December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays from

With good tidings from all of us, the Floatingsheep team wishes you all a very happy holiday season, no matter your religious preference. With Christmas coming soon, we don't want you to go out chasing Old Saint Nick, as we're still a bit unsure of his whereabouts. We are sure, however, that our investigative work on Christmassy geographies is featured in the December 24th edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader. From the article:
Deep in the bowels of the geography department earlier this month, while Zook was engaged in his real work on how people use spatially based Internet data, he thought he'd come up with what passes for academic humor. He wondered how he could locate the exact whereabouts of Santa (because, really, who doesn't want to know this?) and torture his graduate students (and, really, who doesn't want to do this?) at the same time.
Enjoy the write-up by Amy Wilson and your holiday celebration, no matter where you may be. And if you're really that concerned about where Santa is, you can always track him on Google Maps throughout Christmas Eve. HO HO HO!

December 20, 2009

Searching for Santa: Locating the most Christmassy Points in the World

A question asked by children and adults for generations has been, "Where does Santa live?" While some may scoff that there is an obvious answer to this ("The North Pole") any rational thinker easily sees why that simply cannot be. The lack of a suitable landmass to construct the necessary castle and workshops, the deficit of a robust power grid and the complete absence of basic raw materials like wood, plastic or sugared plums, make the North Pole a poor location for any sort of industrial- or craft-style production. Moreover, the modern obsession with planting flags (both above and beneath the ice) guarantees a steady stream of unwanted (and potentially naughty) visitors.

It is far more reasonable to suppose that Santa has utilized a combination of locational analysis, centrography, transportation topographies and central place theory to select an optimal site for his headquarters. However, since access to his list of priorities (including secrecy) and model specifications is closely guarded, replicating Santa's thinking process is simply not possible.

Instead the Anglo-American research team of decided to leverage the power of Web 2.0 technologies (user produced services and content) to triangulate Santa's location. After all the collective knowledge of the Internet is clearly more than any one of us alone. Right? Right?

Using the patented approach we searched for references to "santa" and "reindeer" in user generated placemarks indexed by Google Maps. After all, Santa and Reindeer go together almost as well as that classic cinema couple, Turner and Hooch. Unfortunately for lovers of folk tales, the polar projections below illustrate that there is a decided dearth of references to Santa at the North Pole.

Polar Projection of Santa
Instead we see that the entire Nordic region of Europe is covered in a virtual "duvet of Santa"! North America needs to be content with a much lighter "blanketing of St. Nick". If one assumes that Santa needs to be located as close to the pole as possible, then a few other extreme northern locations also emerge, such as the "coverlet-ing of Father Christmas" on Svalbard and the "quilt-ing of Pere Noel" on the Severnaya Zemlya archipeligo.

Polar Projection of Reindeer
Reindeer are much less prevalent than Santa (which is hard to understand given the 8:1 ratio) but the Nordic region, Svalbard and Alaska are all looking like strong contenders.

However, it is only when we amalgamate Santa and Reindeer together in some kind of googlistic geo-genetic goo that we are able to zero in on the exact locations of Santa's global enterprise. (And they called us MAD! We'll show them!) We will of course not reveal the exact locations (we're hoping for more than coal in our stockings) but will highlight the general areas.

The MegaChristmas Index – Global View

The MegaChristmas Index – Polar View
In retrospect it seems so obvious, but the most Christmassy points in the world are Los Angeles (measured in raw Christmasness) and near the town of Kittilä, Finland (measured in Christmasness per capita). Clearly in the 21st century, Santa has recognized the value of geographical diversification in order to leverage the competitive advantages of each location. Los Angeles offers access to the creative talent of show business and the technological innovation of a world class manufacturing milieu. Kittilä offers...Trees? Moss? Rare Lichen? we are less familiar with Northern Finland as befits some one in today's networked society, the locational advantages of Kittilä must wait until another posting. Any Kittilä-ites (-onians? –ese? –ians?) are welcome to address this issue as well.

