Workshop Wrapup: Technology on the Trail Day 2

The second day of the Technology on the Trail workshop at Virginia Tech consisted of a pair of work sessions and a workshop wrapup.

The first work session, led by Nicholas Polys and featuring John Munsell and John Jelesko, looked at science on the trail. It delved into the challenges of taking technology outdoors, balanced with the opportunities that it provides. Of particular concern are problems of cleaning up “dirty data” from erroneous readings. It’s great to get more people involved in data collection, but without knowledge, training, and high-quality equipment, we run the risk of collecting erroneous data.

The second work session, led by the project research associate Grace Fields, focused on her cultural probes. We got to try out some of her “would you rather” probe questions, e.g., would you rather hike on a rainy 60 degree day or a sunny 30 degree day. It was noted that these aren’t opposites (they aren’t meant to be!) and often the answer is “both”. Other probes and, importantly, some early probe results were presented. The results really drove some interesting conversations, and also highlighted the need for follow-up interviews or focus groups to delve deeper into the “why” behind the responses. Alan Dix noted that probes are better at putting forth questions rather than answering them, making it important to discover the key questions that emerge from looking at the probes.

The wrapup sought to both look back as well as look forward. There were great ideas shared about possible partnerships, follow-up events, opportunities for funding, and venues for writing. At this stage of the initiative, it is important to cast a wide net and to work in directions that meet real needs for people and organizations that care about trails and that see value in technology. All are encouraged to share ideas and help out!

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The Cascades (a bit frosty around the edges)
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Chewbacca (Norm) and Yoda (Scott) staying warm
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Steve Harrison offering date and fig cake to Alan Dix and the masses

As a quick addendum and final photos: Day 3 saw us match our efforts to our talk, as we hit the trail for a hike to the Cascades. Ten of us made the 4-mile walk in below freezing temperatures to view the iconic waterfall and continue our conversations.

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Workshop Wrapup: Technology on the Trail Day 1

Today we kicked off the Technology on the Trail workshop at Virginia Tech.

The morning started with talks by our four invited guests: Allison Druin from the National Park Service, Alan Dix from Birmingham University (UK), Ellie Harmon from Encountering Tech, and Norman Su of Indiana University. The talks were very different, but all touched on the self-discovery that takes place when people go out on trails, and the evolving and sometimes contentious role that technology has with it.

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Scott McCrickard’s giant selfie looms over Alan Dix during a discussion of the phenomenology of selfies.

The afternoon consisted of work sessions, when we delved into topics of interest. Steve Harrison led the first session, titled “Spectacle vs Experience”. Groups talked about the nature and phenomenology of the selfie, the mediation that takes place in technology on the trail, and the roles taken on in traversing trails. Michael Horning led the second session. It focused on seamfulness in nature, looking at different types (and subtypes) of trail users that exist. For example, hikers’ goals on the trail differ from hunters, and day hikers differ from thru-hikers.

The evening will feature a community reception in the lobby of the Moss Arts Center.  There will be posters about ongoing projects, exhibits of artifacts from a cultural probe on hiking, and a demo of a multi-person blog analysis tool applied to hiking blogs.

We will post the talks and the full findings from the work sessions in follow-up posts on this blog. You can tweet or follow tweets about the event at #VTechTrail.

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.

Workshop

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 sgrace@vt.edu 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

Readings:

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.

Agenda:

  • 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

Discussion:

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.