Underground Economy: Mapping the Price of Pot Across the Internet

Do you know what all your geocoded data can be used for? The folks over at floatingsheep sure do. Take the price of weed across the USA . . .

FloatingSheep is a cool site that takes the "collective intelligence" of geocoded data provided by web users and analyzes deeper meanings to it, which give insight and visualization into a realm that measures "how we interact with our surroundings and each other." This data gives us more than our normal five senses; "we can now access cyberscapes of information as a digital sixth sense." After applying algorithms to "rank and order the cyberscapes," it creates "digiplaces" where "we become aware of our physicality and the information about it in a simultaneous and mutually reinforcing way."

For example, take the Price of Weed maps below; You might not know that you are paying $526 to get buzzed when that same high, same pot, cost $97 in different areas; but now you know do thanks to FloatingSheep's data-from-the-masses mashup.

A future research paper will analyze this data and explain key variables "in the models include the legality of medical marijuana, level of production and an intriguing distance decay effect as one moves away from Northern California."

Pot is not the only thing they've measured and mapped so we can visualize what was normally unseen for us. They've also gone much deeper to create cyberscapes and digiplaces, maps of business and sex, of religion, also of churches, bowling alleys, guns, and strip clubs — yes, all in one map. I was quite hooked by their research after reading Visualizing Global Cyberscapes: Mapping User-Generated Placemarks [PDF]. So much so, that I interviewed a couple of the minds behind FloatingSheep and two of the researchers: Dr. Matthew Zook and Dr. Mark Graham.

In their research paper, they wrote:

Cyberscapes allow an unprecedented insight into aspects of the material world that would otherwise be practically impossible to measure....It should be recognized that due to the geographic biases inherent in both the subject and the production of geotagged information, cyberscapes can only ever serve as distorted mirrors of the features, trends, and characteristics that they reflect.

In your research, have you seen censorship affect the "distorted mirrors of cyberscapes that ultimately have the potential to become real and reinforced as they become integrated into our lived experiences of place?"

Dr. Zook pointed out that the providers of imagery to Google Earth routinely filter content, presumably at Beijing's behest, just as the Chinese cyber-scissors censor search content.

Dr. Matthew Zook: Hard censorship certainly exists in terms of state-level filtering but I think what is of more interest is soft censorship or citizen censorship.  I'm thinking of things such as the editing wars that can break out in Wikipedia (or rating websites like Trip Advisor) in which less prevalent opinions/viewpoints have a tougher time being heard.  There's a great example of a Kenyan pop-star icon whose Wikipedia entry was consistently delete by editors who didn't believe that such a character actually existed.

Also with the advent of one's social networks influencing search results (we see the stuff that our friends like, rather than a more generalized result) we are potentially limited to a slice of the world that

our social censorship shows us.

Dr. Mark Graham: Yes, definitely. The example Matt mentioned of Tiananmen in our 2007 is a good one. But, on the whole, it isn't censorship but more micro-scales of filtering that influence what is shown and what isn't. Algorithms, social sorting, edit wars etc. all determine what digital deflections of place are visible and which ones become invisible. 

This is a fascinating field, to visualize "aspects of the material world that would otherwise be practically impossible to measure." Do you regard your research, findings on floatingsheep to be a bit like Intelligence predictive analysis?

Dr. Matthew Zook: Perhaps, but we've not really tried to do this.  There are certainly people thinking about these kinds of things and I think the potential of geocoded data for intelligence are immense.

Dr. Mark Graham: Only in a very stretched definition of that term. We're not trying to make predictions (the data do not allow us to), but rather explore the digital traces of offline and online practices that get reflected on the Internet.

Do you see more potential benefits to having a "digital sixth sense" of cyberscapes and digiplaces, or potential privacy problems in so much geocoded data?

Dr. Matthew Zook: Huge issue.  Right now people are sharing lots of spatial data (Foursquare check-ins, etc.) and there is much more that is tracked via cell phones (the iPhone location database thing from last spring) that most are unaware and frankly don't seem to care much about. But state and private actors are very interested in this stuff so I suspect (hope?) it will become of greater interest for more people.

Dr. Mark Graham: Both really. The privacy implications are really quite worrying. A Internet that remembers everything we do is much less scary to than a geo-enabled Internet that remembers everything we do (and where we do it). It remains that a a lot of online platforms are opt-out rather than opt-in for geodata. This is good for research, but not so great for your average user that doesn't really understand the implications of releasing geo-enabled data trails.

Floatingsheep will soon make the research paper "Ubiquitous Information or Digital Archipelagos? Variable Geographies of User-Generated Content" public on the site.

Dr. Mark Graham: In this paper we examine some of the factors that lead to more user-generated content being created about some places that others. In the paper we show that population and income are strongly and positively associated with the amount of content produced about places while other factors such as race, gender, age and education have statistically insignificant effects. Most intriguing about our findings are the strong connections between creative industries and user created content as well large regional differences within the U.S.

Image credits: floatingsheep.org

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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