As we interact and learn about places, we bestow meaning on such places, forming the mental concept of a sense of place. Mobile devices and location-based services (LBS) may alter our everyday relationships of place. This paper reports on an exploratory survey study conducted on the elements that comprise sense of place and the role of (LBS). It was found that sense of place arises from diverse information sources, is multimodal and individualistic. Findings also suggest LBS can improve sense of place by enhancing people’s familiarity, personal engagement, and social connection to place. Respondents also identified barriers to their use of LBS.
Whether a newcomer or a long-time resident of a given place, experiencing a place in cognizant fashion results in a sense of place. Sense of place can be created anew from a first time encounter or be continuously renewed. Heidegger argues for the primacy of direct experience of the world as a way of knowing, as he states “space can only be understood by going back to the world” [1, p. 105]. This view formed an experiential basis for future place scholars, such as Relph , Tuan , and Seamon .
Humans have created and shared information about place since prehistoric times, often in the forms of crude maps or oral narratives . As technology evolved, information about place could be more readily documented and shared more broadly through such media as books, maps, pamphlets, photographs, films, and websites. Current information and communications technology, however, is making it easier to access information about a given place while at that particular place. Although the term LBS is still relatively recent, Brimicombe and Li offer a definition of LBS noting that it delivers “data and information services where the content of those services is tailored to the current or some projected location and context of a mobile user” [6, chap. 1.1). LBS have grown in number and popularity over the last three years .
People are using mobile devices to learn about the places they frequent, but prior studies have not fully examined how using such technology affects people’s everyday lives and their relationships to place. This paper reports on a small-scale, survey study exploring the role of information and LBS in shaping sense of place. Four research questions were posed:
- What is the nature of relationships people have to places?
- How do people use information in forming a sense of place?
- How do people use mobile devices in relation to place?
- What is the potential of LBS to improve sense of place?
To articulate humans’ relationship to their surroundings Tuan notes, “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” [3, p.6]. The scale of what this term encompasses, however, is often vague in place discourse; it can be a country or a corner of a room . Cresswell  notes that place is a spatial unit that is perceived by an individual as bounded by unifying traits.
The aspects of a place from which meaning arise for us can be summarized as self, others, and environment . Sense of place is the meanings an individual has toward a place [e.g., 2, 8, 10]. Such meaning can be comprised of personal feelings or memories, involving the sensual, aesthetic, experiential, or affective, and any associations or characterizations of place received or perceived by an individual. Sense of place arises from the physical and representational aspects of a place, such as the natural and built setting, inherent and transactional sociocultural factors, and utilitarian, affective, and hedonistic experiences. Sense of place is both a mental end-state and a process in flux changing based on one’s new place experiences, information, or perspective.
Sense of place has been studied in various disciplines and found to have numerous benefits. From a social perspective, sense of place has been found to lead to place attachment [11, 12]. Place attachment is seen as not only central to one’s identity  but it also assists in the formation of a sense of community  and aids people in caring for and protecting their places  of particular importance in heritage conservation and urban planning.
The importance of studying the role information and representation of place in the formation of sense of place is of particular importance to ICT practitioners and scholars. After all, to apprehend and then comprehend our world we must perceive information available about the physical world directly through our senses and indirectly through the accounts of others. Relph  and Tuan  are critical of the value of accounts, but their claims are not supported by empirical evidence. In contrast, one study of a LBS prototype found that people valued the place accounts of others and wanted to draw upon “the experiences of others rather than starting from nothing. In this way they are adding to the continuity of other peoples’ stories as well as enriching their own” [15, p.288]. Gay argues that “A system that includes social maps and annotation of space with notes allows users to leave traces in physical space that would otherwise have no record of who was present and what went on before” [16, p. 13]. Stewart, Hayward, Devlin, and Kirby  found people’s individual goals and profiles affected their use of geotartetted information, classifying people from those who actively want geotargetted information to those actively avoid it.
