In Praise of Dr. Monica Stephens and Social Network Analysis

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Posted on June 26, 2013 by

segments of visual analysis maps based on twitter and other social media content

A few weeks ago, I was browsing a news site that I read occasionally. “Occasionally” generally means that I have a tight deadline for something and can’t think, so I read some arcane news or comment, hoping that it will trigger some creative thought before I wander too far into the weeds. ANYWAY…

I saw a reference to an infographic that mapped hate speech based on twitter content. Using phrases and words associated with racism, homophobia and discrimination against the disabled population, the volume of this kind of twitter content was plotted over a map of the US:hatemap

Wow.

My first visceral reaction was focused on the point of the infographic. Why? How in this day? Who? This is a very powerful graphic. Then I started marveling at the idea behind this and the power of asking these questions, as well as having the talent to ask them and use technology to generate answers. This is not only a powerful graphic, but a powerful tool.

While we fret and discuss our privacy and what the government might be listening to and reading that we hope and assume should be our own, private content, there are people such as Monica Stephens who are trolling for information to ask questions that need to be asked. Dr. Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Geography at my alma mater, Humboldt State University in Arcata CA. Her work makes me even happier about the money that I give the University annually, and it will probably influence my future giving. This particular graphic attracted some media attention, as shown here, here and here.

This is really a very powerful tool, but not unlike Tim Taylor in the TV Series Tool Time there is a very human desire to use this power for perhaps some not-so-serious uses. My favorite, because the mere word is a meme at my workplace, is a graphic showing mention of zombies in the Google Maps database:

zombie-distributionWell, there you go. For my friend Robert, who seems to both fear and welcome the coming Zombie Apocalypse, this will further his ambivalence, if that’s possible.

Oddly enough, the map shows that the former Soviet Union, Africa, most of Asia, and South America are much safer than the United States, and sorry Sarah, but New Zealand seems to have significant risk as well. Cal, if I were you, I’d head for the Northwest Territories or the Yukon. Also, stay away from Japan! I’m not even sure that Gamera can save them. For some of the rest of us, we may spend more time in Google Maps trying to find some of the zombie references. You know, of course, what this really signifies though, don’cha?

BRAINS.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist, but really, it does signify brains! Whether it’s specifically Dr. Stephens, or one of her students, or someone at the Oxford Institute, who host lots of visualized data from Dr. Stephens and others, this is a brilliantly simple idea. In a certain way, it’s very similar to creating a word cloud that you sometimes see on blogs. They visualize how often words or phrases are used in a document, much like the Visualization Project uses color or icons to indicate density of speech or resources or references to something. For those of us who are visual, this is an easy way to understand the answer to a question. In fact, this kind of display is something that I used to know how to do within the GIS interface at a former employer. We could plot tree density, wildlife population and habitat, basically anything within our database. This is just another GIS application.

So my hat’s off to Dr. Stephens, her students, and others who work on developing the technology to find data, ask the questions, and plug in the data in a way that can be visualized by people like me. This is a fabulous communication tool, immensely compelling and easy to understand by nearly anyone. This is one of the truly great outcomes of our increasing use and reliance of social media. In the Geography of Hate graphic, we find a disturbing reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to educate, enlighten and rethink who we are as a society, but we could also plot a graphic of tweets based on kindness or good deeds done, or even mentions of the Phillies, just to keep Mr. Caputo engaged.

There are some really fascinating infographics using this general idea at www.oii.ox.ac.uk/vis/. Take a gander when you get a chance!

Response to In Praise of Dr. Monica Stephens and Social Network Analysis

  1. Paul Caputo

    It’s going to be really cool when this sort of data can be charted as easily as plugging a word into Google’s social media grapher (or whatever).

    I’d be interested in seeing how the frequency of terms being used compare to population in an area. Of course zombies are mentioned more frequently in Japan than, say, Mongolia, because there are way more people to turn into zombies in Japan than Mongolia. But what’s the percentage of people talking about zombies in both places.

    That information would probably be very useful in predicting the timing and geographical origin of the zombie apocalypse.

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