Take the Scenic Route: New Mapping Software Gives 'Beauty Scores'

A new software will help seek out the scenic route.

Most GPS mapping apps are designed to get you where you want to go quickly. But for those who seek the scenic route, experimental software being developed by Yahoo researchers promises paths that are not just efficient, but also beautiful, pleasant and emotionally stimulating.

Traditionally, pedestrians may have found beautiful paths by taking aimless strolls, but this new software doesn't leave much to serendipity. Here's how it would work: A user would enter a current or start location, along with a desired destination. An algorithm would then select and suggest the route that ranks highest on a "beauty score" attributed to each route by the software. The recommended routes would only be about 12 percent longer than the shorter but less attractive routes, and they would take into account the emotional feel of a place, the researchers said.

"The goal of this work is to automatically suggest routes that are not only short, but also emotionally pleasant," the researchers, led by Daniele Quercia of Yahoo Labs in Barcelona, Spain, wrote in a paper published on the preprint website arxiv.org. "We rely on crowdsourced measurements of people's emotional experience of the city and use those measurements to propose new ways of recommending urban routes." [Run Off-Road: 8 Picturesque Trail Runs]

The researchers gathered their data from Urban Gems, a crowdsourcing website that aims to identify places based on "concepts difficult to define, such as beauty, happiness, quietness or even deprivation." On Urban Gems, users view two street-view photos side by side and vote on which one looks more beautiful, quiet and happy. For their study, the researchers crowdsourced opinions from more than 3,300 people about pairs of streets in London.

Using this data, the team designed a graph showing which routes pass by the most attractive and the highest-rated spots. To test whether the routes were indeed desirable, the researchers checked in with 30 London residents who knew the area well. The residents assessed four specific paths mapped by the software and confirmed that they were both beautiful and efficient.

But to expand the number of locations in their software, the researchers decided to map out beautiful routes in Boston as well. They developed an automated process that mined photos from the website Flickr to identify the places in Boston people find the most beautiful, popular and emotionally stimulating. The photo sharing website Flickr provided the researchers with useful metadata such as comments, keywords and tags of more than 3.7 million pictures in London and 1.3 million in Boston.

More than 50 residents in Boston participated in a user study that confirmed that a suggested path between Back Bay Station and South Station in Boston was indeed more beautiful than a shorter path. Some participants described the shorter paths, which often had heavy traffic, as "rather dirty."

Nevertheless, the researchers list several limitations to their algorithm. For example, a location's attractiveness can change throughout the day, as levels of traffic or noise shift. But with more work, the researchers hope to develop mobile applications that assess an even greater number of beautiful paths across both the United Kingdom and the United States — a program that would be useful for tourists, and maybe even locals seeking a pleasant stroll.

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