The idea of context-awareness has been gaining a lot of attention recently, and it’s driven largely by the fact that the required technology has become affordable and reliable enough to bother. “Location” though, as a raw GPS coordinate, is not enough. Here’s my take on what’s after this sensor-based revolution, taken from a recently submitted conference paper:

The notion of location as context has been primarily a technical concern to date. Inputs from environmental sensors – particularly location through GPS recordings – have been used to inform context, and have even been included in definitions of what it means to be context-aware. Improvements in the technical ability of systems to sense environment variables have certainly allowed context-awareness to gain traction in the human-computer interaction community – GPS is approaching a level of accuracy that gives designers and engineers confidence in its readings, and there has even been investigations into the use of bio-sensors that can detect a person’s emotional state. Whilst technical considerations are important, research has begun around more phenomenological and social forms of context – ones that emphasises a world that is not static, knowable and sense-able, but one that is essentially a “consensus of interpretation” between people and location.

Harrison & Dourish (1996) make a useful distinction between location information that is easily sense-able, and that which exists in the interactions between people and that location. He uses two words to describe the distinction; Space, he states, is the opportunity of location – it is the raw, sense-able data; the GPS coordinate. Place, on the other hand, exists on top of space and reflects a set of evolved interpretations imposed by people. In other words, place is something that arises only through the interactions people have with space.

In the context of the current research project, location plays an important role for park rangers and other experts in a park. There are large quantities of data relevant to space – from historical photos that show the recovery of natural habitats from fire, through to scientific studies about the ecological nature of a 10 x 10 metre block of a park. Whilst there are internal projects that are aiming to associate this data more closely with relevant locations, preliminary conversations with park rangers have indicated that, whilst a good start, simple GPS coordinates are not enough when it comes to giving context to information. What is needed is a greater understanding of a space as place – that is, of one that has had additional meaning attached to it through a person or groups interaction with it.

By looking at and understanding a person’s interactions with a location, we hope to design a system that adapts to the user’s unique interpretation of particular locations in a park – that is, we hope to utilise a ranger’s interpretation of space (through creation of place) in the park knowledge system.


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