by Dries De Roeck on December 6, 2010

An idea that has been making circles in my head popped up again during the past snowfall we had in Belgium. It struck me, again, that when walking through snow you are able to track walking behaviour and presence of people. In the last week I came across at least two other people who shared something related to this in the social media cloud;

[Translated from Dutch] This morning in my dead-ended street : one pair of tire tracks and footsteps leading to a letterbox. Brave newspaper delivery guy.

[Translated from Dutch] What’s that walking in my garden?


Birdpaws in the snow

So it’s pretty clear that tracks in the snow trigger our thoughts regarding presence of people, objects and animals. The point I want to make is that when this type of ‘datalogging’ is translated to the digital realm, i.e. GPS tracking, the perception of people in terms of security totally changes. People seem scared of constant GPS tracking, because you share your location all the time with others. The same goes for gowalla and foursquare like applications, where people check in to places. These digital tracking applications have been praised and hated by many, and has resulted in extensive on- and offline debates.

One track : one person has been here, going from A to B

The difference people make in perception about a ‘digital’ trace and a ‘real world’ trace got me thinking about the differences between both. There are certain things we can deduct from a digital trace which we can’t see in a real world trace and visa versa. My presumption is that people’s interpretation of trails in the snow is not mentally linked to the privacy and security aspect people think of when ‘GPS’ is mentioned.

A real world trace:

  • Goes from point A to B
  • Is only visual if you are there
  • Can have very clear parts and vague parts
  • Different species can be recognized
  • The more people that take the same path, the harder it becomes to allocate footprints to one certain individual
  • Someone’s tracks can only be allocated when you recognise the footprints or if you were present when the footprints were made
  • When you come out of the snow on to a dry pavement, you can still see the wet print of the shoes but it fades slowly after

A digital trace:

  • Has a very precise timestamp
  • Has a clear starting point and stop point
  • Includes elevation data
  • Can always be traced back to a certain individual
  • Can be viewed by anyone in the world when shared

I have the feeling that the aspect of time is very important. A real world snow-trace has a very vague starting and ending point attached to it, you never really know if a track is fresh or fresh-fresh. A snow trace has a lot more ’emotional’ and context based meaning to it, a lot like the NOOKA watches give an undefined yet defined feeling of time.

nooka watch

The NOOKA watch

At the moment, this is where it ends for me. But I strongly believe that based on a comparison like this one we can design a way to trace our geospacial position in a more humane way. I hope to create some concepts around this at some point, suppose someone feels like collaborating on this, drop me a note!

Why do I blog this?

  1. Regarding my PhD work, I try to explore ways to bridge the gap between technological advancements in the pervasive computing world and design practise. Snowtrails is a way for me to think about complex technology in a humane way.
  2. A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to the ‘deficit model of public onderstanding’, during a talk by Paul Dourish at the DIY citizenship conference. This model argues the knowledge gap that exists between the public and technology development (academics, people in research and development etc). A sentence that is often dropped in the R&D setting is something along the lines of “if only people knew what they could do if they would use our XYZ application”. Thinking back to snowtrails, I try to approach a technology from the bottom up, trying to bring something that the public takes for granted to another level.


Very interesting observations, Dries! I like the analogy with snowtrails a lot.

I think it should be possible to derive design guidelines for GPS-tracking devices from the properties you list. And even create a mock-up of your own (DIY!). I would certainly be interested to collaborate with you on that (of course, resulting in a CHI paper or the likes ;).

BTW, I didn’t know you saw Paul Dourish recently. Are you a fanboy too? 🙂

by David Geerts on December 6, 2010 at 11:26 pm. #

Thanks for the comment David, I agree a CHI paper would at least be the goal for this 😉
And indeed, Paul Dourish spoke at the DIY Citizenship conference in Toronto, I’m not sure if I’m a fanboy … but he did raise some very valid points. I guess I’m pretty unbiassed about Dourish ^^

by Dries on December 7, 2010 at 8:39 am. #

[…] certain constraints we take for granted, much like I tried to point out in my previous post about Snowtrails. If we however approach the same topic in a digital way, these constrains fade. Obviously nothing […]

by Infinite cutting « Dream here on December 7, 2010 at 9:37 am. #

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