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Science: 

What does your city smell like? Take a smelfie and find out

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Hit the showers London, you stink.

What does your city smell like? Don’t worry, we weren’t really expecting you to have an answer, but a new project wants to give you helping hand by creating detailed ‘smell maps’ of urban areas.

The idea for city ‘Smelfies’ comes from Daniele Quercia at the University of Cambridge, who used data from Flickr, Instagram and Twitter to plot city scents good and bad – from freshly cut grass to the not so fresh alley behind your local kebab shop. Working with artist and designer Kate McLean, the research team spent three years studying smelly language – or the words we use to describe smells – and then applied them to real geography with the help of photo meta tags.

The team identified 285 words used to define urban stinks, making up a smell dictionary which is (slowly) being mapped over cities including London and Barcelona. The maps can then be configured by each smell, showing the density of, say, emissions in London (above), or wildlife (below).

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High densities of animal smells are coded in blue. Can you spot London zoo?

For London and Barcelona, the team analyzed geo tags from around half a million Flickr images, 35,000 Instagram photos and 113,000 tweets, and matched them against the smell dictionary. As well as being fun to look at, it’s thought that a digital smell map could be used for everything from tourists looking for a unique way to navigate their destination, to commuters looking to avoid a bad stench on the way to work.

“We also tried correlating the data with known air quality indicator data in London and found that pleasant nature-related smells were suppressed by air pollution,” Quercia told New Scientist. It’s thought that a more detailed ‘smelfie’ could help urban planners improve air quality and  monitor pollution.

Quercia is no stranger to unusual maps, having long been involved in looking for new ways to improve our lives with online mapping. Earlier this year, he gave a TED talk titled Happy Maps, in which he argues there is a ‘cult of efficiency’ to our map-use, which means we’re guilty of taking the fastest, but not necessarily the most enjoyable routes. Admittedly he may have a very good point, but some of us have places to be.

As for Smelfies, the research team plan to launch the Smelly Maps website later this year, where you’ll be able to get a more detailed understanding of your city’s smellscape.

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