Tag Archives: Research Theme 5: Space Place Social Justice

Studying Public Transport Behavior By Accident: Lessons Learned from A Graduate Class in Computer Science with Scott Bell

Saskatchewan's bus lockout lasted one month (Photo courtesy of wn.com).

Saskatchewan’s bus lockout lasted one month (Photo courtesy of wn.com).

By Drew Bush 

Sometimes the best research grows out of collaboration and study within the confines of a classroom. For Scott Bell, an associate professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan, a graduate class in computer science provided just such an opportunity.

The past few years, Bell has collaborated with a colleague in Saskatchewan’s Department of Computer Science, Kevin Stanley, to teach a research-based class that gives students hands-on experience using an Android application for smartphones to measure human behavior at 2-minute intervals. Specifically, the application uses a phone’s accelerometer, GPS, camera, Bluetooth and other sensors to monitor participants’ movements and behaviors.

Last fall, students in the class wanted to examine health beliefs and constructed a survey to administer to participants before the phones were given out. Unrelated to the class’s planned content, the City of Saskatoon locked out its bus drivers, resulting in a month-long transit lockout. The lockout began two weeks before class started.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen during the shutdown,” Bell said. “But during our design stage we included in our survey a series of questions about how the participants get to work, and all of our participants were students at the [University of Saskatchewan]… Do they prefer to take public transit? Are they regular transit users? That kind of thing.”

Afterwards, Bell’s class gave these participants the phones and tracked them for a month—with the lockout ending two weeks into this period. Bell and Stanley’s students could then look at how student movement patterns and behaviors changed during and after a time period in which public transport was unavailable.

“It was interesting,” Bell said. “And one of the main findings, was that there wasn’t a change in attendance. So when the strike, when the lockout was on, everybody was still coming to the university at about the same rate as they came after the lockout ended, so when transit was fully available again.”

However, Bell and Stanley’s students noticed that when the lockout ended student trips to and from school actually became quite a bit shorter. They hypothesized that when their participants were forced to find alternate means of transportation they often relied on friends with private vehicles or on their own car.

This new reliance on private vehicles made additional trips, like running errands, possible on the way home thanks to the flexibility they allow compared to public transit. While not yet confirmed in this research, Bell calls this type of behavior “trip-chaining,” an idea often mentioned in transportation geography. Once the lockout ended and these participants returned to public transport, such behavior ended.

“We did learn in this study that we could use this technique to study transit behavior and we’re thinking a little bit more about that,” Bell said. “About how we can maybe do that with some of the Geothink partners that have more open data policies regarding their transit data and transit use.”

If Bell and Stanley’s students had only examined student attendance rates and arrival times at University of Saskatchewan, then they might have concluded the lockout had little affect on student behavior. However, by using surveys and smartphones, this technique established how stressful it was for students and, perhaps most importantly, how behaviors actually changed on the ground.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Spotlight on Recent Publications: Interrogating the Nature of Geosocial Data with Stéphane Roche


London Olympic wayfinding beacon (Photo courtesy of www.mudarchitecture.com).

By Drew Bush

In two articles published this January, Geothink researcher Stéphane Roche and his doctoral student Teriitutea Quesnot argue that not all geosocial data is equivalent, and that better data on the social significance of a landmark could greatly enhance our understanding of human wayfinding behavior. A Professor of Geomatics at University of Laval, Roche’s research over the past five years has focused on how new forms of digital spatiality affect spatial reasoning skills, and the capacity of individuals to engage in the city.

Entitled “Measure of Landmark Semantic Salience through Geosocial Data Streams,” the first paper was published by Roche in the ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information. The authors write that a lot of research “in wayfinding is done in order to enable individuals to reach as quickly as possible a desired destination, to help people with disabilities by designing cognitively appropriate orientation signs, and reduce the fact of being lost.”

Previous researchers in the field of geo-cognition have tried to characterize the salience of landmarks in human wayfinding behaviour. Most have classified differing landmarks by visual, structural and semantic cues. However, the social dimensions of a landmark, such as how they are practised or recognized by individuals or groups, had been excluded from its semantic salience (or often reduced to historical or cultural cues), according to the authors.

Instead, the authors follow in a tradition of research which utilizes text mining from the web to understand how places are expressed by Internet users rather than relying on how they are visually perceived. Such an approach has been made possible by social media and mobile communications technology that has resulted in vast user-generated databases that constitute “the most appropriate VGI data for the detection of global semantic landmarks.”

In conducting their research, the authors examined world famous landmarks and detected semantic landmarks in the cities of Vienna and Paris using data from Foursquare API v2 and Facebook API v2.1. from September 29, 2014 to November 15, 2014.

In a second paper entitled “Platial or Locational Data? Toward the Characterization of Social Location Sharing,” the authors expanded on this theme in arguing that not all geosocial data is equal. The paper was presented at 48th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences this past January.

Some data, which the authors consider “platial,” relates more to users experiences of a given place while “spatial” data is tied to the actual coordinates of a place. In the context of geosocial data, spatial data might mean the exact location of the Eiffel tower while palatial could refer to a person passing by the Eiffel tower or taking a photo of it from another location.

