Where’s George?


I’ve always found political boundaries to be rather curious. It seems historically, that most of the time they are drawn up for no reason other than it was convenient. Along the way, I’m sure some of them have been drawn due to political maneuverings. And while some of them make sense, like drawing boundaries along the Mississippi River or the Ohio River, most of them don’t. (Are the people from Gary, Indiana much different from those in Chicago, Illinois?)

In truth, state and county boundaries are just the best system we’ve devised for governing ourselves locally through democracy. But have you ever wondered where the real boundaries lie? Does the Michigan and Ohio rivalry really keep the respective populations separated? Are the Mormans in Salt Lake City really so different that they seldom travel outside of their sphere of influence?

Professor Dirk Brockmann from Northwestern University has found an ingenious way to find out. By tracking the physical movements of one-dollar bills – and thus the mobility of the people physically spending them – Brockmann has redrawn the map of the United States based on human mobility.

It’s all thanks to a website called www.wheresgeorge.com. The website allows users to submit serial numbers of their dollar bills, stamp them so that others know it is being tracked and then get online to find out where it went. Assuming, of course, that the next owner bothers to investigate the curious stamp on the bill.

Brockmann took all of this data and put it into some fancy statistical algorithms he encoded and generated many different maps based on the same set of data. This was necessary because the statistical method he used has a bit of randomness involved that makes it tick. He then combined all of the maps into one.

The picture seen below is the result. The green lines indicate borders that people seem to observe for one reason or another. And the darker the green line, the stronger the border.

Some of them make geological sense: people don’t seem to traverse the Mississippi River as often as, say, the nearby Mississippi/Tennessee border and the Appalachian Mountains seem to impose an obstacle many people prefer not to overcome.

Other borders make sense given the proximity of major cities. For example, the inhabitants of northwestern Indiana are much more a part of the Chicago community than they are the rest of their own state.

Here are some of my observations based mostly on the places I’ve lived:

  • It is truly a bitch to get from northern Idaho to southern Idaho. I-95 is a twisty, two-lane highway that snakes through the mountains, and is the most deadly highway in America.
  • Seattle and Oregon are basically the same state.
  • The Mormons have quite a sphere of influence, but want nothing to do with Las Vegas.
  • Though Cleveland and Pittsburgh have a football rivalry, they are way too close together and possess too many similar industries not to be deeply connected.
  • Toledo may as well be given to Michigan, though apparently they don’t want it either.
  • I’m surprised by Indiana’s isolation. It’s a very easy drive from Indianapolis to Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati and Columbus.
  • For vacationers in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the western half of the UP is just too damned far away. And for vacationers in Wisconsin, the eastern half of the UP has nothing of interest compared to the western.

What are some of the things that stick out to you?

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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