There is good news and bad news this Christmas.
The good news is: Santa has been found.
The bad news: He lives in Los Angeles, with the pretty people. (Now, granted, he has a second home in Finland, but that is hardly news.)
If the L.A. bombshell weren't enough, the reindeer seem to prefer to vacation in Angola. Second choice? Florida.
We understand if you are dismayed; we appreciate if you are confused. But Google maps and almost 20,000 bits of user- generated content and associated analysis of location assignment trends by the University of Kentucky geography department are pretty definitive on these points.
And they have, says UK associate professor Matthew Zook, finally solved some dilemmas that have concerned generations. That is, was there really enough manufacturing capacity at the Pole to do the work required? And weren't there some inefficiencies when it comes to Christmas Eve mileage if the Pole is your starting point? What about the penumbra of environmentalists trying to work up there now? Wasn't that starting to be annoying?
No, Zook has not told his children about his findings for fear they would have him driving to Anaheim to find the man. "This is why we kept his whereabouts a little vague," he says.
But he is not wavering in the least on his conclusions. The Internet, it doesn't lie.
So how did they do this most impossible of sleuthing tasks?
It started out innocently enough.
Deep in the bowels of the geography department earlier this month, while Zook was engaged in his real work on how people use spatially based Internet data, he thought he'd come up with what passes for academic humor. He wondered how he could locate the exact whereabouts of Santa (because, really, who doesn't want to know this?) and torture his graduate students (and, really, who doesn't want to do this?) at the same time.
And, lo, it came to him. He would assign them the job of doing the former.
Then, he said, according to grad student Taylor Shelton: "Maps are due at the end of the week."
His idea, naturally, says Zook, was that, given all the inherent problems with a North Pole locale, Santa and his reindeer had to be hiding in plain sight.
What Shelton and Mark Graham, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, did then was locate "any time anyone in the world had ever placed the word 'Santa' or 'reindeer' on a Google map and uploaded it," explains Shelton.
From this "geo-genetic goo," the maps emerged.
Not-so-simple triangulation of the data was like a blinking red arrow to the much ballyhooed workshop.
The most Christmassy points in the world are Los Angeles (measured in "raw Christmasness") and near the town of Kittila, Finland (measured in Christmasness per capita). Christmasness, by the by, is determined by multiplying the number of "Santa"' Google map uploads by the number of "reindeer" Google map uploads.
As for the reindeer aspect of the equation, the UK researchers found a concentration of the word on Google maps uploaded in Angola, the Falklands, New Zealand, Australia and — we're gathering when they are a bit longer in the tooth — Florida.
As Zook explains further on his blog about this and his real work (www.floatingsheep.org): "It is far more reasonable to suppose that Santa has utilized a combination of locational analysis, centrography, transportation topographies and central place theory to select an optimal site for his headquarters. However, since access to his list of priorities (including secrecy) and model specifications is closely guarded, replicating Santa's thinking process is simply not possible."
What is possible is that Santa has been found, though Zook is hedging a bit. He notes (and his map so indicates) that "a sub-national network of Santa enterprise" might exist as there are some "highly suspicious clusters of reindeerness in Texas and Missouri."
Zook hypothesizes distribution centers or back office support centers but will say no more on the topic.
He does, however, see beyond the Santa problem. He and his team have done work looking at "the increasing amount of data on the Internet that is geo-coded to a particular spot on the earth. This has huge implications for how we interact with our surroundings and each other."
His work has included user-created geographies of religion, visualization of the abortion debate and mapping life in New Orleans after Katrina.
This is what geographers do in this century, when they aren't stalking elves.