Every Wikipedia entry has an optional feature we take for granted–geotagging. An entry on the Lincoln Memorial will be linked to its specific latitude and longitude in Washington D.C. On any individual post, this may or may not be a useful thing. But what about looking at these locations en masse?
That was a question asked by data viz specialist and programmer Olivier Beauchesne. To find out, he downloaded all of Wikipedia (it’s open-source, after all) then used an algorithm that would assemble 300 topical clusters from popular, related keywords. Then he placed the location of each article in these topical clusters on a map. What he found was astounding.
“I thought I would get only geographical clusters [like mountains],” Beauchesne tells Co.Design, “not topics about abstract subjects like history, archeology, TV shows, race relations, etc.”
In the gallery above, Beauchesne walks us through the findings of several of his maps (it’s worth exploring). Blue is always the baseline–just locations of all Wikipedia articles. The red is where the geolocation of any searched topic appears.
You can see that, yes, the mountain ranges are an easy spot. The geotags on articles about mountains aggregate to re-create actual mountain ranges. But there are a slew of other, more fascinating results, too. Articles about beer and wine generate a map of the grape-growing regions in Italy, California, and France. Coastal stories create thin coastal outlines of our continents. War articles paint a picture of the world’s battles, and specific searches including “navy” and “navy battles” will actually draw a picture of World War II. You don’t just see a map of places; you see images of history and culture.
“I was a bit taken aback of the granularity of the geocoding,” Beauchesne admits. “It seems that everywhere on Earth (except jungles, deserts, oceans, etc.) is documented.”
Assuming Wikipedia is around for the next century, it would be incredible to watch the dark spots of the map fill in with knowledge, as submarines take us deeper into the ocean and as historians learn more about past cultures. Eventually, Beauchesne’s maps evolve to something more than the locations of everything in the world. They become the locations of, quite simply, everything we know.