Finding Our Favorite Places

Favorite Places Heatmap Display in Google Earth

A university of 27,000 students and several thousand more faculty and employees is a very complex environment whose spaces and places are experienced differently by different audiences. This project sought to request feedback from students, faculty, employees and visitors to UMass about their favorite places on campus. This was done by providing a website that allowed to crowdsource feedback by letting users place a pin at their favorite locations and submit a comment.

While existing social media services such as Foursquare seek to acquire geo-based knowledge and let users express their interest in locations such as local businesses, those services are not able to capture the sentiments that can be attached to e.g. the space under a beautiful tree. Such a place can be a favorite place for many without being recognizable as a “location”.

The purpose of this site was initially to “get the ball rolling” on requesting feedback on campus features even before a master planning process commenced, which was getting underway in 2011. In the meantime, this website has become a friendly avenue for UMass students to share their favorite places. It has also informed the creation of a similar site by Campus Planning that as part of the master plan process requested good/bad feedback about the campus.

Favorite Places Wordle

Some results of this process can be seen in the two visualizations above and to the right. The top image shows a heatmap of favorite places overlaid on a 3D model of campus in Google Earth. This heatmap illustrates “pin frequency” and thereby shows popularity of various places. For example, the pond, the old chapel, a landscaped garden and (not shown here) the athletic fields proved to be the most popular spots on campus.

The image on the right takes a different approach. Because users of the website were able to submit comments, text was available for analysis. This image therefore is a “Wordle”, a word-frequency diagram that illustrates popularity of terms using font size. While this again revealed the chapel and the pond as favorite places, it was now possible to extract adjectives and terms such as “beautiful, friends, memories, garden, quiet, marching band, people” that describe some of what makes our campus special to the students and alumni that submitted their comments.

This site, which by now has received numerous submissions, can be found at http://www.umass.edu/myfavoriteplaces. The following images illustrate various components of the site:

Favorite Places Homepage (with Rotating Samples)
Submission Page
Mobile Version of Submission Page (Location-Aware)

I had the chance to present this project at the Google Geo User Summit 2011 at the “Googleplex” in Mountain View, CA as an example of how Google’s Geo-tools can be used. The following presentation also explains some of the technological features of the site (responsive design, use of Google Maps API, location-aware maps and others).

Interested in using this project? You can find the code now on GitHub.