Geography has gone virtual thanks to big data. Cities have become a complex digital web of photographs, descriptions, videos and status updates all on top of layers of code (Oxford Internet Institute, 2012). These representations of cities help to shape the way that we think about them that was never possible in the past, but it can also drive misinterpretation and misunderstanding without due care.
All of this big data leads to fascinating studies of geography that are comprised of big data. Or not, as the case may be. Indeed, as the Oxford Internet Institute (2012) reports:
“The geographies of layers of information tell us much about how some places can be rendered absent or invisible in global conversations and representations”.
What this is concerned with is the concepts of the geography of big data. What that means in simple talk is that some places are really underrepresented online, while others have a very strong online presence. For obvious reasons, in many ways this is linked with the spread of technology. Many places in North America and Europe are well represented virtually since internet access in these parts is prolific. Meanwhile parts of Africa and South America, as well as whole swathes of Asia are highly under represented online. Reviews websites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp have helped in creating these augmented realities that we now find for places online.Image source: Fischer, Eric. 2012. Language Communities of Twitter.
Perhaps the most interesting part is that it is possible to map certain features of big data geographies, such as the example given by the Oxford Internet Institute (2012) which shows the results of a study by Graham, Hogan and Baily. This showed the mapping of Wikipedia and in addition, it is possible to tell which places are documented online in different languages, such as English, Arabic and even Swahili. Of course if this is mapped on a global scale, it is possible to see fascinating patterns, such as the ability of a person who speaks a set language to be able to find out information on Wikipedia. This clearly has many other fascinating applications.
A second use for this type of work is to look at how data shadows explain the places that they represent (Oxford Internet Institute, 2012). As the Institute points out:
“Dr Graham’s work in this area seeks to provide critical insight into the geography of virtual expressions in order to highlight the mutually constitutive, and at times contradictory, relationships between virtual and material layers and practices. Or, in other words, it allows us to think through how mappings of virtual representations of material practices are important tools for understanding how online activities simultaneously represent and reproduce the material world.”
A third interesting element to the work looks at voice and authorship, according to the Oxford Internet Institute (2012). In this way it is possible to better comprehend huge variations between knowledge and information creation online. This has demonstrated that some places are far more production rich in terms of content about places, while other places barely even feature at all in this regard. This is interesting because the information that is presented online shapes our world view, and this world view may be quite biased if all of the content is being produced from certain places and not others. This could lead to a lack of understanding about places as well, since people view places with their own cultural filters. For example, a German person writing in German about Germany would see and write about different things than an Ethiopian visiting Germany, reading the content in his or her second language. Language differences also help shape these realities, and translations can never be a perfect fit.In this interactive map of Wikipedia’s geocoded content, users can explore how much of the world – and what parts – are written about in Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, English, French, Persian and Swahili.
All of this provides exciting new possibilities for the future and the uses to which big data can be put to review trends, processes and patterns associated with places. Currently there are many questions unanswered that require consideration. For example, who has the power to have the final say on the “truth” about a place, and whose voices are involved with creating content about a place? Also, raised by the Oxford Internet Institute (2012), whose interests does this data serve? There’s a long way to go, but understanding the answers to these complicated questions may help to construct more accurate realities and perceptions of place.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.