Student Projects: Appalachian Trail Counties and Cities in Southwest Virginia

We received a heads-up about a relevant class here at VT that will be displaying their final projects in a public event on Monday, April 24th in VT’s Newman Library Multi-purpose Room. Here’s the blurb about the projects and their website. Scott and Gracie are planning on going, and hopefully our own TotT class will be interested as well.

I’m a historian at VT, teaching a course, Introduction to Data in Social Context, which encourages to think critically and creatively about the ways that data analysis can inform understanding of contemporary issues (and vice versa). For their final projects, the twelve students in the class will be examining data about the twenty or so cities and counties close to the Appalachian trail between the NC / TN border and just north of Roanoke. The students have identified themes that they will be researching in the next couple of weeks. Their projects will be displayed in Newman library on Monday, April 24, from 10-11 am in the Multipurpose Room. Given your interest in technology along the trail, I hope that you might also be interested in their research on the communities along the trail. Please forward this invitation to your colleagues involved in this project, or to others who might be interested. The schedule will be posted (and updated) at the website linked below.

Appalachian Trail Cities and Counties in Southwest Virginia:


Workshop Wrapup: Used, Amused, and Confused

One the second day of TotT’s workshop, which brought together interested academics and students of different backgrounds to discuss tech on the trail research, I (Gracie) had an opportunity to present to everyone my ongoing thesis work. The spotlight was particularly unnerving since the returned data from the several completed probes had only just come in, so I hadn’t had a chance to do a deep dive analysis yet. Even so, both polishing a presentation and having discussions about my probes were a good way to start off my data analysis for my thesis.

As a reminder, the basic gist of my probe can be read here; this post will be long enough without rehashing all that.

To start broadly, the most challenging question I received from the audience while presenting boiled down to, “Why? What’s the point of this?” The other day, I attended my friend’s dissertation defense about using big data sets in introductory CS education, and he received a similar question from the audience. In his case, the room was discussing the limitations of CS education research in regards to having no experimental control group and being rife with other uncontrollable variables, and someone finally asked, “Why should we believe any of these results?” For my friend’s research, I think having a good course outcome for students is a valuable goal in and of itself, but it seems to me that the qualitative side of HCI (and of social research in general) is often criticized as being pointless or inconclusive. In my case, even if I can draw solid conclusions about how hikers feel about technology on the trail… so what? How does that help anyone?

When I was designing my study, it would’ve been easy to craft a list of specific questions to ask participants. Do you ever bring a smartphone on a hike, yes or no? Do you feel like people are overly dependent on GPS, yes or no? The thing about asking specific questions is that you get limited and often expected answers. Questions can be more open-ended, and they could be posed in an interview that allows some back and forth, but the problem is still that I’m creating these questions that are limiting the answers I get. How do I know what questions to ask? Before joining TotT, I never knew trial angels existed for thru hikers, so I wouldn’t have known to ask any questions in that vein. I don’t doubt there’s a wealth of other trail and hiking related knowledge that I haven’t been exposed to yet.

So how would cultural probes fix that? I’d never heard of a research method in this vein before coming to grad school here. (In fact, I hadn’t even really heard of Human-Computer Interaction despite doing Computer Science and Interactive Media in undergrad, but that’s a different discussion.) In my Models and Theories of HCI class, we spent a day talking about cultural probes as a way to creatively draw out a response to a particular prompt or idea. I loved the idea as soon as I read about it. Personally, I’m bad at speaking unprepared; I’m fine if I have a script or thought about it in advance, but for something like an interview, it’s difficult for me to shape a response with any depth on the spot. Even taking written surveys can produce the same problem as I continue to think of more things relevant to the survey questions long after taking them. Having a probe stay with me over a period of time as I continue to shape my answer solves those issues, as well as a few others.

A cultural probe can be shaped for its audience. And it can hit a wider audience with the flexible nature of the responses. Prefer to respond in writing? Go ahead. Prefer to record a video? Have at it. This is demonstrated well in my scrapbook responses, where one participant filled the pages with writing, and another pasted only photographs. Probes allow the questions to be fuzzier as well. One of the scrapbook pages is themed “Proof you were there,” which doesn’t suggest what form proof needs to take. The way that participants interpret and answer the questions will say a lot about what’s most salient to them regarding tech and the trail.

