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Your Head Isn’t a Spatial Database, But You Still Know the Way to San Jose

“Bear 32 degrees north,” commands your satellite navigation system. “2.92 miles to the nearest cafe,” reports the Web site you use to find local restaurants. What precision our geographic information systems possess!

Unlike our gadgets, humans can’t remember directions, distances, and other spatial information with such exactitude. Sometimes it’s comical the sort of distortions that are found in people’s spatial knowledge. You probably have more than a few memories of getting lost, don’t you?

What you might call an embarrassing story, cognitive scientists call data. From experiments Drew has run himself and work done by his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he will present a couple key findings about human spatial cognition, with maps to illustrate how heuristics systematically distort our spatial knowledge and shape the manner in which we learn our way around new places.

These principles can help developers design their satellite navigation systems and their restaurant finder Web sites to be more intuitive and usable. Plus, it might explain why you often take the same wrong turn on the way to that nearby cafe.

Photo of Drew Dara-Abrams

Drew Dara-Abrams

University of California, Santa Barbara

Drew Dara-Abrams is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, weaned on computers and the Internet but also intrigued by cognitive science and urban design. By developing and applying psychologically plausible modeling and measurement techniques for built environments, Drew seeks to advance research on human spatial cognition and to improve the design of real-world buildings, neighborhoods, and cities.

After receiving undergraduate degrees in computer science from Foothill College (Los Altos Hills, California) and cognitive science from Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota), Drew is now a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has received a master’s degree from the Cognition, Perception, and Cognitive Neuroscience area of the Department of Psychology and is presently working toward a Ph.D. in the Department of Geography. The U.S. National Science Foundation supports Drew’s work at UCSB through an IGERT traineeship in interactive digital multimedia and a Graduate Research Fellowship.

As a senior editor of The Next American City, a quarterly magazine on urban issues, Drew assembled a special issue on the future of suburbia. Drew’s other publications include two co-authored computer science textbooks from Prentice Hall, “Supporting Web Servers” and “Analyzing E-Commerce and Internet Law”; assorted technical papers; and a self-printed, self-published guide to the Bay Area.

With his doctorate, Drew intends to develop technical tools and services for architects, urban designers, and city planners to better understand the needs and desires of their environments’ inhabitants, based on basic research in spatial cognition and behavioral geography.

Drew maintains membership in the Environmental Design Research Association, the Association of American Geographers, Sigma Xi, Phi Theta Kappa, and Phi Beta Kappa.

More information on Drew’s research and publications can be found on-line at http://drew.dara-abrams.com/ and he can be reached at drew@geog.ucsb.edu