Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Authentic, Personalized Travel Recommendation

At the moment a lot of my time and attention is being devoted to Near2Me, which is a concept for a travel recommender developed by a colleague of mine, Luz Caballero, for the PetaMedia Network of Excellence. The cool thing about Near2Me is that in not only makes personalized travel recommendations, but it also focuses on authenticity -- the distinctive "spirit of place", as Luz likes to describe it.

The Near2Me concept tackles the problem of long-tail recommendation, it suggests that you go places where relatively few other people have been: Most of the time we refer to it as Off-The-Beaten-Track. The concept links up with the "Creative Tourism" movement, which holds that travel should be participatory and that travelers should hook up with the living culture of the place as manifested in the lives of the people living there.

How do we get at the authenticity of a place? Well, Luz points out that the act of taking a picture is something like adding a tag to a place. The tag is different than other sorts of tags. For example, it is not like the tags we use on Flikcr, since it doesn't have a lot of semantics. Taking a picture is basically a salience tag, it just says, this came to my attention as interesting. Luz did a study of Flickr where she determined that people who travel, even though they of course take pictures of the "must sees", Notre Dame in Paris, for example, also take pictures of interesting things along the way.

Because the motiviation of the people taking these pictures is something more akin to personal documentation than it is to touristic promotion, they provide a valuable source of information about the authentic, the things that we stumble across when we actually are in a place, along the way to reaching another goal.

The next step is simple, you look at the geotags of the pictures (that little piece of metadata produced by a growing number of cameras that records where the picture was taken) and you use the Amazon principle: people who liked X also liked Y. You look for people who have taken pictures where you have taken pictures and see where else they go. Luz' uses the example of markets: if someone liked the "Borough Market" in London, the system would recommend the "Marche Wilson" in Paris. The technique is called "wormholes" and was developed by Maarten Clements.

At this point, you encounter possibly the most challenging part of long-tail recommendation. You want to give people something new and interested, but none of the place recommendations are going to be obvious since you want to stay away from the bestsellers, the commercial destinations. For this reason, its important to be able to explore recommendations further: OK, the system thinks I should like the Nusantara Museum in Delft, but would I really like it? Why? What is it anyway? What can I see and do there?

Two of the ways that users can explore a place are by browsing pictures and browsing people. The Near2Me concept offers a selection of pictures from the recommended place that are carefully chosen to be both diverse and also representative of a place. Also, it offers a selection of people, who by virtue of the pictures that they take and of the popularity of those pictures, emerge as a sort of community expert for a particular topic. How these algorithms work -- and if they are of use in a working prototype is something in the works targeted for publication in future PetaMedia papers.

On Saturday, I flew back from Dublin after having spent a couple days at DCU. On the way to the airport, the taxi driver asked me where I was going.
"Back to Amsterdam." I said. "I came Wednesday and now I am already going back."
"Oh, Amerdam. Did you bring tulips?"
"No, chocolate." I replied, and then added "The funny thing is, is that I'll probably get some chocolate to bring the other direction as well."
"I'll tell you what you got to get." he said. And then launched into description of how amazing the Baileys Irish Cream chocolates are. I've been to Dublin several times, but I still have to ask people to repeat words sometimes because of the Irish English, which he did quite patiently. In the end the picture emerged that the Baileys Irish Cream chocolates are amazing because they are not just chocolatey, but they offer a real Baileys experience as well.

Last time flying back from Dublin I had seen the Baileys Irish Cream chocolates at the airport and had steered clear -- putting Baileys in chocolate was something, I assumed, they had come up with for the tourists, and that I would do well to avoid it. However, the fact that the taxi driver had no particular reason to tell me this and the fact that he was, himself, to me clearly Irish, I shifted my opinion on the Baileys Irish Cream chocolates from "main stream tourist" to "genuine Irish souvenir". Since I was the one that brought up the chocolate, the taxi driver was certainly not doing product placement. Perhaps Baileys is simply very, very smart with this. But if they are, the Baileys Irish Cream chocolates will still remain authentic to me because the whole story happened at a moment where I was devoting a lot of time and attention to Near2Me and thinking a lot about authenticity of place.

This is Part I of the "Irish Chocolate Discussion", reflections on the conversation I had with a Dublin taxi driver and how that relates to finding things and search systems in general.