It also offers a lot more room for creativity, which is something I’m passionate about. There was a good example of this at the workshop as well. After my presentation, I divided the attendees into three smaller groups to have a hands-on look at my early data results. One group was given the responses for the Indoor Hike (2) and the Hike Club (1). Whenever I passed by, I heard this group discussing one particularly well written Indoor Hike response, and by the end, they were happy to share with me another odd Indoor experience: have someone act like a trial guide to a group, but have it be inside a mall, so they’re giving their group a running dialogue of the environment and flora/fauna of the mall. They suggested a few phrases that might be passed around and had a good laugh. Later, one of the participants and I were chatting, and the Nacirema article which really captures the idea of taking something familiar and making it “strange.” That was one of the main driving themes behind the Indoor Hike activity, so it was gratifying to hear it discussed.

So, what do I hope to get out of these probes? A lot of unique perspectives that I wouldn’t be able to get by just talking with someone. I want a broad range of thoughts and opinions. I want a better look at the diversity that exists in hiking and outdoor communities. And that knowledge should be fueling tech on the trail discussion, making our conversations more nuanced and our views more accurate. I don’t want anyone’s voice to get lost just because they didn’t thru hike the entire Appalachian Trail. And really, there’s no point in designing technology if we don’t even know who we’re designing for or what need we’re filling.

Understanding Technology on the Trail: Updates on the Workshop, Cultural Probe, and Community Outreach

We’ve been busy lately setting up workshop logistics and talking to interesting people, so we thought we’d post a brief update with current happenings.


With just 3 weeks left until the workshop, we’ve been promoting the workshop and getting colleagues excited. The agenda for the day has been posted, and there’s now registration to get us a headcount for food.  Titles, abstracts, and speaker bios are coming soon. Specific topics for work sessions are being developed, including areas like hiking communities and deciphering data.  Input is welcome, either via comments or direct email!

Cultural Probe for Hikers

Gracie has also been rolling out her cultural probe study with participants both locally and around the country. The probe box contains six activities she designed in hopes of teasing out how hiking fits into the lives of participants and how they feel about technology in relation to the outdoors. The study takes place for roughly a month as participants complete the activities on their own time in any order.

A brief description of the activities:

  • Would You Rather… – a short series of this-or-that choices to set the tone of the probe (we snuck a few of them into the registration form too!)
  • Scavenger Hunt – a list of 20 prompts challenges participants to find examples of various tech and/or trail moments, such as social media comments on hikes or examples of technology they think is overrated
  • Streaming Live from the Trail – a future fiction scenario of a platform that livestreams virtual reality experiences from the trail and the challenge to come up with popular channels
  • Hike Club – a hypothetical club which acts like a book club except with hikes, so members hike separately and meet to discuss it
  • The Indoor Hike – a challenge to attempt to recreate the experience of “a hike” but in an indoor setting
  • Scrapbooking – several themed pages in a scrapbook with crafting materials provided

Gracie is still actively recruiting participants, so email her at if it sounds like something you might be interested in! The only requirement is that you consider yourself to be a “hiker”.

Talking with the Community

As our plans and research have developed, we’ve been talking with people locally who have a vested interest in trails and the outdoors. There’s no shortage of hikers around here thanks to all the wonderful trails and parks nearby. There are groups that go hiking, of course, like the Boy and Girl Scouts, Venture Out, and the Outdoor Club at VT.  But there are also groups that come to work for or volunteer on our local trails. Some organizations support our local trails, like Appalachian Trail Club and Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other organizations wind up on the trail as part of a program or activity, like some Honors College programs.

We hope to feature some of the viewpoints from these various conversations in posters to be displayed at the reception during the workshop (March 2nd 5-6:30). It’ll give people something to wander and look at during the reception, showcase the diverse local perspectives, and start conversations.

Reading Group Summary: Asocial Hiking App


This week’s paper is by Maaret Posti and her colleagues examines social issues related to hiking, presenting a design-focused approach to understanding the tensions and desires to be asocial while hiking.


