How city “smell-mappers” can help with virtual reality, real estate and how we understand the past

Tulips on the Dam Square for National Tulip Day: one of the nicer smells you'll encounter in Amsterdam. Image: Getty.

Data scientists, artists and urban planners are mapping digital “smellscapes”, opening up new possibilities for virtual reality, real estate and how we understand the past. In the process, they are provoking interest from the UK’s biggest conservation charity. All three groups are exploring the ways in which smell influences environmental perceptions, using social media data and “smellwalks” to trace olfactory tendrils stretching through city streets.

Luca Maria Aiello is part of a group of researchers with GoodCityLife.org, which maps urban smellscapes by tracking keywords online. It creates skeletal road maps with colour-coded strips: red for emissions, green for nature, blue for food, yellow for animals, and grey for waste. The Bayshore Freeway in San Francisco, for example, predominantly smells of emissions, according to the data. The project also ranks “Likeability”. The emotion most commonly affiliated with the freeway is “sadness”.

Aiello and colleagues compiled the percentages with the aid of the work of the late British urban planner Victoria Henshaw, and began their research by collating a dictionary of smell-related words she listed. “It was our first feat to look for words in social media, and then we [produced] ... some sort of class word to put all these words together in microcategories,” Aiello explains.

Henshaw undertook smellwalks as part of her doctoral research, publishing a book called Urban Smellscapes in 2013. She used qualitative methods “including semi-structured interviews, participant drawings and direct observations” rather than social media data. GoodCityLife uses geotagging, and sifts through Twitter and Instagram to collect terms. 

At this point, says Aiello, they could “map all the major cities in the world”. So far, they have traced the smells of 12 different cities “without spending too much money because this data can come for free from the public in the area”.

He acknowledged the potential for ‘noise’ in the data; corroborative evidence is vital in being able to compile accurate maps. Data availability levels are shown alongside street maps, and in some areas it is still low: further documentation is vital.

British artist and designer Kate McLean steps away from the “big data approach”, preferring the more “human” practice of walking out into the city. Aiello and his team used McLean’s methodology “as a way of confirming the data they gathered through hashtags,” McLean says. 

 

A detail of Kate McLean's smallmap of Amsterdam.

On 28 February and 1 March, McLean will conduct two smell walks in London in conjunction with the Museum of Walking and The Flower Hut. She delightedly recollected previous events. “We had a group of 10 or so people going up to this biker and asking to smell him – it’s not illegal to smell people – just impolite,” she says.

She recalled a nonsmoker on a London smellwalk, who asked a stranger to breath a cloud of tobacco smoke on him. He just “really wanted to understand it,”she says.  Recalling a trio to Pamplona, she says: “You get people arguing about what is being cooked five storeys up.” The olfactory cues acted as precursors to “imagined worlds”, where some visualised “a meat stew with tomatoes” being cooked and others bolognese.

Combining such work with the internet opens up several new possibilities. Aiello points to the implications for virtual reality. “You can think about an application that lets you explore places remotely... not only the visuals but the full sphere of perceptions of a space.”

He also details how it could affect the real estate market. House values should hopefully “reflect the positivity of the environment,” he says, adding that he hopes “to work with city officials to put up targets for interventions” as senses correlate with “something very tangible, which is the health of the citizens.”

 

Another detail of Kate McLean's smallmap of Amsterdam.

The UK’s National Trust is also mulling the incorporation of smells into its visitor interaction, says McLean, to get people to “think about smells, but contextualised,” she said.

Nicky Boden, a visitor experience consultant with the Trust, confirms that it is looking into the possibility, but adds that this is specifically in the Midlands rather than on a national scale. “We are interested in trialing some new approaches to ‘tours’ or managed experiences which are more participatory and draw on the senses to create a deeper connection with people and place,” she says.

Conveying smell is a different issue. Last October, San Francisco-based artist Laurie Halsey Brown, conducted a smell walk around the Presidio, a park in the northwest of the city. Afterwards she produced psychogeographic art ‘kerchiefs, with “light variances of the image reflecting how smells dissipate and linger, with some locations having stronger and weaker areas of scent”.


McLean’s smell maps are usually animated; she believes motion better indicates the temporary quality of smell. “If I’m mapping something that disappears into nowhere, surely that map should not actually stay fixed,” she says.

Aiello took a less flexible approach. “It’s a bit evanescent but it’s also quite easy to map smells into an object from which a smell originates,” he says. “It’s a little bit trickier if you want to map even more subjective concepts like happiness and so on.”

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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