Physical places in the modern world are increasingly layered with digital data, as we've previously written. To take one easy example at hand, the building where The Atlantic Cities is based – in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. – has its own Twitter feed and its own Wikipedia page (which links to a separate Wikipedia page about the eponymous scandal), and the coffee shop downstairs from our office has its own review page on Yelp.
Places have a digital footprint, just as people do. But this doesn't mean that all of the information on the Internet about a place comes from that place, or from people closely connected to it (want to know who's been editing the Watergate Wikipedia page?). And this raises an old question with a new twist for the Internet age about where our information comes from, and how the answer should influence the way we interpret it. You'd feel a lot differently about reviews for "authentic" restaurants in Chinatown if you knew they'd been written by the local Chinese-American community rather than Midwestern tourists, right?
Last month we wrote about the attempts of Mark Graham and some other researchers to quantify digital data about place and to begin to understand what it might mean for some places to be more "densely" populated with data than others. Graham has now posted an interesting update on the Floating Sheep blog that looks at not only what information exists on Wikipedia, but where the people writing it come from.
Are the English-language pages about people and places in the United States written by people who live in the United States? What about the Wikipedia pages about Nigeria? Graham's map:
As you might suspect, 85 percent of Wikipedia articles about the U.S. appear to be written from here, with a similarly high percentage in the U.K. (78 percent) and even the Philippines (68 percent). It's not surprising that the percentage would be lower in countries where locals would be more likely to post to Wikipedia in other languages. But Graham notes that even some countries where English is an official language have surprisingly low results: Only 9 percent of English-language pages about Kenya seem to come from there. (You can read a thorough accounting of Graham's methods here.)
This map poses the question a little differently:
As Graham writes over at Floating Sheep:
The key question is whether these data actually tell us anything meaningful. For instance, just because most edits about the United States likely come from the United States does not necessarily mean that those articles are representative, include a diversity of viewpoints, or fail to exclude people, places, and processes.
But the data nonetheless, in a very broad way, do tell a story about voice and representation. Some parts of the world are represented on one of the world's most-used websites predominantly by local people, while others are almost exclusively created by foreigners, something to bear in mind next time you read a Wikipedia article.
The same questions would apply at a much more local level (although tracking Wikipedia edits, or any other comparable data, might be harder to do there). Who's creating the digital information about your city, or even your neighborhood? You can be pretty confident that other information out there about place – a bar review written on a bathroom wall, an article on your city printed in a local newspaper – came from someone directly connected in some way to it. But the Internet stretches the distance between content and content producer, and can also obscure how far apart the two may be.