Mapping smells of London


Smell is important yet the most unappreciated sense.  It is the only sense which is almost impossible to imitate by technology. Look at our smartphones. They see, they hear, they sense our touch but they don’t recognise odours, and I don’t expect them to do it anytime soon.

A group of researchers from Cambridge University in consortium with Yahoo decided to map smells across London. Since it is impossible to measure it with any known technology they went for a totally different approach. First they asked dozens of residents in couple of cities in Europe and the U.S. to conduct “smell walks,” in which they walked around, identified distinct odors and took notes on what they were smelling. This exercise allowed to create a detailed urban smell dictionary.

smell dictionary Geoawesomeness

Then researcher crunched geotagged data from social media searching for these keywords. In total they sampled 17 million Flickr images, 436,000 Instagram posts, and 1.7 million tweets published and geotagged between 2010 and 2014. The effect has been mapped using CartoDB and is kind of cool.

The data can be analysed separately per layer. Let’s compare smells of emission (red) and nature (green) on the first map with Animal odour on the map below. Unsurprisingly the animal smell and the nature concentrates in London’s zoo and in parks, and “emission” odours follow the city’s major roadways.

London smells 1 - Geoawesomeness

London smells 2 - Geoawesomeness


The researchers envision these maps being used in a variety of ways. Urban planners cloud use them to figure out which areas of the city smell the worst and manipulate urban green spaces to change it. Geo-geeks cloud create a wayfinding app that gives users the most pleasant-smelling path to their destination. Do you have any other ideas?

You can find some more info here and a research paper here.

I'm a professional always thinking outside the box and a self-confessed gadget addict. As a son of a professor of cartography I was surrounded by maps all my life and as a result spatial way of thinking and seeing reality is naturally embedded in who I am.


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