How does London smell?

Smelly maps reveal odour footprint of cities

Researchers have created smell maps of European cities to help city dwellers choose their paths or places to stay based on odours they would enjoy or prefer to avoid.

The project, led by former Yahoo Labs researcher Daniele Quercia and his colleagues, uses data from social networks as well as information gathered during ‘smell walks’ conducted by residents - in cities such as London and Barcelona - who were instructed how to take 'smell notes' by the researchers.

The project is part of Quercia’s ongoing effort to create a mapping application tailored not for efficiency but for human emotions. Surprisingly, these 'happy maps', as Quercia calls them, would frequently add only a few minutes to the journey time.

“We want to avoid the danger of a single path,” Quercia said, explaining his concept during a keynote speech at the Imagine Festival, organised by the UK’s Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes last week. “We don’t want to rob people of the opportunity to fully experience the city in which they live.”

The engineer was prompted to create such an app when working as a post-doc researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“I was cycling to work every day and was using a mapping application on my phone which always took me via Massachusetts Avenue,” he said. “After about a month I got tired of the congestions and pollution on Massachusetts Avenue and decided to take a detour.”

What he found was a pleasant and calm urban street, full of trees, with almost no traffic.

“I decided to create a mapping app that would offer not only the shortest route but also the most enjoyable,” Quercia explained.

To understand which places in the cities people find enjoyable, the researchers conducted an experiment. They showed photographs of urban places to the study participants and asked them to choose which they found the most beautiful and which made them happy.

The team gathered data from thousands of individuals, allowing them to create such ‘happy maps’ with confidence.

Integrating the sense of smell in to the project added an ambitious extra layer. Human nose can distinguish about one trillion different odours. However, urban planners only take into consideration about ten of those - all of them negative and desirable to avoid.

The team, involving Royal College of Art student Kate McLean, Rossano Schifanella from the University of Torino and Luca Maria Aiello from theYahoo Labs, created the first urban smell dictionary containing 285 English terms.

The research was first presented at AAAI International Conference on Web and Social Media (ICWSM) 2015 in Oxford last month.

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