NSF funding to support tech for trail management

Spring 2022 marks the first full semester for a new grant at Virginia Tech sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant, titled “EAGER: SAI: SmarTrail: An Infrastructure Services Framework for Sustainable Trail Management”, will investigate ways to identify, communicate, and address sustainability issues on long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail. The multidisciplinary project is led by Kris Wernstedt of the School of Public and International Affairs and includes as co-PIs Scott McCrickard of the Department of Computer Science and the Center for Human Computer Interaction, Shalini Misra of the School of Public and International Affairs, and Jeff Marion of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and the USGS. There’s also a growing list of graduate students and undergrads as part of the project as well.

Staunton VA meetup: Kris Wernstedt, Shalini Misra, Jeff Marion, Morva Saaty, Scott McCrickard

The proposal seeks to explore the negative ecological impacts of hiking and camping, toward connecting trail maintainers like those at the ATC with the hikers who, quite literally, have boots on the ground on long-distance trails. Mobile phone apps like FarOut (formerly known as Guthook) and the many social media and journaling options provide ways to record observations and experiences, but there’s not a practical way for trail maintainers to process that information. We will be processing data from these and other media sources, and we will be conducting interviews with both trail maintainers and long-distance hikers. This analysis will enable us to design and develop tech solutions to help with the analysis and to aid with communication between stakeholders.

This SAI EAGER project will leverage understanding of the psycho-social-cultural dimensions of hiking with the affordances of digital tools and technologies to build a socio-technological information system that matches hikers needs with conservation objectives to support sustainable trail infrastructure management. Our project will integrate information on the spatial, socio-cognitive, and behavioral dimensions of Appalachian Trail hikers’ movements to understand how digital technologies mediate
psychological and social experiences in protected areas (demand side), with information on resource managers’ and trail maintainers perspectives on opportunities and challenges of digital tools and technologies in the context of their organizational settings (supply side). Using a mixed method participatory design approach that integrates social media, interpretive, ecological, and survey data, we will develop a prototype app-based trail infrastructure messaging system for experimental use and evaluation. This information-based approach will match supply and demand for trail infrastructure services and is based on an understanding of the different sociotechnological worlds people inhabit, their values, orientations, locations, and characteristics of the places they traverse.

From the NSF proposal project summary

We are looking at lots of avenues for people to contribute, including workshops, interviews, focus groups, roundtables, poster sessions, and more. Reach out to us if you’re interested in participating in any way, or keep an eye on this blog for opportunities. This post will be updated with images, links, and other information until there are sufficient findings for follow-up posts–stay tuned!

Projects: HCI Outdoors undergrad + grad course Fall 2019

The Fall 2019 instantiation of HCI Outdoors delved into early draft chapters of our upcoming HCI Outdoors book. The results of our discussions will be seen in the book, coming in late 2020 from Springer. Students also undertook projects inspired by the ideas from the book chapters. The project are described next, with pictures for select projects following.

  • Trail Stories. Ph.D. candidate Lindah Kotut, together with Master’s student Liyan Li and undergrad Melissa Mayo, explored how social media platforms Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram are used to tell stories about thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail and other long trails. The project looks at how these platforms are used in the preparation, experience, and reflection parts of a hike, and how additional digital tools can be crafted to help hikers tell their stories from their data.
  • Shared Outdoor Experiences. Ph.D. candidate Derek Haqq joined by Setor Zilevu and Allison Collier, explored how people can share their outdoor experiences with friends and relatives who are unable to join them. They designed and created three mobile outdoor-centric games: Shared Xperiences supported a user’s sense of a remote outdoor location to foster feelings of a outdoor space; Pairshare developed feelings of connection and shared experience among users; PlanetRunner balanced these features to foster feelings of a shared recreational experience as well as to promote user’s sense of a remote outdoor location. A deployment with 67 users showed initial successes and areas for future work.
  • Navigating with Augmented Reality. Ph.D. candidate Leo Soares, together with Masters student Samat Imamov and undergrads Jean-Marc Cassier and Wesley Nguyen, crafted and analyzed an augmented reality prototype to help groups of hikers stay connected on long hikes–despite the different hiking speeds that often causes conflicts on hikes.
  • FitAware. Shuai Liu, Zhennan Yao, and Jixiang Fan, grad students in Computer Science, are working on a health and fitness app that helps small groups 3-6 people who know each other well to help each other through competition and cooperation. Shuai is continuing the work toward his thesis, to be completed in May 2020.
  • Disorientation and Outdoor Tasks. Ph.D. students Neelma Bhatti and Morva Saati explored how young children become distracted during outdoor-style tasks like plant identification–particularly in busy environments. While tech is a big draw, and competing tech interests (and nature-related occurrences) can draw attention, the biggest distractors came from family and friends.
  • Disease on the Trail. Grad students Tim Stelter and Deepika Subrinaminan examined factors that can be instrumental in creating a system that tracks diseases outdoors. Extended trails like the Appalachian Trail, with large bubbles of hikers that traverse trails over many weeks or months, can create avenues for viruses, tick-borne diseases, and other diseases. Tim and Deepika examined a long list of disease-related apps along the axes of notification, rapid response, and knowledge creation.
  • Biometrics Outdoors. Grad students Grace Wusk, Harsh Sanghavi and Arjuna Sondhi explored how biometrics can be used to understand trail experiences. Specifically, they merged GPS data from a mobile phone with data from the Empatica E4 wristband that records photoplethysmography (PPG), electrodermal activity (EDA), skin temperature, 3-axis acceleration, and 3-axis orientation. It was challenging to collect meaningful biometric data outside of a highly-controlled lab setting, though quiet, distraction-free trails showed promise.
The Navigating with Augmented Reality Project looked at different ways that AR can help hikers stay in touch with each other, particularly when their different hiking speeds cause them to become separated.
The Shared Outdoor Experiences Project examined how people can share their experiences with friends and relatives who are unable to join them physically.
The Disorientation Project explored how young children are distracted from outdoor learning tasks in busy environments.

