Sniff Maps
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Sniff Map

A Sniff Map is a colorful interpretation of a city’s smellscape. Kate McLean creates them by leaning into alleyways, subway cars or newspaper stands, breathing deeply and taking detailed notes.

She has mapped cities like New York, Boston and Paris, making temporary sensory information permanent. It’s an approach that builds on the work of others in the built environment community.

What is a Sniff Map?

A Sniff Map is an olfactory interpretation of a geographic space that combines smell and visual data. It can document reality (like a street or neighborhood breakdown) or chart an odor-infused layer of history, social trends or personal experience atop spatial reality.

Sniff maps are a new breed of visualization that are being made using a variety of methods and technologies, including census data, market research, social media and headspace technology. The nebulous quality of smells and the physical proximity required to record and analyze them make creating these maps challenging.

But the latest in olfactory visualization comes from Google, which has introduced a machine learning model that can digitise the sense of smell and its properties into a map called the ‘Principal Odor Map’ (POM). The POM identifies pairs of perceptually similar molecules, which are clustered by their odor labels, such as “floral.” This is a big step forward for the sense of smell and could help us understand fundamental biology and tackle global health issues.

How do I make a Sniff Map?

A Sniff Map is a data visualization that charts a layer of personal experience, history or social trends over spatial reality. They can range from data-driven maps (like artist Sissel Tolaas) to storytelling stimulators, such as Nicola Twilley’s Scratch ‘N Sniff NYC.

The first step to making a Sniff Map is to decide what smells you want to map. These can be any odours you think will tell the story of your city.

For example, a musty aroma could indicate a community with a lot of decaying buildings, while floral notes might suggest a neighborhood with a thriving garden scene.

You can also gather data on odors by conducting smell walks with local residents. Researchers have done this in Amsterdam, Pamplona, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newport and New York, asking dozens of people to walk around a certain area, identify the distinct smells and take notes on them. Then they compiled their findings into a small dictionary that could later be used to create maps of the olfactory landscapes in each location.

What are the benefits of making a Sniff Map?

Whether you’re mapping out your neighborhood, reconstructing smell memories or visualizing data sets, making a Sniff Map is an excellent way to see your information through a different lens. A Sniff Map can chart a layer of personal experience, history or social trends atop spatial reality.

In order to create a Sniff Map, you need to document the odors in your environment. To do this, you can use a variety of tools such as headspace technology, a mass spectrometer or your nose.

Researchers have been making maps of the olfactory landscapes of cities for years. Using their own noses, crowdsourcing and social media, they’ve created smell maps of Amsterdam, Pamplona, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newport, Paris and New York. In a recent exhibition, London-based artist Nicola Twilley explored the olfactory universe in New York City by creating two maps: one showing how New Yorkers’ majority odor perception frameworks shape their experiences and another displaying crowd-sourced preferences from visitors to the show.

How can I use a Sniff Map?

A Sniff Map is a great way to visualize spatial data, such as the geographical distribution of fast-food restaurants or regional variations in perfume popularity. It can also be used to reconstruct smell memories or to stimulate personal storytelling.

To make a Sniff Map, you’ll need to collect smell data and compile a database. This may include surveys, statistical data, or even the results of a headspace experiment. Then, you’ll need to select the odors that you want to track and decide which chemicals or blends you’re going to use. Depending on your budget and research goals, you’ll also need to determine which technologies you’ll use to create the map. For example, some companies offer a scent-based mapping service that uses ArcGIS Online technology to create a Sniff Map. Alternatively, you can build your own. The steps to make a Sniff Map are relatively simple. Just remember to be patient, have a lot of fun, and be sure to try it out in person.