Digital Rendezvous: Maps to Navigate Memory, Smell, Sound

During graduate studies at the London School of Economics, myself and several friends worked on a workshop/paper, which we presented at the AAAI 2015 International Conference on Web and Social Media in Oxford. We theorized a prototype of an interactive app, where aggregated stories input by individuals as well as archival documentation would aim to contextualize a given space with collaborative memory and geo-socially located imaginaries.

To develop a shared memory of a place (university campus), we focused on 3 main aspects:

  1. Physical space and it’s transformation over time; this is especially relevant in rapidly changing metropolitan areas as central London.

  2. Individual memories and anecdotes input by individuals associated with the campus at any point in time.

  3. Archival findings recorded by volunteers to create a record of long-term historical transformations of the area.


We had limited time and resources to expand on this project, as our group worked on/presented this idea during final exam and dissertation writing period of a packed 1-year master’s program, but there is so much potential to explore here! As jotted in the image above, one could gather information about major communal hubs, such as the library or the well-attended campus pub. Less-discussed settings (such as a university hallway or outdoors smoking area) could also be interesting in piecing together a fragmented representation of a place. Additionally, ongoing demolition and reconstruction of the campus and retrieval of archival data (which LSE Library has plenty of) could paint a richer portrait of any given place, bridging trans-temporal and spatial memories and reinforcing a community of association.


EFFICIENCY- I’m not always a fan of it! We use digital maps everyday to navigate our way across increasingly chaotic and endlessly transforming cities. Living in London and using the tube as the main mode of transportation, I once caught myself having no idea of what the landscape of my daily route looked like above ground. Digital maps help us navigate large urban areas by walking, cycling, driving or taking public transportation from point A to point B in the fastest and most efficient manner. It isn't surprising that following our devices, we often miss vital elements of serendipitous composition of urban scapes.

URBANISM: I think about David Ulin's note below when I think about the last decade of my life in cities (LA, London, Washington DC, Yerevan, NYC):

“What I love about cities is that even the most distinct of them resemble one another when you least expect it, the way lines between memory and imagination blur...What we learn, or relearn, here [in cities], the serendipitous encounter, the random meeting, the flow of crowd, the friend you haven't seen in years, is a part of the way cities work. The urban environment shape-shifts for a million different reasons as we interact with it in a million different ways.”

While Ulin's questions about urban composition are rooted in an effort to understand intersection of urban community developments in the paradoxical city of Los Angeles, I can't help, but reflect on ways, in which digital navigation tools direct our experience of cities and perhaps the most efficient route might not always be the best way to get places.

Our group was certainly not unique in an effort to re-imagine functional variations of digital maps during the AAAI 2015 International Conference on Web and Social Media. Other presenters suggested various methods to capture the essence of cities through sound, smell, play, and more.

I found the Urban Smellscape project particularly fascinating! Researchers/developers noted: "your nose is a big data machine... humans are able to discriminate more than one trillion different odors". The project aimed to defy negative and oversimplified representations of urban smellscapes by matching hand-collected data with social media data to present a more inclusive "olfactory footprint" of London & Barcelona. Zoom in and see the Urban Smellscape Aroma Wheel above and read the paper here


Using digital technologies to navigate how we experience any given locality is often reduced to simple pragmatism. I am not alone in advocating for possibly less practical, but certainly more engaging and polygonal digital lenses. What say you?

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