  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 6 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 2 undergraduate student)
  • Discussion of next week (the week before Thanksgiving break) and beyond
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


Gracie opened up with a comment about how it was a shame we couldn’t download an app to try out, but such is the way with research projects.  A bit more planning ahead and we could email the authors, alas.

Several times, the group came back to the issue of which trails had enough of a network to make an app like this feasible. In our experience, a lot of trails nearby have one and only one route, meaning it would be impossible to avoid someone without hiding in the bushes (which the paper explicitly said users didn’t prefer doing). Where the app was tested, there was enough of a network of trails that pieces could be mixed and matched at intersections of routes in order to avoid people or otherwise accomplish a “lonely” walk. However, it’s not like such networked trails don’t exist in the US (Gracie has hiked one in Indiana’s Turkey Run State Park) – it just seems less common to us locally.

Some of us felt there wasn’t demand for an app to avoid people on the trail. Some people are comfortable just walking by and not acknowledging others on the trail when hiking “alone,” but others note that people with considerations like social anxiety could benefit from avoiding people entirely. However, we did all relate to some degree with the notion of avoiding contact with a specific person (maybe your professor that you see across the quad, or an old classmate who you see in line at a shop) by actively avoiding them. We talked about little tricks like walking behind a different person or acting distracted.

We also talked at length about privacy and security issues, which we felt the original paper didn’t do justice to. This app could very easily tell someone with malicious intentions that they’re alone on a remote trail with just one other person. We connected this to a talk here at VT recently by our new faculty Gang Wang who discusses similar security issues with a driving app that revealed exact locations of others in traffic (which his group proved made it possible to stalk specific people). In general, very few people want everyone else around them to know their exact location.

Instead of an app with specific nearby people marked, we talked about the utility of a tool for estimating projected loneliness of a trail at a specific time. You’re at the mercy of chance if you wait until you’re already hiking to see if others are hiking the same paths. Projected popularity could be based on things like social media traffic relating to an area, but there’s confounding factors of a boring area not getting much social media attention.

In terms of the app itself, we talked a bit about the user preferences discussed in the paper. We thought it interesting that most preferred the version with an actual map integral to the view – something with utility beyond just the lonely hike use case. Needing the visual cue to detect others nearby made us talk about how a user might handle checking the device, being distracted by checking it, or choosing only to engage the app at intersections. We envisioned use over a longer period of time than just 84 minute hike. This would enable an understanding of hikers use it over time and how usage changes.

Reading Group Summary: Harmon, the PCT, and Communication


Ellie Harmon explore how technology can lead to stress. It will be up to our group to explore implications about the findings about technology on trail-based activities. (Ambitious people can track down Ellie’s dissertation, which talks about technology and her PCT experience.)


  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 5 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 1 undergraduate student)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


This was our first paper for the reading group which was not expressly connected to trails, so we all connected the messages and tension of disconnection to the context of hiking in our own ways. Earlier that week, Dr. McCrickard and I (Gracie) had spoken with Ellie Harmon over Skype to pick her brain about Technology on the Trail and ask questions related to her hike of the Pacific Crest Trial (which she discusses in her dissertation), so we had some extra insight to bring to the table.

The group first discussed the differences between technologies that are fads (like the Hololens and Pokemon Go) and technologies that integrate themselves into our lives (like smartphones and laptops). We also revisited several times the ways in which we as a society view the past with rose-colored lenses. We have a picture of America in the 50s where families ate together lovingly every day, but there have always been distractions even before smartphones.

One group member suggested that instead of having a false binary or even a continuum to portray disconnection and integration, we might instead strive for a metaphorical tapestry that weaves together threads from both sides to create the ideal situation. We could consciously choose when to experience integration with technology and where we can disintegrate, such as when needing concentrated time for studying.

We also touched on how people feel vs how they appear. Someone might view themself as being one of the two positive images, but that’s never wholly true. We also intentionally wield technology to portray an image, such as pulling out a phone to appear busy even if you’re looking at a blank screen. Even then, outsiders might believe they’re playing a game rather than working. We also talked about how some people see technology use as antisocial and negative even though they’d see something like reading a book as intellectual and admirable. The person on the phone could in fact be reading a book, but it still has a far different connotation.