Empirical studies, however, that specifically examine how accounts impact the formation of sense of place could not be found. There are studies that demonstrate how sense of place can be transmitted or discerned through mediated accounts.[18, 19]. The work of anthropologists, such as Ryden , has examined how people use a variety of genres and media forms to share and interpret sense of place, but Ryden studied this at a cultural level rather than at the individual level.
Accounts and experiences of place are often transient and invisible. Emerging technology can reveal elusive yet geographically relevant information  and thereby may be able to improve people’s sense of place. Current LBS have a diversity of information sources, genres, and modalities as well as interactive and user-generated content features that offer the potential for deep and diverse information and experiences of and with place. In one study  researchers observed and interviewed LBS users and found that people virtually annotated place with their life events, fostering place connection. Locative media, through features as point-of-interest ratings and reviews and proximal and category searches, facilitate users’ ability to see, learn from, and act upon the experience and advice of others. Studies of LBS usage have found that people use it for such social navigation [23, 24].
Schwarzer, however, cautions on how LBS can be both an advantage and a disadvantage:
“Our sense of place is augmented by information wired from the World Wide Web. Part of the information comes from media conglomerates. Much of it streams at us from our social networks and online acquaintances. The information allows us to peruse unseen depths of the place we’re in. We have the opportunity to gain a better or different sense of place anywhere we travel within the network’s reach. … We approach, apprehend and adjust to the world around us by carrying another world with us. We stroll with a docent at our side, answering our every query. Everyday place is curated like museum space, the most banal streetscape brought to comparative life… [17, para. 25].”Although Schwarzer raises concerns about the implications about how LBS may affect sense of place, there is a dearth of empirical research on the role of LBS in relation to sense of place.
To investigate this research problem a web-based survey was conducted. The questionnaire included 21 questions, 6 of which were open-ended and 15 which were close-ended. Recruitment used convenience and snowball sampling. Using Dey’s method of qualitative data analysis , data were first coded based on categories established from literature and as emerged from the data. Categories were further refined using Dey’s method of splicing, splitting, linking, and connecting categories. The quantitative data, being predominantly nominal was analyzed to discern response rates, frequency and percentage totals.
IV. FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
The findings and discussion are organized based on the four research questions.
A. Research Question 1: What Is the Nature of Relationships People Have With Places ?
When asked “Sense of place refers to the meanings and feelings people have for a place. Are there any places for which you have a strong sense of place?” 96.2% of respondents indicated they had such a place. The high response rate to this question suggests the pervasiveness of sense of place.
Respondents were instructed to check any of eight characteristics of place that “makes a place meaningful to you”. These characteristics had been identified from place literature. Table 1 shows the percentages and number of respondents who checked each characteristic.
TABLE I. CHARACTERISTICS OF PLACE PARTICIPANTS DEEMED MEANINGFUL
|Characteristic||Percentage of respondents||Number of respondents|
|Past personal experience||79.5%||62|
Three out of the eight characteristics were reported by more than 75% of respondents: personal experiences that occurred in a given place (79.5%), aesthetic qualities of the place (76.9%), and social dimensions that have or continue to happen at the place (75.6%).
Participants also noted how these characteristics work together to create sense of place. When asked to “describe a place or places in which you feel a strong sense of place”, one participant connected various qualities:
“The first place that came to mind is the big flat rock behind the family cottage in Muskoka. From that rock nothing could be seen except trees, ferns, and sky. Sometimes a boat could be heard in the distance, but during the week the lake was usually pretty quiet. All sorts of pretend games were played on that rock. Secret trysts with boyfriends were held there.”The importance of personal experience can best be demonstrated from another participant’s response to the same question:
“Another place with a strong sense to it is an ordinary intersection up along the airport strip, where I was told ‘I love you’ for the first time, in the romantic sense. The relationship the words went with is long since over, but the spot is still very dear!”This response also illustrates that the qualities of sense of place, particularly those involving personal experience, are often unavailable to others but are nonetheless important to participants. Overall, these findings confirm that various elements comprise sense of place and that the interplay of these elements varies across individuals.
