Geo-tagging: the secrets of how people use heritage revealed


A real popularity contest: Map of central London based on the density of images taken at locations.

Forget geophysics, and think geo-tagging!

The ever-expanding popularity of recording our experiences through social media is creating a reassure chest of new data that can be used to explore the ways we engage with the heritage around us.

Geo-tags St Paul’s Cathedral

Geo-tagged photos around St Paul’s Cathedral

Photos are continuously uploaded to websites like Twitter and Flickr, many with location tags mapping the routes of their subjects in their adventures across the world. Research is now being carried out on this data: starting with a sample rectangle of London falling within the M25, from which over two million geo-tagged photos have been uploaded to sharing site Flickr. This rectangle contains some 22,000 listed buildings; and, by looking at maps of the densities of photos taken within it (with each dot representing a geo-tagged photo), we can begin to get a sense of the interaction between people and the historic landscape around them – which may not be documented through conventional methods such as visitor numbers and ticket sales.

Studies have shown correlation between the grade of listed building and the likelihood of photos being taken within the vicinity. For example, 88% of Grade I listed buildings had at least one photo falling within 25m, as opposed to 61% of Grade IIs.  Looking specifically at Grade I listed buildings, and instead using a 100m parameter due to their usual larger size, St Paul’s Cathedral tops the list for both the highest number of photographs (12,778) and the highest number of photographers (2, 659). Looking at a broader picture, we can follow a trail of major tourist attractions by the density of photos taken in their proximity.

At the west end of the sample we see a connected concentration over the river bridges, through Westminster and up to Trafalgar square and Piccadilly (with of course Buckingham Palace clearly visible standing separate to the east), before curving east to Covent Garden.

geo-tagging C London

Geo-tagged photos in central and inner London

Of course, using this research method is full of potential skews and biases – the use, location and surroundings of historic buildings being the most obvious. Also the types of people who use social media, and choose to post geo-tagged photos, may not be a fair representation of all people who visit and photograph historical sites (though with the ever rising popularity of social media this may become less of a problem as users are increasingly representative of the population as a whole).

Nevertheless, this recent research does bring to light what amazing opportunities lie at our fingertips when it comes to innovative ways to collect and analyse data about the way we experience and interact with our heritage. It shows that people can still value the historic sites that surround them even if they don’t often physically visit tourist attractions, or interact with them in a way that is more easily recorded. In this way we can see the potential of its uses. For example, in the 1960s it was proposed to pull down many of the 18th and 19th century buildings surrounding Covent Garden. Using geotagged analysis methods, a case could be put forward that although there’s no visitor book recording the numbers of people who have enjoyed the experience of seeing the buildings, the density of photos taken around the area proves that many people do. In this case, a picture really can say a thousand words!

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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