My last blog post ran through the history of our ‘rate the view’ site ScenicOrNot.
I was expecting to wrap up with a final paragraph describing its graceful retirement. But no — it turns out that, even as I wrote, emails were going back and forth to secure a whole new career for ScenicOrNot.
Here’s what its new owners at the Warwick Business School have to say:
Does living in picturesque areas make you feel healthier? Urban planners and think tanks have puzzled over this question for years, but have been held back by a lack of data on the beauty of our environment.
We were immensely excited to discover the data being collected by ScenicOrNot, as it gives us a crucial opportunity to finally get some answers to this age-old question.
Our initial analyses of the ScenicOrNot data suggest that people living in more scenic environments report better health, even when taking variables such as income and greenspace into account. These results suggest that the beauty of our everyday environment might have more practical importance than has previously been realised.
We’ve written a paper describing these analyses, which is currently under review. Keep in touch with us via Twitter (@thoughtsymmetry or @thedatascilab) and we’ll let you know when the paper is published.
We’re very honoured that mySociety are passing the ScenicOrNot site into our care. We’re excited about having the opportunity to customise the site and gather more data for our research, and we’d also love to expand this work to other countries. Stay tuned to hear what comes next!
We’re excited too, of course — and really pleased that ScenicOrNot has been redeployed in such a useful way.
The good news for you is that you can carry on rating photos for scenicness over at the site’s new home, all in the knowledge that you are increasing our understanding about the correlation between health and our environment.
Oh, and meanwhile: how would you rate the view from your window? You might want to talk to your doctor about that.
Take a look out of the window. How would you rate the view, on a scale of one to ten?
Your response can probably tell us a little about the beauty, or otherwise, of the area around you. That’s the premise that ScenicOrNot, one of the mySociety sites that we recently stopped running, was founded on. Happily, ScenicOrNot has now found a home and will continue under new ownership: more about that in a future blog post. Meanwhile, we’d like to celebrate it with a potted history.
An exercise in crowdsourcing, ScenicOrNot served up a series of random images, each representing one square kilometre of Great Britain, and invited users to rate them (the images were sourced from the Geograph project, itself a fascinating open source repository). The results fed into a database of ‘scenicness’.
ScenicOrNot collected that data and also permits anyone to download it, under an Open Data Licence, for their own ends.
What was it for?
To understand why we made ScenicOrNot, you have to go back to the beginnings of our transit-time mapping technology, Mapumental.
Mapumental shows journeys in terms of how long they take, and it was intended to help people make decisions about where to live, work, or go on holiday. We’d figured out how to display bands of public transport journey times, but we knew that those weren’t the only factors that feed into such important life choices.
House prices, average salaries, and, yes, the beauty of the surrounding area all have a part to play. We wanted to be able to add them to Mapumental so that users could get a really rounded picture.
But while there are public databases for house prices and average salaries available, until the creation of ScenicOrNot, there was no such thing for scenicness. There was just one solution: we would have to make our own.
‘Hot or Not’ for scenery
Rather than go and look at every part of the country ourselves, it was time to harness the wisdom of the crowd.
ScenicOrNot, the building of which was managed by the Dextrous Web, launched in 2009. It served users with an unending random series of images showing landscapes from around the country, and was an early foray into both crowdsourcing and gamification for mySociety.
Rating images, as also seen in Kittenwar (and other, less fluffball-centric sites like HotOrNot) is a pleasingly compulsive activity, and within just a few months, every kilometre of the country had been rated at least once.
And as time went by, we reached a critical milestone: the project amassed a minimum of three votes for each image, helping to ensure that the results were less likely to be skewed by eccentric or unusual opinions about what makes a place scenic.
Slotting ScenicOrNot into Mapumental
We now had our ‘scenicness’ data, and house price and salary data from other sources. The decision we made about how to incorporate these data sets was an important one which has worked well for subsequent Mapumental projects like the work we did for the Welsh government, or for the Fire Protection Association.
Effectively, you can think of each data set as a map layer, which may be slotted in our out, as needed. Our showcase site Mapumental Property demonstrates this – it’s effectively the vanilla transit-time Mapumental, with a house price layer (from Zoopla) added in.
A new lease of life
If we hadn’t found a new owner for ScenicOrNot, we’d have shut it down. Happily, though, it’s found a new home and a whole new purpose: we’ll be explaining more about that in our next blog post.
Matthew’s just updated ScenicOrNot, the little game that we built to provide a ‘Scenicness’ dataset for Mapumental, to include a data dump of the raw data. The dump will update automatically on a weekly basis, but currently it contains averaged scores for 181,188 1*1km grid squares, representing 83% of the Geograph dataset we were using, or 74% of all the grid squares in Great Britain. It is, in other words, really pretty good, and, I think, unprecedented in coverage as a piece of crowd sourced geodata about a whole country.
It’s available under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3 Licence, and we greatly look forward to seeing what people do with it.
The goal of ScenicOrNot is to be a gentle-ambling sort of quasi game that’s just compelling enough to keep clicking on, just in case the next picture is the dream valley in which you wish to be buried.
mySociety’s obviously not in the business of building games for their own sake, though. This is another crowdsourcing experiment to solve a specific problem – we need a scenicness map of the UK for a major upcoming mySociety project, and there ain’t one to be had any other way, for love or money.
So if you like mySociety, or just want to ogle the best and worst of this Island, please have a play.