Navya Kondur thesis recap: Using K-Mode Clustering to Identify Personas

Navya Kondur successfully defended her thesis titled Using K-Mode Clustering to Identify Personas for Technology on the Trail on April 19, 2018.  Navya wasn’t originally thinking to do a thesis when she started examining some of the questionnaire results from Gracie Fields’ thesis, but Navya identified some interesting questions within Gracie’s data sets and, most importantly, a new way to examine the data.

Navya presented some preliminary results at the GROUP 2018 workshop, receiving some great feedback from Mike Jones, who has been working on some similar persona creation activities. Navya’s background in statistics served her well in highlighting some possible ways to analyze results from some of Gracie’s data sets; specifically, by using k-mode clustering to identify groups of like-minded hikers.

K-mode clustering is a method to identify clusters within categorical data.  It is a modification of the more popular k-means analysis, adapted for use with categorical data such as types of gear that people bring on hikes, sleeping preferences when on multi-day hikes, and selections between paired “would-you-rather” options (as featured in Gracie’s thesis work).  Navya administered a series of “would-you-rather” questionnaires at various Tech on the Trail events, collecting sufficient data to craft clusters.  Since the clusters are not particularly descriptive or evocative, Navya then crafted five personas that helped to reflect some of the differences among hikers; e.g., younger people embrace technology but lack the money for it.

Navya’s thesis really helped to highlight the possibilities in her line of research, particularly with regard to k-mode clustering and persona identification–though the small number of participants yielded a small number of clusters.  However, her work has resulted in a funding proposal that seeks to identify the nuances between people on trails, and, if funded, we will be on track to publish a large-scale examination of this domain in the future (and maybe we can talk Navya into returning to VT for her Ph.D.)  Until then, check out details about this work in Navya’s GROUP workshop paper and (when released) thesis document.

Navya and her committee (L-R: Scott, Steve, Mike) at her defense

Projects: Appalachian Trail Counties and Cities in Southwest Virginia

A Virginia Tech class project, led by historian Tom Ewing, looked at potential influences of the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the communities that it passes through. The class goal was to encourage students “to think critically and creatively about the ways that data analysis can inform understanding of contemporary issues (and vice versa)”.  The class helped people connect to the area in which they live.  With so many of our students coming from northern Virginia, the Norfolk area, and elsewhere in Virginia, the project enabled students to explore the region that is now their home.


Students presented their projects at a poster exhibition on April 24.  Exhibits focused on how the AT influenced tourism, education, quality of life, and other topics in the communities that border the AT.  Since the AT goes through isolated and underdeveloped areas, many of the communities face challenges.  One interesting focal point of the exhibits was a probe of how data can tell very different stories regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline that threatens the beauty and ecological balance along the AT. It was interesting to see how different organizations emphasized data in different ways to highlight whether the pipeline would benefit or harm the region in terms of dollars, jobs, and other factors.

I was able to talk with Tom about the class and his plans for future iterations of it. Possible directions include to tighten the definition of a “trail community” to focus on people for whom there’s the greatest impact; e.g., communities that rely on the AT for tourism and other economic benefits, and communities that are inconvenienced by the presence of the AT.  Details about the workshop and plans for the future can/will be found at: http://ethomasewing.org/at_virginia/.