Uncommonwealth: UK geography blog sees the world from a unique perspective

ctruman@herald-leader.comNovember 4, 2012 

University of Kentucky geography professor Matt Zook spends a lot of time thinking about maps, but probably not the kind you remember with tundra, peninsulas and mountain ranges.

Zook and his colleagues are thinking about ways to experience the world in which we live that are far more lively: by breaking down data on subjects such as the seven deadly sins, beer, guns and zombies.

Their work posits a way of putting a new edge on geographic analysis the way that Freakanomics books and Web site revolutionized the way that people looked at the "dismal science" of economics.

At the Web site Floatingsheep.org you'll find sophisticated and often witty insights that link geographic social media and official data that enables people to analyze their communities.

Take the entry called "The Beer Belly of America," for example. It's one of Floatingsheep's top 10 maps.

"We were quite surprised ... when we did a simple comparison between grocery stores and bars to discover a remarkable geographically phenomenon. We had expected that grocery stores would outnumber bars and for most parts of North America that is the case. But we could also clearly see the "beer belly of America" peeking out through the 'T-shirt of data.'

"Starting in Illinois, the beer belly expands up into Wisconsin and first spreads westward through Iowa/Minnesota and then engulfs Nebraska, and the Dakotas before petering out (like a pair of love handles) in Wyoming and Montana."

Is this geography you can use? Perhaps. It's also geography that introduces you to some of the more sophisticated concepts that Zook explores, such as how smart phones give people individualized experiences of the same city, which was recently mentioned in The Economist.

Zook's geography is about "the way in which the physical world is reflected or not reflected in the online world."

As a digital outpost of fanciful mapmaking, Floatingsheep.org is an online funhouse on such diverse topics as the distribution of zombies, proliferation of escorts and the dichotomy between pizza and guns.

The blog also takes note of how well new maps are being assembled online by organizations such as Google and Apple along with crowdsourced efforts, albeit with some very human errors: One placed a Bally's Casino in the area of New Circle/Russell Cave Road around the north Lexington Wal-Mart. (Just for the record, casino gambling is still taboo in Kentucky.) Another map confused Transylvania University with the University of Kentucky.

All of this is not the spellbinding frivolity it may initially appear. Deciding which data signifies what is critical, and for students of geography this can be a valuable learning tool.

Even zombies can turn out to be quite the tool for teaching geographical sorting. Zook looked for Internet references to the instruments used for zombie destruction, among them AK-47s and found that Zombie references tend to huddle amongst the United States and Great Britain: Consider Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and World War Z.

Having fun with Floatingsheep isn't all that Zook does — probably only about five percent, he estimates. He also has research interests in areas including aviation and geography, to wit the effects of airline flight patterns.

But the Floatingsheep blog is "our outlet for having fun," Zook said, and makes the point that modern geography is not a grim science, especially in the age of the Internet, and particularly with the rich resource of being able to analyze a billion Tweets.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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