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Scene from the movie Planes, Trains, and AutomobilesDuring this holiday season, many of us traveled to visit family and friends, or simply took a mid-winter break and headed someplace warm.  Inevitably, holiday travel can involve delays, lost luggage, traffic jams, canceled flights, and numerous other aggravations – a la Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a 1987 movie about a businessman (Steve Martin) struggling to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious travel companion, played by John Candy.  During the course of the movie, the jolly and goofy John Candy manages to coax Steve Martin into finally relaxing and enjoying the trip, in spite of the mishaps they experience.

In the years since that movie debuted, information technology has made travel more informed, albeit not necessarily easier. GPS Apps on our smart phones and mobile computers provide extraordinary information about where we are now (including map data, satellite imagery, and on-the-ground views captured by Google Street View) and, of course, how to get from here to there (wherever “there” is that we intend to go to). It’s virtually impossible to get lost these days, unless — like me — you occasionally disregard the turn-by-turn directions provided by your cheerful female navigator. Is it just me, or does she seem to become increasingly peevish when you continually disregard her directions (Recalculating, Recalculating, Recalculating again… C’mon Bonehead, quit missing that turn already!!)

There are many smart phone apps aimed at making all aspects of travel easier and smarter. Some of my favorites include:

  • Travel planningKayak, Tripit, and TripAdvisor assist in developing and managing travel itineraries including booking and tracking airline flight and hotels.  I became hooked on Kayak a year ago during an eight-hour flight delay in Florida.  I was trying to make sense of the vague updates provided by the airlines regarding delays and anticipated takeoff times when a fellow traveler accessed Kayak and showed me the more accurate (and pessimistic) actual delays.  The Flight Aware and Flight Tracker Apps also provide current information on flight status.  TripAdvisor is a full-service web site and app that supports complete trip planning and provides crowd-based ratings for travel services and places. Itinerary planning and management is also provided by Worldmate (trips@worldmate.com).
  • Weather forecasting – The Accuweather and WeatherBug Apps provide information on weather and associated forecasts and travel advisories. Information includes live radar information, travel advisories, and forecasts for any location throughout the world.
  • Automobile information – When traveling by car, Roadninja tracks your location and identifies nearby gas stations with associated pricing information.  It also provides information about nearby restaurants and shops.  Spothero allows you to find and reserve parking spots in city locations, similar to the function provided by ParkWhiz.
  • Local facilities and sites – Hotel, restaurant and local site-seeing information is provided by Apps such as Hotel Tonight (which offers same-night reservations of hotel rooms) and Yelp (which locates and rates nearby restaurants, bars, coffee and tea places, nightlife, gas and service stations, and drugstores.  Yelp shows the locations of these facilities on a Google map and provides directions and distance information from your current location.  An ATM finder is provided by PinPin ATM Finder.  In many cities, the SitorSquat App even locates nearby restrooms!
  • Information sharing – Finally, there are many online services and Apps that facilitate information sharing about local sites.  HearPlanet accesses information from a Wikipedia database and provides voice information about your location.  Pin Drop allows you to place a GPS pin onto a map to access user-made information and list of local sites, along with recommendations.  Foursquare is a location-based social networking website for mobile devices that allows users to locate nearby restaurants, nightlife, and other sites.  Foursquare users can “check in” and determine if any of their Foursquare-using friends have also checked in and are nearby.

The number of these types of websites and applications continue to proliferate.  These are driven by a combination of improvements in information technology (e.g., GPS, increased cellular and WiFi connectivity, increasingly smart mobile devices) as well as changes in users.

Rapid changes in how we use information technology are not only enabling travelers to become better informed consumers but also creating new economies within the travel industry itself. Take for instance the online service Airbnb, which lists rooms and houses for rent in 34,000 cities and 192 countries. On the site, private individuals can create listings to offer accommodations in their own homes to travelers, setting their own prices and “hotel” availability. I’ve used a similar service (vacation rental by owner (VBRO)) to find houses for rent during vacations.  As with any travel service, one must always be a discerning consumer. Sure, the term “ocean view” may translate to, “able to glimpse the ocean on a clear day if one is standing on the roof with a powerful set of binoculars,” but fortunately on sites like Airbnb, the reviews speak for themselves.

While we live in an age in which travel information is ubiquitous, we still face challenges with traffic jams, weather delays, overbooked flights, and simply dealing with crowds – perhaps in different ways than before, simply because new information is available. It’s this concept of rapid changes occurring in information technology (computing, connectivity, web services, and interactions) and how they impact individual and group dynamics that catches our interest in IST research. Indeed, in a recent course, Jake Graham, IST professor of practice, has developed an interesting scenario termed “Lights Out,” in which a community loses its electricity and communications technologies due to a massive solar flare.  The resulting scenario played out by student teams investigates how our practices must change due to these information technology and electrical failures.

While it’s very much the nature of research in IST to anticipate trends and the impact of rapidly changing information technology, much like what’s happening in the travel arena, I find it vital to be present in my personal travels, enjoying the journey and to not simply rely on apps to speed me along to my next destination. I wish the same enjoyment for you, and am reminded of 18th century French naturalist, Louis Aggassiz, who was asked what he had done during the previous summer.  He replied that he had started on a trip around the world. When asked how far he had gotten, he is said to have replied, “Halfway across my back yard.”

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