People are always coming and going, leaving one place on their way to another. And often they spend the time in those "non-places" in between staring at a mobile device.
Justin Cranshaw, a Ph.D. student in Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Software Research, helped Microsoft develop an app to see if those people in non-places might constitute communities.
This work is just one example of Cranshaw's research into the field of Urban Computing.
"We're seeing a moment right now that technology is changing the way cities are lived in, thought about and even built," Cranshaw said. "Urban Computing lets me combine things that interest me outside of computer science such as people, architecture and design. This is a way to look at all those things."
Cranshaw, whose research explores the future of cities in this age of ubiquitous and social computation, helped develop the app, called Journeys and Notes, while interning last summer at Microsoft Research.
Cranshaw said he and Microsoft staff members Sarah Needham and Andres Monroy-Hernandez developed the app because people now spend so much time commuting or otherwise on their way to somewhere else.
The app, announced by Microsoft, was first released for Android in the United States and is now available worldwide and eventually will be available for iOS and Windows phones.
"One concern with non-places and the increasing role they play in our lives is that they are without character, and promote feelings of detachment," Cranshaw said. "Despite the large number of people constantly passing through non-places, they lack a sense of community."
People stare at their mobile devices rather than engaging each other.
Journeys and Notes gives people who want to share transit woes, stories and tips to have a way to connect with others without the need to exchange names. The app's algorithm connects people with similar commutes, based on their origin, destination and distance.
The app was developed as part of Microsoft Garage, the company's initiative to encourage its employees to experiment and innovate, often on side projects.
Needham and Monroy-Hernandez said that the comments users have already posted are evocative, personal and, oftentimes, poetic.
"That was really surprising to me to see those types of messages," Monroy-Hernandez said.
Monroy-Hernandez said that CMU sends a number of interns annually to Microsoft Research.
"When interns come, we select them based on a commonality of interest between the research group and the intern," he said. Members of the group Cranshaw joined were interested in cities, crisis informatics and other related topics. "In the case of Justin, he and I had talked about the ideas in general. When he arrived, he presented his thoughts. People gave feedback and collaborated and iterated on this idea."
Cranshaw's adviser, Norman Sadeh said that smartphones and the "Internet of Things" are making it possible to understand the dynamics of the city and how people interact with the urban environment at scales that could never have been envisioned before.
Sadeh said Cranshaw's work on Livehoods, the Curated City and the Microsoft app are establishing him as a thought leader in urban computing. Cranshaw will graduate this spring and plans to continue in research.
"He is truly passionate about this area and has shown great insight in identifying unique ways of marrying mobile apps, machine learning and crowdsourcing in support of different usage scenarios," Sadeh said. "I'm really proud of him."