Touching on early adopters again, we talked about why people are so interested in being on the first (often expensive) wave of technology users. There are hikers who are excited about trying the latest gadgets out on trails. We talked about the social status is brings for being “first” or even “best” at technology, but we also talked about how the new experience itself is a nice bonus. One group member brought up the luddite image by suggesting there might be an adoption curve of sorts which starts with early adopters, rises into general use, and hits a plateau upon which anyone who isn’t using it appears to be out of touch with technology.

One member brought up the effect of having constant stimulus from technology and whether this creates a lack of boredom in our culture. They brought up a cub scout troop which, as they got older, went on their first camping for an extended period of time, and many of the young boys were unused to long periods with nothing to do (and they had a no technology rule in the troop). Technology has the potential to provide constant stimulus in our daily lives, and some members felt this could be an addiction.

We also discussed the enabling effect of technology for working from home or otherwise remotely. Many trails even have satellite or cell signal now. One member felt that being physically disconnected from work when leaving for camping or other remote experiences created more thorough preparation before leaving. That is, if you wanted to accomplish work while camping, you had to be entirely sure to pack it and all relevant files beforehand because there was no way to remotely access your workplace.

We finished by musing on the effect of being able to take thousands of photos because we’re not longer limited by film. One member talked about how they valued selfies from a particular distant friend because said friend rarely took any selfies at all, so the low volume made each one more special. We also brought up Dr. Harmon’s anecdote from the phone conversation about limiting herself to one photograph uploaded to Instagram daily during her PCT hike, and this made the set of photos far more appealing after the fact. Some members also felt that technology like smartphone cameras can interrupt or detract from experiences of the outdoors.

Reading Group Summary: Alan Walks Wales



  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Our time this week overlapped with faculty meetings
    • Core ideas for TotT; see previous week
    • Attendance: 7 people(1 professor, 4 graduate students, 2 undergraduate students, including 2 new faces)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


We started with an overall discussion of the Alan Walks Wales project from miscellaneous outside readings by a few of the reading group members. This week, our two papers were very recent, so we only touched briefly on whether new tools or techniques (most specifically to dealing with open, large data sets) existed since the time of the paper’s publishing.PubsofBlacksburg-Poster-Maroon

Following the suggested definition of a wonky map from Alan Dix’s paper, we put forth as our own example the PubsOf poster shown here of our own local bars drawn by Brian McKelvey. It is “wonky”, as it doesn’t faithfully represent the town of Blacksburg but includes distortions that highlight key destination points (i.e., pubs).

With this example and the paper in mind, we talked about the definition of a “map.” One person suggested that a map depicted places that are roughly co-located with an emphasis on directionality, and another suggested a map was a graphical representation of physical places.

From the discussion of maps, a few interesting threads of conversation arose. We debated, especially for the purposes of travel or hiking, whether a map based on time-to-travel rather than physical distance might be possible. Traveling the distance up a mountainside takes far longer than traveling the same distance on flat ground. We also talked about examples like subway maps which commonly shrink the map of rails into more of a conceptual understanding of intersections, especially to fit on smaller pieces of paper or near the ceiling of a subway car.

We also discussed what it’s like to describe directions using landmarks to someone unfamiliar with the area, especially in the context of back routes or walking through alleys and grassy areas; sometimes we just say “follow me” to lead a stranger through campus instead of trying to describe such a thing. We also talked about on-the-ground assistance people give each other that traditional maps can’t provide, such as a trailhead marker that has a slider for its condition.

We talked about what it would be like if trail maps were read the same way as street maps, or if they were described solely in terms of landmarks. One of us suggested there are three ways to navigate by landmarks: solely on landmarks, landmarks plus direction, and purely on a sense of distance between landmarks. We also hit on the significance of general map literacy, going again back to A Walk in the Woods in which the author went into the experience with fairly robust map-reading skills, such as when he found a logging road to get around an impassable mountain in a storm.

We connected the two readings when talking about what maps could be generated from information collected on the ground. A map of the difficulty of the terrain could be generated based on the people actually traversing it. We talked about how user-generated maps might also capture those back routes that traditional maps miss that would normally spread by word of mouth only, or other issues like seasonal closures.

