Oxford Internet Institute

The uneven geography of digital information.

The vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia has a geography of its own, and in many ways, it's a biased reflection of the real world. Articles about many parts of the globe are not necessarily written by the people who live there. And because authors who contribute to Wikipedia are a self-selecting group – selecting, among other things, for Internet access – the information that they gather and disseminate tends to be from and about a relatively narrow part of the planet.

Exactly how narrow? Mark Graham and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute, who've done a lot of fascinating work on this front, recently created the above map using 3,336,473 Wikipedia articles in the 44 most popular languages used on the site, analyzed from November of 2012. All of those articles – representing about a sixth of the site's total – are in some way geographically referenced. They're about places, or events, people and ideas tied to places. An article about clowns, for instance, is not geotagged, but this article about the Indianapolis Clowns Negro League baseball team is.

Add up those 3.3 million article pages, and a majority of them turn out to be in some way about a part of the world that occupies just 2.5 percent of all of its land mass. That's the part of the map in the circle above (the researchers have self-consciously chosen to represent the world using Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map projection, which makes no assumptions about who's on top). It encompasses much of Southern and Western Europe.

In this zoomed-in picture, each article is represented by a single dot:


Click the above image for a larger map.

That map in part reflects the fact that the largest share of Wikipedia content is written in English, Polish, German, Dutch and French, not the languages spoken throughout much of the rest of the world. And according to the OII's analysis, people living inside that circle got started cranking out Wikipedia content earlier and faster in the mid-2000s than people living outside of it.

On the whole, though, why does this picture matter? Via the researchers:

This uneven distribution of knowledge carries with it the danger of spatial solipsism for the people who live inside one of Wikipedia’s focal regions. It also strongly underrepresents regions such as the Middle East and North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. In the global context of today’s digital knowledge economies, these digital absences are likely to have very material effects and consequences.

You can read more from the resulting analysis here.

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