place also influences the potential of this algorithm. The demographics of those who initially tested it were 60% male, between the ages of 20 and 50, and tech-savvy enough to actively volunteer for this project. Yet, women, minorities, and elderly populations often experience urban spaces differently, and have different mobility needs. Having an application that suggests the most scenic route for an able-bodied man might be an unpleasant, or even dangerous route, for other users. Furthermore, when the algorithm is developed into an application it might ultimately fail from its own initial success. If too many people are visiting a route marked as “peaceful” it can ruin the very feeling that made the place so treasured.

Ethical issues with location-based technology

Aside from these initial limitations, there is also a much more unsettling issue that needs to be raised about the use of this technology. The places people inhabit the most are the places people care about the most. It’s no surprise, then, that the rapid rise of suburbanization in the 1950s led to disinvestment in cities in the United States at the same time, with many cities experiencing increased poverty and population loss. But what is surprising is that the number of people writing about poverty declined even as inequality was on the rise.

Disadvantaged communities – including those unlikely to live in a scenic (or #pretty) location – are already marginalized from economic and social opportunities in cities. To craft an algorithm to only see the beautiful parts of a metropolis would move poverty from something difficult to solve to an issue that disappears entirely from newspapers, books, and policy debates because it would be a phenomenon people would never be forced to see or think about.

This one ethical issue showcases a growing challenge that city planners are facing with how to address technology that is changing the interactions between people and cities in ways that urban policies are hard-pressed to keep up with. Other applications like Microsoft’s location-based ads text pedestrians with coupons to nearby stores drive traffic – for those stores that can pay for this service. Location-based survey services such as SurveySwipe can provide urban planners with important information about what services people want and what infrastructure they need improved – for those city residents that have smart-phones. Technology can be an incredibly powerful tool for public participation within cities, but it must be remembered that the true beauty of an application cannot be assessed at first glance – or even first walk – but should be assessed by the enduring good it has to make cities more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful for all. 

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