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Mapping hate, zombies and Flickr

Monica Stephens, standing in front of the "Geography of Flickr," focuses her research on who contributes to the Internet, where are they located and how do their biases influence content on the Web. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published May 7, 2015

You may have seen geographer Monica Stephens’ work before she joined UB last fall.

In 2013, Stephens made a map called the “Geography of Hate.” It showed the location of Tweeted slurs across the United States, with dense concentrations east of the Rockies. The project went viral, appearing in National Public Radio, Gawker, Atlantic Cities and more.

The work was powerful, stimulating fierce debate on questions central to Stephens’ research: Who contributes to the Internet, where are they located and how do their biases influence content on the Web?

At the time she created “Geography of Hate,” Stephens was a faculty member at Humboldt State University in California.

She came to UB in fall 2014, setting up shop as an assistant professor in the Department of Geography’s lakeside digs in Wilkeson Quad, part of the labyrinthine Ellicott Complex.

Less than a year in, she says she’s already feeling at home. The good vibes began even before she arrived: On a recruitment visit to Buffalo the winter before she started here, her search committee chair, Professor Geoffrey Jacquez, brought Stephens an extra hat, mittens and gloves because “he was worried that I would be cold,” she says, laughing.

“That, I think, set the tone,” she says. “I loved the other faculty, I loved the resources here, just the feel of this department. I was so sold on this job. I thought this was a place where I would be pushed in the direction I wanted to go in. The conversations I had with everyone about my research were really interesting.”

Her current work includes investigating the geographic locations of Wikipedia contributors and how that influences the content in the encyclopedia.

She also continues to map social phenomena on Floating Sheep, a popular blog she runs with four friends she met at the University of Kentucky, where she was a visiting scholar a few years back. Together, they use maps as a way to visualize huge amounts of geolocated data and explore social trends.

“Why Floating Sheep?” you might ask. They have an answer for that, too,

Some of Stephens’ past projects:

Geography of Hate. Image: Monica Stephens

Mapping malignant language isn’t easy. To create the “Geography of Hate,” Stephens first searched millions of Tweets for key slurs, such as “fag,” “nigger” and “wetback.” Then, she enlisted undergraduate researchers to make sure those words were actually being used in a negative way before including the Tweets in her data set.

The map is done, but the research is still a work in progress. At UB, Stephens is in the process of analyzing the results to see how they connect to such trends as job loss in different places in America.

Geography of Flickr

Geography of Flickr. Image: Visualization and analysis by Mark Graham, Scott A. Hale and Monica Stephens in collaboration with Corinne M. Flick and the Convoco Foundation. Courtesy of the Oxford Internet Institute in cooperation with Flick and the Convoco Foundation, 2011

This map shows how U.S. and European posts dominate Flickr, the Internet photo-sharing network. The visualization questions the neutrality of the information: Is what we see on Flickr really an accurate and complete depiction of the world?

The same questions apply to platforms like Wikipedia and other open-source repositories for information, Stephens says.

“All information is biased, and where it becomes important is when it takes on an air of being unbiased,” she says.

In a talk in 2012, she discussed how the male-dominated digital mapping platform OpenStreetMap allowed users to plot several categories of night life amenities — ranging from bars, pubs and biergartens to night clubs, brothels and swinger clubs — but only had two categories for child care amenities: “Kindergarten” and “baby hatch,”  a safe haven where parents could leave babies permanently. There was nothing in between.

Stephens says she first became interested in so-called digital divides when she was a student. “Part of it is looking at the division of women in computing and feeling like I was definitely a minority in my GIS classes and having this feeling of somehow being shut out.”

When the vast majority of contributors to a digital platform are men — or Americans, or city-dwellers — how does that shape the information we see?

Geography of Zombies. Image: Visualization by Mark Graham, Taylor Shelton, Matthew Zook and Monica Stephens

World War Z. “The Walking Dead.” Zombie walks. Zombies are everywhere in America, but apparently we’re somewhat unique. This project visualized references to zombies in the Google Maps database, and much of the world is blacked out.

What this means is up for debate. “The highest concentrations of zombies in the Geoweb are located in the Anglophone world, especially in large cities,” Stephens wrote in an explainer on the map. “The results either provide a rough proxy for the amount of English-language content indexed over our planet, or offer an early warning into the geographies of the impending zombie apocalypse.”