Thursday, October 25, 2012

Study Highlights: The Role of Location-Based Services in Shaping Sense of Place

I'm presenting this paper at ASIS&T annual meeting this week.  It represents the highlights of a larger survey study I conducted last December.

The increasing ubiquity of mobile devices with positioning technology has enabled more people to access and create information where it is geographically relevant. These location-based services are growing in user adoption, yet the role of such emerging technology in our relationships to the places we encounter has not been fully examined. This paper reports on a survey study that examines how people use mobile devices in relation to place and the potential for location-based services to improve sense of place.  It was found that location-based services enhance people’s familiarity, personal engagement, and social connection to place, leading to an improved sense of place.

Location-based services, mobile applications, locative media, geoinformatics, sense of place.

The open and ubiquitous nature of current and emerging mobile, Internet, and geographic information technologies have enabled the widespread creation and dissemination of diverse and multimodal forms of geographically relevant information. Current mobile applications can identify a user’s location and deliver information geographically relevant to that position. This functionality is known as location-based services (LBS). Three-quarters of American smartphone users are now using location-based services (Zickuhr, 2012), such as foursquare, Google+ Local, SCVNGR, and Layar. LBS can take the form of stand-alone applications or embedded functionality in other mobile apps. LBS often enable users to access and interact with diverse sources and formats of place information, to create and share content, and to participate in geosocial networking and locative gaming.
Studies show possible societal benefits from the use of location-based services. For example, a Pew study found that 65% of survey respondents with a mobile device believe it is now easier to keep up with community information, compared to 47% for non-mobile users (Purcell et al., 2011). Yet, studies have not examined how this technology affects one’s sense of place.

Sense of place is the “meanings associated with a place” (Cresswell, 2009, p. 169). It arises from the interrelationship of self, others, and environment (Gustafson, 2001). Scholars have posited that sense of place is a fundamental human need (Relph, 1976), an essential component for feelings of belonging or attachment to the world (Stedman, 2003), and a trigger for heritage and environmental custodianship (Kaltenborn, 1997).

Relph (1976) argues that personal experience is the root of our relationship to place. Yet, accounts of others and cultural forces also shape how we interpret and value place (Lefebvre, 1991). Walker and Wehner (2009) found online information aided in the social construction of place, while Cramer, Rost, and Holmquist (2011) found similar results with LBS users. A direct connection, however, between use of LBS and sense of place has not been found in empirical research.

The study addressed two research questions:
  1. How are people using mobile devices in relation to place?
  2. What is the potential of location-based services to improve sense of place?
A web-based survey using open and close-ended questions was used. Recruitment used convenience and snowball sampling, drawing upon this researcher’s network via his blogs and social networking websites. The questionnaire was open to anyone over 18 with access to a mobile device (defined in the questionnaire as a “portable computing device with network connectivity”). Seventy eight people completed the questionnaire, with participants representing a cross-section of ages, education levels, residence, and type of mobile device used. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistical analysis and thematic coding.

Findings and discussion are organized by research question.

RQ#1 How are people using mobile devices in relation to place?

When asked if they had “discovered something new and valuable about a place via their mobile device”, 62.5% (40 respondents) indicated they had. The larger the device screen used (e.g., tablet versus smartphone) increased positive responses, indicating user experience may play a role.  

Based on a list of LBS functions provided, many respondents (86.3%) reported using at least one such function in the past month (see figure 1 for the breakdown). At the high end, 84.1% report finding proximal businesses or services, reading local news (74.1%), finding nearby sites (67.7%), and reading information about their location (66.1%).  

When asked if they had “used a mobile device to record notes, opinions, or memories of a place”, 40.6% of respondents replied that they had done so. These respondents were asked to elaborate on how this affected their relationship to a place. Their responses fell into the following categories: improved recall (75.0%), encouraged personal reflection (20.8%), enabled sharing of place experiences (20.8%), and augmented place experience (12.5%).

These place-related functionalities that mobile devices enabled were seen to work with other elements, such as personal experience, reflection, and social elements that have been found to foster a sense of place.

RQ#2: What is the potential of location-based services to improve sense of place?

Of 28 respondents who indicated they had a stand-alone location-based service application installed on their mobile device, 72.4% answered the question “How have location-based services affected, or not affected, your sense of place”, with responses that were interpreted as improving their sense of place.

One response exemplifies the improved place familiarity resulting from easy, ubiquitous access to geographically-relevant information:
"They have let me learn more about a place, quickly, while I am there - which has provided a greater depth of knowledge and let me ‘commune’ with interesting places more."
Another response captures the individual and social elements of sense of place:

"Location based services have, by bringing other peoples’ social gazetteers into consideration, made a sense of place easier to achieve. The ability to explore what is around me through LBS and to not only stand in relation to those places but also to assess them through the social gazetteers left by other users does allow a sense of place to develop in even the unfamiliar, and the process of making such inscriptions in the LBS database strengthens my own sense of place..."
Of those who provided details (21 of 78), the responses were categorized into themes related to sense of place, as listed in table one (responses can be grouped in more than one category).

These findings indicate that LBS can improve one’s sense of place.

This study provides groundwork for establishing the role location-based services play in fostering sense of place. Respondents reported using LBS to find and share geotargetted place information, which increased their place familiarity and personal and social connections to place – which are components of sense of place (Gustafson, 2001). Respondents using LBS indicated it improved their place appreciation, fostered a sense of belonging, and improved their sense of place.
LBS are rapidly evolving as new features and innovations continue. Along with this, the ability to deliver geographically relevant information increases. Improved understanding of user patterns and outcomes arising from the use of LBS can provide guidance for developing applications to better meet user needs and to foster individual and societal benefits.

Cramer, H., Rost, M., & Holmquist, L. E. (2011). Performing a check-in:
Emerging practices, norms and “conflicts” in location-sharing using foursquare. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (pp. 57–66). New York: ACM.

Cresswell, T. (2004). Place: A short introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Gustafson, P. (2001). Meanings of place: Everyday experience and theoretical conceptualizations. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21(1), 5–16.

Kaltenborn, B. P. (1997). Nature of place attachment: A study among recreation homeowners in Southern Norway. Leisure Sciences, 19(3), 175–189.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Purcell, K., Raine, L., Rosenstiel, T., & Mitchell, A. (2011). How mobile devices are changing community information environments. Retrieved from

Relph, E. C. (1976). Place and placelessness. London, UK: Pion.

Stedman, R. (2003). Sense of place and forest science: Toward a program of quantitative research. Forest Science, 49(6), 822–829.

Walker, D., & Wehner, P. (2009). Practicing place: Collective experience and
difference in an urban online forum. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 46(1), 1–16. Silver Spring, MD: ASIS&T.

Zickuhr, K. (2012). Three-quarters of smartphone owners use location-based services. Retrieved from

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