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Quantifying the Smell of Urban Areas

Data analysis has led to numerous insights into a diverse variety of complex systems. A new paper that gives a whiff of such insights is The Emotional and Chromatic Layers of Urban Smells by Daniele Quercia of Bell Labs, Luca Maria Aiello of Yahoo Labs, and Rossano Schifanella of University of Turin.

Quercia et al. write the following in their abstract:

People are able to detect up to 1 trillion odors. Yet, city planning is concerned only with a few bad odors, mainly because odors are currently captured only through complaints made by urban dwellers. To capture both good and bad odors, we resort to a methodology that has been recently proposed and relies on tagging information of geo-referenced pictures. In doing so for the cities of London and Barcelona, this work makes three new contributions. We study 1) how the urban smellscape changes in time and space; 2) which emotions people share at places with specific smells; and 3) what is the color of a smell, if it exists. Without social media data, insights about those three aspects have been dicult to produce in the past, further delaying the creation of urban restorative experiences.

As we can see from this work, no matter whether one is spending time in London or in Barcelona, a city by any other name would smell just as… uh, sweet. And perhaps be associated with just as much joy, trust, anticipation, or surprise?

A figure from the paper by Quercia et al. that examines the correlation between various types of emotions and various types of smells.

Clearly, this is research that we need to savor.

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