GPS technology puts geography on the map

  • noam-shoval
Who would have thought that geography would be able to help people recover from illness, and establish the most popular tourist attractions?
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 10, 2018

As Noam Shoval puts it, geography is one of the most innovative fields, and today, is so much more than just plotting maps.

The Head of the Geography Department, and member of the Institute for Urban and Regional Studies at Jerusalem-based Hebrew University, Shoval recently spoke at the Cyril Harris Community Centre.

“GPS technology has changed our world,” he said. “It gives us huge opportunities for academic research, even in healthcare and other fields.”

Shoval has partnered with doctors, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), and other universities around the world to help alleviate the stress of Israeli soldiers, relieve the pain of children suffering from cerebral palsy, and even determine the rate of decline among people suffering from dementia.

“In the Israeli infantry, 30% of soldiers suffer from stress during basic training,” says Shoval. “The IDF tried for decades to combat this, and didn’t find a solution.” Shoval and the IDF measured how much a soldier actually moves during training, as commanders aren’t always accurate when they report on distances in drills. Shoval found a 100% difference between the official figures and what the soldiers actually do, better equipping the army to address stress issues.

With a grant of 1.5 million euros (R23 million) from the German Science Ministry, Shoval and a team of researchers also studied the relation between cognitive decline and spatial behaviour, studying how cognitive impairment affects the movement of elderly people in Tel Aviv and the Rhine-Neckar region in Germany. “We wanted to understand what happens during cognitive decline, and even ease the stress of their caregivers.” Over five years, they tracked patients’ movements, fitting them with tracking watches to measure their walking speeds and times of walking.

They found that the distance their subjects walked from their homes progressively reduced as time passed. “Within 12 months, their activity space shrinks, they leave home less, and are far less active.” Using this information, they can determine the amount of care a patient will need, and help prepare for future needs.

This technology also allowed Shoval to analyse the success of spinal operations, in partnership with Hadassah and Shaare Zedek Hospitals, monitoring patients’ recovery from operations. “We could see improvements in walking distance and speed, enabling the doctor to monitor actual progress,” says Shoval. Doctors don’t know patients’ movements before their next consultation, and the feedback they get is an estimate at best. “Now they don’t even need to go to the doctor in order for him to know how they’re doing,” he says.

But perhaps even more exciting is the research he has conducted with partners in the tourism industry. Together with postgraduate students, Shoval’s initial study was carried out at an amusement park in Barcelona in 2008. It entailed assisting the park’s management to understand what visitors were doing in the park. Says Shoval, “We developed an application, and 2 200 visitors were interviewed at the end of their visit in the park. We showed its management what attractions people visited, how much time they spent there, and how long they spent in the park. We could ask the participants questions based on their movements after their visit, and learn what most appealed to them.”

The same has been done with tourists to Israel on a national scale. With a grant of $1.5 million (R20 million) from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, the team was able to offer participating visitors smartphones with free internet access, unlimited calls, and a duty-free voucher of $50 (R670) for assisting with the project. Shoval explains: “The ministry wanted to create a new transportation plan for Israel bearing tourists in mind. We could show the ministry which locations people were visiting, and which sites in the country were the most popular.” The study found that visitors were, in fact, making shorter visits. “They used to come for 40 days on average. Today [they come] for less than eight days. People come for less time, and spend most of their time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” he says.

Shoval has also worked with groups such as the Birthright and Taglit tour programmes, tracking more than 4 000 individual tour groups over a period of four years. “We could give these companies a holistic picture of what tourist groups were doing in Israel, and they could develop strategies to help visitors make the most of their visit.” Birthright can choose from 1 000 sites in Israel when structuring a tour, and using Shoval’s findings, could plan the ideal trip for future visitors.

So precise is the tracking technology employed for this task, Shoval not only managed to find out which cities were the most popular, but even which attractions, and which features within those attractions were visited more than others. He says: “We can look at the Har Herzl cemetery, and see that Hannah Senesh and Yoni Netanyahu’s graves are amongst the most visited, and that more time was spent at one grave than at others by tour guides. We could use this information to help organisations like Taglit improve the quality of tours, and address any issues it may identify.”

But even this can be enhanced. Branching out even further, Shoval paired tracking technology with psychological data, determining what emotions people experienced when they visited certain locations. “We used surveys to ask people at first, but we know that people can lie,” he says. “So, we partnered with the university’s psychology department and fitted participants with sensors to measure their emotional arousal in an objective way. We can monitor electrodermal activity, and know what their bodies feel when they visit certain places.”

This technology enabled him and his team to plot an arousal map to illustrate which sites excited people most. Based on their findings, it became clear that people experience the highest amount of arousal not at the Western Wall itself, but at its entrance. He explains: “From the entrance to the Kotel, people can see the Kotel for the first time, and that’s when they feel most excited. Although they told us afterwards that being at the Kotel was the most exciting, we know that this is not true. This is the first study of its kind in the world.”

Shoval says the field of geography is not what people think it is, and its potential is beyond promising. He concludes: “Things are happening really fast, and the impact of this type of research will only grow. We have a lot of data, and can contribute to so many different fields with our findings. As a geographer, I look at this data, and feel we’ve only just begun.”


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