Combine code, crowdsourcing, ingenuity and a beloved campus landscape, and you’ll end up with the Smith College Favorite Places app.
Created by Alexander Schreyer, senior lecturer and program director at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Building and Construction Technology Program, the application was adapted for use at Smith by Jon Caris, director of the Spatial Analysis Lab. It allows users to post comments on an online map via digital pushpins, creating a treasure trove of reflections and memories connected to many of the familiar haunts and hidden nooks around campus.
“Exploring the beautiful fields and gorgeous river made running here so exhilarating yet relaxing,” one user writes. “There is no experience quite like approaching the college from the trail, the campus lights glowing like lanterns as sunset fades to twilight.”
Says another, “One of my many favorite places at Smith is the top floor of Neilson Library where I often indulged in my readings while sitting in a comfy leather chair and sipping inspiration from the quiet gaze of the books and magazines around me.”
“The application transforms space into place,” says Caris. “It’s this idea of engaging the landscape on a personal level.”
An expert in geographic information systems (GIS), Caris says the seeds for the project were planted in 2001 when Stephanie Keep ‘02 developed an innovative map she called “The Psychology of Smith Campus,” later termed “Illustrating the Invisible” by Caris.
“Stephanie constructed a survey that was essentially a map asking students to locate areas that satisfied answers to various questions,” Caris says. “Some of the questions included where students hang out with their friends or where students feel least safe on campus. She then compiled the results to produce a density map of students’ perceptions of their environment.”
That research, which predated crowdsourcing and social networking, transformed student perceptions into “visual geographic information,” Caris says. Years later, curious about how space on campus was being used, he began developing a mobile app to find out.
“This is just what a lot of geographers do,” he says. “They observe how people interact with their landscape or their surroundings: Is the space being used effectively? Are there areas that are unused, or overused? We’re seeing a lot of changes now in how landscape is used due to technology—people congregating outside the library to use the Wi-Fi, for instance.”
Caris finally adopted and rebranded a program developed by Schreyer that displays the previous 100 pushpins and related comments but has unlimited potential for saving the submissions people enter. The map is saved as a database and can be rendered in different ways. Potentially most useful is a “heat map” or density map, Caris says, that can be used to visualize which areas are getting the most interest.
The application was unveiled in May, with a link posted on Facebook. Since then, more than 200 visitors have added comments and reflections to the online campus map.
“With a little tweaking, this application could be used for many different purposes,” Caris says, “revealing not just favorite places but also places where students see unsustainable practices on campus, or places that need to be spruced up, or an event that they would like to know more about.”
Caris suggests that the application is adaptable to classes as well—to map architectural styles, for instance—or to describe botanical features or sociological patterns.
“This application can be used to survey users and learn what’s most important to them on a map that is fairly accessible to faculty, administrators or campus planners” he says. “This application has a lot of potential to grow.”
Practical applications aside, many site visitors seem to take pleasure in simply sharing their experiences of place. One tagged a tree next to Park House, writing, “In October of my first year, I walked by this tree when it had changed to a bright yellow and knew, wholly and happily, that Smith was home.”