This Algorithm Could Help You Skip the Tourist Traps on Your Vacation

Locals, you may want to stop posting photos of your favorite spots online.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

People travel differently. Some are “guide bookers,” people who want to visit all of the have-to-see-before-you-die spots when they’re visiting a new place. (Here’s looking at you, Dad, who never goes anywhere without a Zagat guide in his back pocket.) Others seek a more “authentic” experience, wanting to do as the locals do. Wherever you fall on the tourist spectrum, technology is certainly changing how we travel. Case in point: programmers from ITMO University in Russia created a computer algorithm that uses Instagram posts to find out what spots in a given destination are most popular according to the people who actually live there.

Programmers analyzed photos taken in Saint Petersburg, Russia and compared the spots featured to data on tourism and popular locations. The results were presented at the international conference on computational science and published in Procedia Computer Science, according to a press release.

“In most places, people post photos either because it’s their first time visiting a place, or, on the contrary, because they go there often,” according to the press release, noting that locals usually know a great deal more about a city than a guide book does, knowledge that can “significantly diversify tourists’ experience.”

Here’s how they did it: the programmers looked at photos posted to Instagram during two unpopular months for tourism (February and November) in Saint Petersburg. They then compared the Instagram users to official tourist statistics to figure out who was just visiting Saint Petersburg and who likely lived there. They found that tourists usually posted photos in the center of the city, while residents took photos that were more dispersed.

Leaving out the most frequented tourist locations, the algorithm grouped popular local destinations into categories: restaurants and bars, bridges and streets, parks and theaters and museums, according to the press release. Aside from being fascinating, the programmers note that their findings could play a role in urban planning. As Damiano Cerrone, a project researcher at Tampere University of Technology who wasn’t involved in the research but gave a quote for the press release, said, “by isolating only the pictures taken by locals, ITMO researchers can produce maps that are less about global trends and mass-media and more about the everyday life in the city.” He added, “further on, they can also study how different uses and urban spaces are perceived by locals and tourists, providing two different perspectives that, if studied apart, can give planners new ideas on what is popular in the city”.

While the press release doesn’t mention future plans for the algorithm, like if it would be turned into an app, it’s easy to imagine how it could change how people travel. (In addition to making your local spots a lot less, well, local.) Think about visiting a city and getting to meet and talk to locals in their favorite spots—that’s something most guidebooks can’t provide.

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