We were at first stymied by the strong showing of Angola for reindeer but upon reflection we theorize that this is a likely location of Santa's post-December vacation. According to this theory, Santa flies his reindeer team for several well deserved weeks of R&R incognito. Since reindeer, however, are not indigenous to tropical climates, their presence does not go unnoted. Likewise, trips to the Falkland Islands, New Zealand, Australia and Florida seem highly probably as well. It should be noted that this is simply a theory and unlike the rigorous analysis on the location of Santa's workshop, further research on this topic is needed.

Likewise we plan on taking a closer look at the sub-national networks of Santa's enterprise. The U.S. maps below confirm Southern California's Santaness but shows some highly suspicious clusters of reindeerness in Texas and Missouri. Do these represent regional distribution centers? R&D centers? Back office customer support? Only further research will tell.

Santa Normalized in the U.S.
Reindeer Normalized in the U.S.

So. Age old question answered through the judicious use of technology.

We just hope we don't end up on the naughty list for this.

December 16, 2009

User-Created Geographies of Religion: Allah, Buddha, Hindu, Jesus

Are there distinct geographies to religious references in user-created content indexed by Google? The following maps will demonstrate that there undoubtedly are.

User Generated References to Allah

User Generated References to Buddha

User Generated References to Hindu

User Generated References to Jesus

High rankings (in terms of specialization and absolute references) are often found in the most likely regions. For example, the Middle East, North Africa, and Muslim parts of South and Southeast Asia are all characterised by a significant amount of specialization and a large number of references to "Allah."

References to "Buddha" are similarly clustered in East and Southeast Asia, the Himalayas and Sri Lanka. The geography of references to "Hindu" is even more clustered. Here, the Indian Subcontinent, Afghanistan, Angkor Wat, Bali, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur (two cities with large Indian populations) have a large number of references.

References to "Jesus" are more broadly distributed than any of the other three terms, but still show an incredible degree of concentration. The Americas, Western Europe and the Philippines are blanketed by references to Jesus.

Unlike user generated references to sex and business, religious search terms tend to display a geographic concentration in both absolute and relative terms. Or in other words, it is interesting that sex and business are far more global in scope than even these four very global religions.

December 14, 2009

Peer produced business and sex

One of the real advantages of user generated placemarks is that there are no restrictions on the type of references that can be made. Historical references, pop culture icons and everyday minutia are all potential topics for placemarks. With this breadth in mind, we wanted to see how the common global memes of "business" and "sex" become evident via the geoweb.

In each of the following maps, the size of the black circles indicates the absolute number of references to either "sex" or "business" in user-created Google placemarks. The shading of each map represents the specialization in references to each term (each term was compared to an index of all other user-generated content).

User Generated References to Business
Sex and business clearly have distinct albeit related geographies. Not surprisingly the developed world has the largest concentration of both types of placemarks; consistent with the information inequality we've already noted.

North America, Japan and much of Europe are largely blanketed by references to business., while most of the rest of the world is characterized by far fewer virtual references. The UK and North America also have a high degree of specialization in terms of references to business, but high values are also present in non-Western countries that have strong ties to global business networks. As the largest low cost manufacturer, China shows a high degree of business specialization as does much of Central America which recently entered the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) accord. The two largest economies of sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria and South Africa) are specialized in business, as is the U.A.E. (where Dubai is located). Other countries such as Indonesia and Hungary are highly specialized as well.

User Generated References to Sex
Interestingly, references to business, are much more geographically dispersed than references to sex. Again, in absolute terms, the United States, Northern Europe and Japan have by far the most references to sex. However, when looking at specialization, intriguing patterns emerge. The United States and parts of Northern Europe (particularly the UK, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Iceland, and for some reason the Norwegian Island of Svalbard) continue to be ranked highly.

Yet it is large parts of Africa that contain the highest degree of specialization. Or, in other words, user-generated content in countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Tunisia is far more likely to contain references to sex than user-generated content in most other places. While one would expect to see a degree of specialization in countries like the Netherlands (due to well known sex industries of Amsterdam), the amount of specialization in places like Mauritania, Zambia and Lesotho is truly surprising. It could simply be a spurious result based on the generally low number of user generated placemarks in those locations. Alternatively it suggests that "sex" may be one of the first topics in which people comment about a place and it is only later that more mainstream foci appear.

