Archive for the 'Mapping' Category

Real Time Geographic Radio

September 20, 2006

Continuing on the theme of Mass Observation, check out, a nifty Flash site that displays what’s playing on radio stations across the U.S. — as the songs are played.


Google Trends and the meaning of life

September 18, 2006

George Dyson reports: “My visit to Google? … The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. ‘We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,’ explained one of my hosts after my talk. ‘We are scanning them to be read by an AI.’” (

Google Labs offers a tiny window onto some of the content analysis systems that will eventually combine into a practical artificial intelligence. Projects such as Google Sets demonstrate the latent potential for massive index archives like Google to learn through semantic association.

Other projects, like Google Trends, illustrate a broader vision, going beyond individual texts and their relationships to one another and looking instead at things like regional search behaviour patterns (for example, you can find out which city produces the most searches for the keyword “cold”), incidence of related news articles (to observe such things as the spikes in news references to “peace” that always follow the spikes in references to “terror”) and other data relating to the habits of search-engine users around the world. And while this information may ultimately be of most use to the AI coders at Google, it’s a goldmine for the present-day Mass-Observationist. Here’s a list of fifteen things I noted during a recent session with Google Trends:

  1. South Korea is consistently more popular than North Korea. “South Korea”, “North Korea”
  2. The beard is a much more frequent subject of search queries than is the moustache: “Moustache”, “Beard”
  3. French philosopher Michel Foucault is more often searched for than his contemporary Jacques Derrida: “Foucault”, “Derrida”
  4. Hockey is of more concern to web users than NASCAR: “NASCAR”, “Hockey”
  5. “Potato” and “tomato” searches yield very different seasonal results: “Potato”, “Tomato”
  6. The graph tracking the incidence of the keywords “abortion” and “terror” shows a predictable pattern, with both words spiking in tandem just before the ’04 US election: “Abortion”, “Terror”
  7. War and peace maintain their usual relationship: “War”, “Peace”
  8. Something big seems to be happening RIGHT NOW on the “tube” front, and it probably has something to do with you: “Tube”
  9. Web searchers want to know more about how to make things than they do about how to break them apart: “Create”, “Destroy”
  10. Laughter is the best medicine: “Tragic”, “Comic”, “Epic”, “Heroic”
  11. Hats, unlike boots, have a consistent and timeless appeal: “Hats”, “Boots”
  12. Dancing became an urgent subject of inquiry in early 2006: “Dancing”
  13. “Rich” is a more popular search than “poor”, perhaps because “poor” appears more often in the news: “Rich”, “Poor”
  14. Pepsi has a slight edge over Coke, and both companies seemingly follow a similar press-release schedule: “Coke”, “Pepsi”
  15. People want to think happy thoughts, perhaps because of the differential between joy and pain: “Joy”, “Pain”

Mass Observation

September 12, 2006

Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article on the Mass Observation Movement, a fascinating mid-20th century hybrid of sociology, anthropology and flanerie, is well worth reading. Mass Observation sought to reveal poetic truths about life and culture by connecting the threads of individual and social history with the fabric of the everyday. The movement itself eventually became “history,” but I wonder if it really went away or just lay dormant until the web got up and running. After all, learning about our culture from “mass observations” like website traffic trackers or product recommendation systems is becoming just as much a part of the everyday as driving a car or telling a joke.

On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (New Yorker)

Via the incomparable didactique.

Minneapolis surveillance mapping

August 21, 2006

Pedestrian surveilance cameras are now ubiquitous in urban centres around the world. A citizen’s group in Minneapolis has created an online, user-updated map to keep track of new cameras as they appear:

To what extent are pedestrians in downtown Minneapolis monitored on surveillance cameras? Are most of the downtown cameras owned by the city or private businesses? Is the footage from these cameras recorded or just viewed? How long are the recordings kept? Who has access to the public camera footage?

The Minneapolis Surveillance Camera Project exists to answer these questions. Working with a shoestring budget, and a lot of very dedicated volunteers were working to inventory all the security cameras that record public spaces within the downtown area. Anyone is free to help out, just report any cameras you see that aren’t on our list. (