Monday, May 09, 2011

The Role of Geotargetted Information Via Mobile Devices in Shaping Sense of Place

Moving to the downtown core of a large city from my semi-suburban hometown, I felt impressed by - yet detached from - my urban surroundings. I enjoyed the heterogeneity of the architecture and historical roots of my new city and also appreciated the diversity of civic and citizen cultural locations – so unlike my hometown. Although I had visited the city before moving there and was familiar with the prominent buildings and main streets, I lacked a sense of the place. As a newcomer, I did not have the personal contacts to receive the insider knowledge from my neighbours.

The layers of meaning implicit in a given place include the social, historical, political, and personal. An example of these dimensions can be seen by looking at Toronto Street in downtown Toronto. It is easy to miss Toronto Street as it runs only one block, but it used to be a main thoroughfare. Today, Toronto Street is populated by a handful of generic, low and medium rise office towers. What is not immediately apparent is that this street is where Conrad Black destroyed evidence, that it has a restaurant with amazing paninis, that there is a hidden parkette providing an oasis of rose bushes and fountains, that falcons have been reintroduced nearby and often swoop and prey overhead, or that it is the former site of public executions, including leaders of the Upper Canada Rebellion.

Until recently one would not have been easily able to tap into that diversity of information instantly and on the spot. To learn the above information about Toronto Street (also the site of my former workplace) and the other new places I regularly traversed, I consulted various information sources, such as periodicals, books, and walking tours. Eventually, I got to know my new city well. Not only did I develop a strong sense of the civic and social history of the place, I also developed personal relationships to the places I frequented as my life experiences grew.

Sense of place is foundational, as it not only aids individuals in developing attachments to their surroundings, but it also contributes to the formation of personal identity. It is helpful at this point to note the geographic distinction between space, the physical terrain and features of Earth - and place, the meaning humans ascribe to space. Differing from spatial cognition with a psychological focus on our perceptions of space and way-finding, scholars of sense of place often consider phenomenological aspects. Drawing upon the philosophers Husserl and Heidegger, sense of place can be defined as how an individual conceives of space and ascribes meaning to it. Having a sense of place is seen as a fundamental component of human identity from fostering community to shaping our mindful existence.

Geographic technologies such as global positioning devices and geographic information systems have introduced powerful abilities to analyze and visualize space and place. Recent market and technological developments have now given citizens access to powerful geographic tools. The convergence of distributed network access offered by the Internet, growing ubiquity of mobile devices, and open geographic information systems (such as Google Maps), have propelled increasing user functionality for location-based applications. Place is no longer a back-drop for information seeking, creation, and sharing as current mobile applications can customize information based on a user's geographic position.

Information objects from fiction to non-fiction are rich with geographic references whether as subject, setting, or - in all cases - the location of the publication or production. Due to a lack of widespread georeferencing of information sources in libraries, on the Internet, or elsewhere, my search strategies were restricted to what turned up with a key word and category search. The novels of Margaret Atwood, for example, that refer to my neighborhood never turned up in a search. Ontario's public libraries are increasingly offering local historical information in digital format, such as the Ontario Time Machine and Knowledge Ontario's projects, yet rarely are such projects georeferenced, let alone optimized for viewing on a mobile device. Although I now feel a deep sense of place, it was a delayed and haphazard process that resulted in years where I felt detached from place.

With the growing ubiquity of mobile location-based applications, I was struck by the question of whether this technology could help foster a sense of place. Although numerous human geographers have grappled with the relational, cultural, and perceptual aspects of place, few scholars appear to have examined the role of information in the development of an individual's sense of a place. Moreover, the specific nature and impact of on-the-spot geographically relevant information appears to have not been adequately examined. Although my research is still in the formation stage, I hope in my doctoral research to explore how mobile location-based information systems affect one's sense of place. Over the months as I explore this research topic, I plan to blog about my findings and the nature of sense of place and geotargetted information.

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