December 11, 2009

Finding a Restaurant

Finding a restaurant can be one of the most vexing tasks in modern life and an extremely useful application of Google Maps is getting help locating nearby establishments. The map below shows the number of user-generated placemarks containing the word "restaurant". The density of restaurant references corresponds closely with the distribution of population in the United States and Canada. In particular, the densely populated Northeast is blanketed with New York City containing the largest concentration.
When user generated placemarks are compared to regular Google Maps directory listings one sees essentially the same pattern of clusters, albeit and a higher density. For example, the largest number of directory listings of restaurants (again in New York City) is about 25 percent higher than user generated ones. Moreover, more rural areas (see the eastern U.S.) clearly have a high number of directory listing relative to user generated ones.
This suggests that user generated placemarks are biased towards urban areas where early technology adopters are most likely to dwell and use.

December 10, 2009

Swine flu: a user-generated pandemic?

In a recent post at, Nate Silver delves into mapping the spatio-temporal diffusion of swine flu in the US, via Google Flu Trends. Drawing from queries referencing swine flu, the map below shows the approximate date at which state-wide searches for "swine flu" crossed a particular threshold, potentially signifying the onset of what has become a swine flu pandemic. According to Silver, the date at which the relative number of searches reaches the indexed value of 5000 serves as a proxy for measuring the diffusion of the year's most talked about genetic mix-up.
So we know when and where people were looking for information about swine flu, but what about geo-references to the virus? How does the geography of swine flu differ between Google Flu Trends and user-generated Google Maps placemarks? How do Google's multiple representations compare to the actual number of cases of swine flu in the United States?

Although the CDC has stopped collecting data on the outbreak of swine flu on a state-by-state basis, the regional-level data in the map above shows the concentration of swine flu cases. The upper Midwest, for example, which has the highest number of swine flu infections in the country, only recently surpassed the 5000 point mark on Google Flu Trends. Clearly the act of searching for information on swine flu need not closely correspond to the number of cases. And while this region shows significant clustering in user-generated Google Maps placemarks, the values fail to approach the maximums for the nation as a whole. The peer produced geography of swine flu also seems to support CDC statistics for the southeastern US (showing a relatively high infection rate), while the Flu Trends data fails to match accordingly both there and along the US-Mexico border.
The greatest number of mentions of swine flu in user-generated placemarks is located in Baltimore, Maryland - part of District 3, which is home to the second-most cases of swine flu in the US. However, as one moves up the DC-Philadelphia-NYC-Boston metropolitan corridor there is an increasing disconnection between the online representations and material reality of swine flu. Although the absolute and population-adjusted number of actual swine flu cases in Regions 1 and 2 (home to Boston and New York respectively) are relatively low compared to other regions, they are highly visible in terms of user generated placemarks references to H1N1 or swine flu.
The population-adjusted map does, however, give a much clearer picture of the swine flu landscape in the US. Both the west coast and upper midwest, despite having the highest incidence of swine flu in the country, were previously overshadowed by the population centers of the east coast. Normalized by population, the placemark density comes to mirror much more closely the actual diffusion of swine flu across the country.

December 08, 2009

Toronto and Cape Cod are the "funnest" places in North America

These maps illustrate the distribution of "fun" in North America as defined by user generated placemarks containing the term. Luckily for society, fun seems to be well dispersed and corresponds with the distribution of population. In other words, where there are people there is also fun. But one can also see concentrations and specializations in fun.

For example, Toronto has a massive (dare we say strategic?) reserve of fun clustered around it. Who knew? I have fond memories of my trips to Toronto but had no idea. The film festival is great, the neighborhoods are fantastic and the underground walkways keep you warm in the winter but how does it all come together to make this mother lode of fun? Jane Jacobs clearly had it right. Perhaps this will become the next invisible export for the region's economy.

Also the Northwest is suspiciously fun. How does that work with all the rain?

Clearly, some means of standardizing "fun" needs to be down to separate the large concentrations from the places that truly specialize in fun. When we use population, i.e., fun per capita, it turns out that Cape Cod, a place outside of Ogden, Utah and Cancun, Mexico have the most fun per person in North America. But before you start planning a vacation to the Great Salt Lake, remember that the high showing outside of Ogden was largely due to a very small population figure.

December 03, 2009