B. Research Question 2: How Do People Use Information in Forming a Sense of Place?
Several questions were asked about the information sources and processes people use to learn about places. When asked how they “learn about the features, history, or social dimensions” of a place they previously identified as meaningful, respondents reported using multiple information sources (almost half reported using two or more sources) and different types of information sources. The most frequently reported source was word of mouth (24 respondents), followed by print material (18), television and film (11), and the Internet (7). The use of a variety of information sources about place is best reflected by this answer:
“By physically being there [a forest] and feeling the ground beneath my bare feet, by feeling the warm breeze on my (mostly) bare skin. By using all my senses. The history of the place I obtained by reading tales of the first peoples of Canada, by learning the lore of the area through talking to others, and by imagining what it must have been like to have been a Native North American.”A subsequent check-box question asked respondents “When do you consult the following sources of information when visiting a new place” and to check whether they used a source based on visit duration with options for “short visit (less than 1 day)”, “extended visit (more than 1 day)” and “never”. Social network / word of mouth, websites, and pamphlets were among the top five mediums for both short and extended visits. Consistent with place literature, many people value the information about place gathered from one’s social network. Social networks were identified as the most popular information source for short visits at 71.1% (54 respondents) and the second most popular at 78.9% (60) for extended visits.
Over 50% of respondents (37) reported using a mobile application when visiting a new place, with 40% of this total using it for short visits (28) and 30% (21) for extended visits. Mobile applications may be more popular for short visits than long visits as they are well-suited to providing information useful in daily lives such as location or contact information and may not be used as extensively for extended visits (such as vacations) due to high data roaming costs charged by mobile carriers.
When asked if “having access to information (regardless of source) while at a given location is valuable” all respondents agreed or strongly agreed. Overall, respondents can be seen to use various information sources to learn about a place, which add “layers of information” to their sense of place.
C. Research Question 3: How Do People Use Mobile Devices In Relation to Place?
When asked if they had “discovered something new and valuable about a place via their mobile device”, 62.5% (40 respondents) indicated they had. The larger the device screen used (e.g., tablet versus smartphone) increased positive responses, indicating the improved user experience of tablets may play a role.
Many respondents (86.3%) reported using their device to access at least one function in the past month. At the high end, 84.1% reported finding proximal businesses or services, reading local news (74.1%), finding nearby sites (67.7%), and reading information about their location (66.1%). The leading place-related functions used by respondents are directions and proximity searches for nearby businesses or events. Reponses such as “The location of a gas station when you are low on fuel is valuable information” or simply “It helped me get un-lost!” exemplify this functionality and its value to respondents.
As LBS applications become more commonly used, it will be interesting to see whether people will also start using other types of information that LBS can provide, such as historical and multimedia content, which received the lowest usage responses. Although “history of location” was reported by the lowest percentage of respondents, that some people were using mobile devices to seek historical and other factual place information, as reflected in the following comment:
“During a business trip, I saw a historical structure in the distance. Once I had Wifi access, I looked it up via Google Maps. Once I knew the name of the structure, finding out more information on it was easy.”More pragmatically, some respondents are using their mobile device to find factual information about a place beyond directions, as exemplified by this 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.”Mobile devices are more than just information seeking devices, as they also enable the ability for users to record and share their own experiences and information about places. When asked if they had “used a mobile device to record notes, opinions, or memories of a place”, 40.6% of respondents replied that they had done so. These respondents were asked to elaborate on how this affected their place memories. Their responses fell into the following categories: improved recall (75.0%), encouraged personal reflection (20.8%), enabled sharing place experience (20.8%), and enhanced place experience (12.5%). One respondent put it simply as he/she was able to “strengthen the moment” of their place experience, while another provides more detail:
“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.”These findings offer support for the ability of mobile devices to enable a person to engage individually and socially with a place. Mobile devices are thus seen to offer dimensions of place information and interaction that have the potential to affect one’s sense of place.