Because each can potentially represent a very different kind of data point, they must be treated differently. As the authors write, “With the objective of a better understanding of urban dynamics, lots of research projects focused on the combination of geosocial data harvested from different social media platforms. Those analyses were mainly realized on a traditional GIS, which is a tool that does not take into account the platial component of spatial data. Yet, with the advent of Social Location Sharing, the inconvenience of relying on a classic GIS is that a large part of VGI is now more palatial than locational.”

Find links to each article along with their abstracts below.

Measure of Landmark Semantic Salience through Geosocial Data Streams


Research in the area of spatial cognition demonstrated that references to landmarks are essential in the communication and the interpretation of wayfinding instructions for human being. In order to detect landmarks, a model for the assessment of their salience has been previously developed by Raubal and Winter. According to their model, landmark salience is divided into three categories: visual, structural, and semantic. Several solutions have been proposed to automatically detect landmarks on the basis of these categories. Due to a lack of relevant data, semantic salience has been frequently reduced to objects’ historical and cultural significance. Social dimension (i.e., the way an object is practiced and recognized by a person or a group of people) is systematically excluded from the measure of landmark semantic salience even though it represents an important component. Since the advent of mobile Internet and smartphones, the production of geolocated content from social web platforms—also described as geosocial data—became commonplace. Actually, these data allow us to have a better understanding of the local geographic knowledge. Therefore, we argue that geosocial data, especially Social Location Sharing datasets, represent a reliable source of information to precisely measure landmark semantic salience in urban area.

Platial or Locational Data? Toward the Characterization of Social Location Sharing


Sharing “location” information on social media became commonplace since the advent of smartphones. Location-based social networks introduced a derivative form of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) known as Social Location Sharing (SLS). It consists of claiming “I am/was at that Place”. Since SLS represents a singular form of place-based (i.e. platial) communication, we argue that SLS data are more platial than locational. According to our data classification of VGI, locational data (e.g. a geotagged tweet which geographic dimension is limited to its coordinate information) are a reduced form of platial data (e.g. a Swarm check-in). Therefore, we believe these two kinds of data should not be analyzed on the same spatial level. This distinction needs to be clarified because a large part of geosocial data (i.e. spatial data published from social media) tends to be analyzed on the basis of a locational equivalence and not on a platial one.

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Making Waves

Making Waves: Developing, Testing and Deploying a Smart Phone App to Share Examples of Good and Poor Water Conservation in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia by Prof. Jon Corbett

Here at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus, we have just hired two students, Andrew Barton and Emily Millard, to work on the Geothink project. They are being co-financed by Geothink and the British Columbia Work Study program. Together with our SSHRC partner, the Okanagan Basin Water Board, and a new partner, the Okanagan Science Centre, we have co-developed a proposal that we have submitted to the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia entitled “Making Waves: Developing, testing and deploying a smart phone app to share examples of good and poor water conservation in the Okanagan Valley.” We are proposing to work directly with youth (age 10 -13) in the North and Central Okanagan to co-design and develop a mobile application that will allow members of the public to share photographs and short commentaries of good and poor water conservation. The app will work in conjunction with existing web-based mapping software (http://geolive.ca) that we developed for a prior grant; it also will include discussion tools. The resulting information, displayed on a website, will make this volunteered information accessible to the general public as a means to make them more aware of water conservation in the valley and provide them with a direct medium through which to engage with this issue.

The Okanagan has among the highest per capita water demands and lowest per capita water supplies in Canada. The environment is semi-arid, and the southern portions of the watershed include Canada’s only designated desert.  Research conducted by Dr. Stewart Cohen and other scientists at UBC and partner institutions have projected serious impacts of climate change on the Okanagan water supply. Yet, the sense among the general public and visitors is that the valley is rich with water. One of the greatest challenges faced by the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) is to make people more aware of the increasing need to conserve water. As a result OBWB has developed the Okanagan Waterwise program that has the clear mandate to bring residents of the Okanagan valley together with the understanding that the valley’s water source is connected — and that all residents share the same resource. Hopefully it would increase awareness among valley residents about water issues in the Okanagan, support Okanagan residents in making positive changes in their own water habits that will protect the quality and quantity of the valley’s water, and share ideas about how all the valley’s residents can do something to preserve the unique character of the region.

Our proposed project will bring together three leading organization in the region to directly address these four established, and much needed, objectives. Our proposed project and the Water Conservation app will act as a medium to bring together members from throughout the valley to share their views and perspectives on current water use, to increase awareness of all users of both their own and others use of water; for example users might contribute photographs and their perspectives on xeriscape gardening or low water use public facilities. Through raising this awareness our hope is to support change toward more efficient water use in order to create a more sustainable water management practice in the future.

We welcome your participation in this and other projects, especially since we hope that this project can be generalized to other activities. If you’d like more information or a status report, please email Emily Millard (emilyloumillard@gmail.com), Andrew Barton (andrew@redshift.bc.ca) or their supervisor, Jon Corbett (jon.corbett@ubc.ca)