March 9, 2011
If you live in a tourist destination town, you see people snapping the same pictures all the time. Here in Washington, D.C., scads of visitors record the same views of the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the front yard of the White House. But what are they missing? And when you vacation in other places, what are you missing that the locals see?
A computer programmer and all-around map genius named Eric Fischer uses data from the shared photo sites Flickr and Picasa to document and depict the ways in which cities are photographed. And the maps he creates are strangely beautiful. He started by compiling all photos of a given city that have location tags, calling it the Geotaggers World Atlas. As he explains:
When I first learned that Flickr had added the geotagging feature and looked at some maps of photo locations, it was immediately clear that some locations were being photographed much more often than others and that the location tags were probably a good guide to the most interesting places in cities. In addition I had been making maps from GPS logs, trying to determine the speed of travel, and therefore the likely transportation mode, based on the time stamps and locations. I thought it would be interesting to apply the same analysis to the photo locations and time stamps and see if it revealed what areas of cities people walked or biked in.
The response to the atlas inspired his next mapping project, Locals and Tourists.
People posted comments on several of the [geotagger] maps saying that they were maps of places to avoid if you wanted to avoid places crowded with tourists, whereas I had believed that while tourist attractions were well photographed, a lot of the pictures were of places that were meaningful to local people but not necessarily known to tourists. So I thought I should do a series that would try to tell the two types of locations apart.
He sorted the photos into those taken by the same users within one month, and those taken by other users over the course of more than a month, assuming that the former were visitors and the latter, locals. Tourists’ photos are labeled in red, locals’ in blue, and ambiguous ones in yellow. The city with the most photos he could analyze was New York, with 2.5 million.
Fischer noticed a few interesting patterns in the maps:
I was taken by surprise by how well ferry and other water routes were mapped by the photo locations. In general I was surprised that waterfront pictures were such a large fraction of the total.
Different cities definitely have different forms. London looks like a web. New York is very linear along the avenues, with Broadway cutting through. Travel patterns in San Francisco are shaped by the hills. Tokyo is very polycentric. Chicago is focused on the half-mile grid of major streets. Las Vegas is totally dominated by a single street.
Fischer has added more cities since releasing the first maps; about 50 of the new ones were in response to requests by his fans. He’s now part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Talk to Me” project, and he’s working on understanding traffic patterns using real-time data of vehicle locations.
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