Data You Can Smell: art for Humans

The conversation and buzz around data predictably emphasizes technology over the stories it can tell. The people that all this data is meant to help are often a distant background or completely forgotten. In this environment, art projects like the SmellyMaps project that use data to express human experience surprise and delight.

It seems that data does have a role to play in art and culture as well as technology. Here, data is not remote and coldy numerical, but expressive of human experience at the sensory level. The recent SmellyMaps project in London engages with the human imagination by tapping the senses of the ‘crowd’, harnessing social media to create powerful images at the intersection of urban planning and culture.

The interactive map at the center of the project, “Discover the Olfactory Symphony of London” was created by a group of London-based researchers: Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, Kate McLean, using the CartoDB platform. City officials and urban planners deal primarily with the management of bad odors, but the Smellscape project shows that people are also exposed to pleasant or evocative scents in the urban landscape. The interactive website aimed to create nuance in thinking about smell and place, with map layers identifying the scents including animals, nature, petrol and even chocolate.

The SmellyMaps research indicates that smell has a potent influence on perception, but that it is often overlooked by scientists and urbanists, partly because it is not easy to record and analyze scents on a broad scale. The researchers tackled this challenge by mapping locations of smells reported on geo-tagged social media to create reliable maps of smells.

In the abstract of the related academic paper, the researchers write that, “One of the authors of this paper has ventured out in the urban world and conducted “smellwalks” in a variety of cities: participants were exposed to a range of different smellscapes and asked to record their experiences. As a result, smell-related words have been collected and classified, creating the first dictionary for urban smell. Here we explore the possibility of using social media data to reliably map the smells of entire cities. To this end, for both Barcelona and London, we collect georeferenced picture tags from Flickr and Instagram, and geo-referenced tweets from Twitter. We match those tags and tweets with the words in the smell dictionary. We find that smell-related words are best classified in ten categories. We also find that specific categories (e.g., industry, transport, cleaning) correlate with governmental air quality indicators, adding validity to our study.”

The data displayed in the interactive map can provide insights on traffic abatement or greenway planning, along with a practical guide for anyone looking for new ways to navigate the city, including cyclists, runners, pedestrians and car drivers. But it also creates a richer, layered representation of urban life, and an utterly new picture of how we interact with our surroundings. Smell on!

To see what you can do with CartoDB, explore our galleries or get going with a free trial.