Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sense of Place & Location-Based Services - Survey Summary

This past December, I designed a survey as part of my coursework for a PhD in Information at University at Toronto. As promised, I'm sharing my early results of the survey.

The survey sought to uncover foundational knowledge about how people form a sense of place (defined as the feelings and meanings attributed to place), the role of information in this process, and the potential of location-based services (LBS - defined as mobile applications or sites that deliver content based on a user's location). As location-based services are still an emerging technology, this subject has not been sufficiently addressed by academia or industry.

I'm still in the process of compiling and writing up the results, but here is a high-level summary of the findings grouped by research questions.

78 people completed the survey, with participants representing a cross-section of ages, education levels, and residences. 86% have a mobile device, with smartphones the most popular (68%) followed by GPS navigation device (31%), tablet (22%), and netbook (18%). Participants can be described as frequent users as over 80% (53 participants) indicated they used their device at least once a day.

1) What is the nature of relationships people have to places they encounter?

  • 96% of participants indicating there was a place in which they associated strong feelings or meaning.
  • When asked what place characteristics are meaningful, past personal experiences, physical qualities of place, and social dimensions received the strongest support with all over 75%.
  • These findings confirmed phenomenologist place theorists, who believe that a relationship to place is a foundational experience in human existence and individual experience is the paramount way we process place.
  • The factual elements of a place, its history and role in culture, were selected by at least half of respondents, the lack of stronger support for the these qualities was surprising as LBS can offer unique functionality to deliver this information (perhaps leading LBS have yet to effectively tap this).
  • When describing a place where participants felt a "strong sense of place" in an open-ended question, 58 participants recounted experiences revealing personal experiences tied to place - a good example of this is: "Another place with a strong sense to it is an ordinary intersection... where I was told 'I love you' for the first time, in the romantic sense...the spot is still very dear!".
  • Often accounts such as this reveal facets of a place hidden to others but are nonetheless significant - through LBS these types of accounts can now be made more visible.
  • Descriptions of meaningful places often (67% of respondents to this question) mention emotions tied a place. Top mentioned emotions are nostalgia (fond remembrance), contentment, and excitement.

2) How are people currently using information in forming a sense of place?

  • All participants agreed that access to information while at a given location is valuable.
  • When asked to describe how they come to know of a specific place, experience was echoed here, with 50 participants indicating this was a primary information source.
  • Personal experience was often described as an initial source of learning about a place, but was then followed by consulting various other information sources to learn more about place.
  • Approximately half of respondents using two or more sources of information when learning about the place.
  • When asked specifically the information sources participants use when visiting a new place for either a short (less than 1 day) or extended visit, the top five sources are (in descending order): Short visit - social network/word of mouth, website, pamphlets, mobile application, plaques. Extended visit: website, social network/word of mouth, print book, pamphlets, video or tv program.
  • People are more apt to use an information source for extended visits than for short visits with the exception of mobile applications and plaques.
  • In general, the more a visit demands of a person the more apt participants are to invest the time to consult a greater number of sources and more in-depth sources.

3) How, if at all, have mobile devices affected sense of place?

  • The majority of participants with a mobile device are using it, in relation to place, to find location, directions or contact information.
  • There is strong indication that participants are currently using mobiles to seek out facts about place beyond directions. This behaviour can be seen in the following comment: "I found out recently not to use a public car park ... after dark. The Foursquare entry had a tip that car thieves were targeting the car park".
  • The ability to use mobile devices to record or share place was described by some participants as changing their experience of the place, as illustrated by this comment: "The process of inscribing your thoughts on a place while at that place is very useful in concretising your thoughts on that place. I think the practice of reflecting on the place to compose an entry requires a thinking about that place, and an ordering of thoughts about that place that gives meaning to the place (whether good or bad) and which in turn improves the memory one has of that place."
  • Participants also expressed comments that they are experiencing the physical and digital worlds simultaneously, along the lines of "hybrid space" as discussed in academic litearature, this can be seen by this comment: "I pulled up a mobile app the other day when I took my children to a museum, so that I could supplement the information at the museum with information from the mobile app."
  • The larger the device screen the more apt participants are to find something useful.
  • The type of mobile device used does not have a strong association with usage of geotargetted information seeking via mobile device, the creation of place-based user generated content, or the likelihood to use a LBS.

4) What is the potential of location-based services to improve sense of place?

  • Participants were not big users of LBS applications - of the people with a mobile device less than half have installed one of the most popular LBSs.
  • The most installed used mobile applications with LBS functionality used by participants were Foursquare at 23%, Google 23%, and Facebook at 22%.
  • All three of these, with the exception of Google’s Places, predominantly revolve around geo-social networking. Although place-based information can be found in the form of "tips" left by friends or made public, the core functionality of these leading apps are tracking the whereabouts of one’s social network.
  • Of the participants using LBS, they expressed appreciation for the ability for the applications to enhance their sense of place by learning more about a place, as typified by these comments: "I think they have affected how much I can find out about a place and provides access to types of information about a place that I wouldn't otherwise have access to - provides richer dimensions to knowing about a place" and "Location based services have, by bringing other peoples social gazetteers into consideration, made a sense of place easier to achieve."
  • LBSs were also mentioned by participants as improving their attachment to place.

5) What could be done with mobile technology to improve sense of place?

  • To meet the needs of users, however, there improvements to LBS or mobile technology in general are need. Over 60% of participants offered suggestions.
  • The top five suggestions were:  better content (32% support) , new functionality (26%), personalization features (21%), user experience improved (21%), and content available in more locations (17%).

Final thoughts

As one considers the possible implications for location-based services accessed via a mobile device to affect sense of place, the current iterations of technology may not reflect the qualities of future versions. The LBS market is rapidly evolving and new features and innovations as well as improvements to existing features will undoubtedly continue. Ideally, I would like my research as it continues to be able to inform future developments in this area.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this survey!

I held a random draw for an iTunes giftcard and a participant from Vancouver was chosen.

I'll revise and enhance these findings as I continue my data analysis. But I'd love to hear any thoughts below on these early results.

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