Institute for Software Research
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Depicting Places in Information Systems
Closing the Gap Between Representation and Experience

Justin Cranshaw

May 2022

Ph.D. Thesis
Societal Computing


Keywords: Human-Computer Interaction, Geography, Places, Geographic Human-Computer Interaction, Social Computing, Geographic Information Systems, Urban Computing, Urban Informatics, Place-based Computing, Place-centered Design, Location-based Social Networks, Social Media Analysis, Digital Placemaking

Places are more than just locations on a map–they are centers of meaning and lived experience that play essential roles in how people interact with and make sense of the world. Over the last three decades, as computing has grown more powerful, more ubiquitous, and more deeply entwined with society, the ways people encounter and experience places are increasingly mediated by information systems such as digital maps, information overlays, social media, augmented reality, and local guides. However, these systems are often overly reductive and simplistic in their approach to place, ignoring much of the complexity inherent in everyday experience, and treating places as not much more than locations. This is problematic when these systems are used as input for downstream decision-making processes, such as resource allocation, investment, or basic research.

In this dissertation, I present three systems that aim to close gaps between how places are represented in information systems and how they are experienced in day-to-day life.

  • Livehoods demonstrates that the footprints of the urban crowd in social media can be used to produce a new kind of city neighborhood map that is flexible, dynamic, and able to evolve as neighborhoods do.
  • Curated City is a social city guide that represents places of the city as not just singular aggregations of ratings or reviews, but as multitudes of different experiences and perspectives.
  • Finally, Journeys & Notes considers the the possibility of information systems acting as virtual places when the corresponding physical space lacks the qualities and affordances for place to develop.

My approach is to engage with places as complex ecosystems with myriad stakeholders in order to design systems that engage with the milieu of daily life at places. I distill my learnings from building these systems into six attributes of place that can help designers grapple with places as not just locations, but as lived spaces where the practices of daily life unfold. This work opens up new avenues for the design of location-based information systems that are more insightful and meaningful, not just for users of these systems, but for all stakeholders of places they depict, and indeed for society as a whole.

Thesis: By closing the gaps between how places are represented and how they are experienced, it is possible to design social information systems that are more insightful and meaningful to stakeholders.

238 pages

Thesis Committee:
Norman Sadeh (Chair)
Jason Hong
Aniket Kittur
Andrés Monroy-Hernández (Princeton University)

James D. Herbsleb, Director, Institute for Software Research
Martial Hebert, Dean, School of Computer Science

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