D. Research Question 4: What Is the Potential of LBS to Improve Sense of Place?
Of the 28 respondents who used a LBS, 72.4% answered the question “How have location-based services affected, or not affected, your sense of place”, with responses indicating LBS usage had improved their sense of place. One response describes this improvement as resulting from the easy, ubiquitous access to geographically-relevant information that LBS facilitate:
“They [LBS] have let me learn more about a place, quickly, while I am there - which has provided a greater depth of knowledge and let me ‘commune’ with interesting places more.”Another response captures the individual and social elements of sense of place:
“Location based services have, by bringing other peoples’ social gazetteers into consideration, made a sense of place easier to achieve. The ability to explore what is around me through LBS and to not only stand in relation to those places but also to assess them through the social gazetteers left by other users does allow a sense of place to develop in even the unfamiliar, and the process of making such inscriptions in the LBS database strengthens my own sense of place...”Four themes surfaced from responses to this question as shown in table 2 (some responses included more than one theme).
TABLE II. HOW LBS HAVE AFFECTED SENSE OF PLACE BASED ON OPEN TEXT RESPONSES
|Themes related to LBS and sense of place||Percentage of respondents||Number of respondents|
|Improves familiarity or knowledge of place||45.4%||10|
|Aids social connection||38.0%||8|
|Improves appreciation of place||27.2%||6|
|Fosters sense of belonging or connection to place||19.0%||4|
To meet the needs of users improvements to LBSs or mobile technology in general are needed, as less than half of respondents (47.3%) indicated they were satisfied or very satisfied with information provided by LBS. Respondents were asked “What can be done with mobile technology to improve your ability to learn about the places you encounter?”. Over 60% (47) of respondents offered suggestions, with five categories receiving the most responses: better or more content (31.9%), improved user interface and features (25.5%), improved personalization features (21.2%), greater geographic coverage of content (17.0%), and lower network carrier costs or roaming fees (14.8%). Despite barriers, the overall findings suggest that LBS play a role in sense of place and may be able to improve it.
This study provides groundwork for understanding the various elements that comprise sense of place and how LBS can address these. This study supports findings from place scholarship in affirming that sense of place arises is individualistic and is a continuous and active process. The survey confirmed the importance of personal experience as a valuable means to form a sense of place, as posited by place theorists. This study contributes to place scholarship by specifically identifying the role information plays in sense of place. Participants were found to draw upon a diverse range of information sources and media. Information was valued in forming a sense of place. Among participants using LBS, they indicated that it augments their current experience of place, enhances their sense of place, and improves their place attachment.
Greater understanding of the role LBS play in sense of place can assist in fostering a better understanding of user motivations and interactions. This can be used to contribute to the delivery of improved application interfaces and to the provision of more fulfilling and socially-relevant user experiences. Mobile, locative technology that captures and preserves a diverse range of information on place, virtually ties it to that place, and broadcasts it to others, can help people feel not only more informed but also more connected to their surroundings.
Aspects of locative media, such as its rich features to engage users with place, multiplicity of content, spatial awareness, and ubiquity of access have the potential to transition locative media from its initial focus on way finding to fostering deeper relationships to the everyday places we encounter. For LBS to meet the place-related needs of users, this research has identified the following recommendations for LBS apps:
- allow personal experience to be recorded privately and publicly
- offer personalization features
- consider affect
- draw upon various information source types (e.g. videos, text, photographs)
- offer different types of information (news, accounts, events)
- ensure content is available across many locations
Despite claims that mobile technology mentally removes people from their physical world , this study offers evidence of the potential of LBS to positively impact people’s relationships to their places.
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