When discussing open data in classrooms, we hit upon the pros and cons of giving students entirely unexplored sets of data as open-ended puzzles to figure out. We talked about the need, also stressed in the paper, to clean the data beforehand. We felt a big issue could be the student not knowing how or where to get started with such an open problem. The data feeling irrelevant to the student could also be an issue. We talked about whether working with the data of hundreds of people in the set might make it more interesting to work with. However, that still might not make the data feel relevant to the student, and more isn’t always better. What the student cares about might not be something numerical data can capture.

We talked about two ways to approach data: either look for insights in an open-ended manner, or try to verify a hypothesis. The two are not always mutually exclusive. We talked about how readers of a blog might feel more connected to the story if they had access to tools to analyze and gain insights about the data contained in it, and specifically whether that would make readers feel more connected to the Alan Walks Wales story when they might not have before.

We talked about the potential of tying personal data sets, such as one generated by Fitbit, into publicly accessible data sets, such as meteorological data. Enriching data after the fact with additional public data would be an interesting area of study. However, we talked about the downside of highly localized data; going back to the meteorological data, weather can be very different in one area than it is only half a mile away, such as in a valley and on top of a foothill, and it’s less likely that publicly available data sets would match your exact experiences. Aggregating the data of many people with similar private data might crowdsource some of that specificity in an interesting way.

Reading Group Summary: Rogers’ big picture of theory and practice


This week focuses on two easy-to-read papers that set the stage for this topic. We’ll spend this session talking about the goals for the reading group, and how the papers help identify issues, concerns, opportunities, and solutions regarding technology on the trail.


  • First meeting logistics
    • Goals for the group: explore core ideas for TotT and build a foundation for papers, research, proposals, etc.
    • Introductions
  • Attendance: 5 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 1 undergraduate student)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


One of our papers was from 2011 and one was from 2005, so the changing context of digital technologies was a theme that came up in our discussion. Kids these days touch technology more frequently than before, such as personal iPads or kid-oriented games like Pokemon Go. People also use smartphones far more often and there are apps for almost any aspect of the outdoors, e.g. stargazing or identifying plants, but we talked about the effect of putting a piece of technology between the user and nature. Our ability to use search engines on the go to answer many questions or solve logistical problems also changes the landscape of TotT.

We discussed aspects of the Ambient Wood project in depth. Although it occurred “in the wild” and not in a lab, the environment of the project was still very intentionally structured which we found to be an interesting dynamic. It’s still not an experience that would happen spontaneously in any woods. There’s a tension between giving children information in various forms, which is the point of the learning activity, and distracting them from the natural experience itself, which is the point of being outdoors while doing it. We talked about this from the angle of a person passively receiving information versus actively exploring to find that information. One suggestion was that having a more passive attitude left the mind more open for unexpected information, and another was that individuals would have a difference preference and both ends of the spectrum could be included.

Ambient Wood felt preferable when we compared it to traditional forms of field trips we’ve experienced, such as being given a list of 8 questions on paper to answer while freely walking in the woods. We talked about the limits of still having a defined set of tools and interactions for the learning activity, such as lacking spontaneity or motivational force.

We also tied in a few points from the novel A Walk in the Woods which two of us had read, such as how the detailed maps of northern trails gave the author a far greater appreciation for the context of the places he was hiking through. So how does knowing the context of a natural interaction or process affect the children as they’re looking at it in the woods? One of us noted that children are remarkably good at making connections between classroom knowledge and outdoors experiences (even if they’re not always correct).

We agreed that the second paper about theory “in the wild” seemed to draw influence from, though not specifically talk about, experiments such as Ambient Wood. We agreed that we wanted to read more about the wild theory approach since our paper of choice was rather short. One of us described a disconnect between the papers from designing “for” a natural environment versus designing “in” a natural environment, which goes back to our initial conversation about how Ambient Wood felt very structured despite being outside.

We also discussed the apparent gap between the paper’s themes of moving from this x to that y. One member suggested the paper seemed a bit strong on invalidating lab experiments and controlled environments. We ended the talk with the idea of research switching from influencing people to trying to understand them in context.