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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Insightful cartography

by Dana Kelley | September 24, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

Everywhere is somewhere, as Google Earth says in promoting its Geo Tools for teaching. "Place" is a universal framework, and much can be learned by overlaying it with cultural and natural metrics and measures.

The purpose of data visualization is to use graphics to help our brains more easily understand and glean insights from information, and one of the most familiar and recognizable images is our U.S. map.

Within our national borders and criss-crossing state lines lies a literal treasure trove of data, from bureaucracies that tend to measure everything to Google's immense collection powers.

Parsing large data sets in a spreadsheet of rows and columns might excite the eyes of an accomplished analyst, but most of us like to let pictures tell part of the story. And the bigger part the better.

For example, listing the largest employers in every state would produce a 50-row table. How quickly we can locate ourselves would depend on how the rows were ordered (alphabetically or numerically, ascending or descending, etc.).

But showing the U.S. map, with the states slightly spaced apart, and a portion of the logo of the largest employers occupying each state's shape, allows a viewer to instantly see that Walmart rules the roost by far.

Radiating out from its headquarters state of Arkansas, it dominates the region reaching from Texas and Oklahoma east to the Atlantic, and down from the Great Lakes to the Gulf. The famous logo reigns supreme in 22 states, including big-sky Montana and verdant New Hampshire.

In most states where Walmart isn't the biggest employer, a hospital or public university is.

Some enterprising outlets and organizations have created several such educational cartographic views that can help us see America a little differently.

Looking at a map showing the Highest-Paid Public Employees is eye-opening and thought-provoking. In only 11 states is that person not a coach, and those outlier states are scattered far from the gridiron and hoops dynasty states. In half the states (Arkansas among them), it's a football coach, although the return on that investment in terms of conference and national championships varies significantly.

Whether paying a coach more than a college president or medical school dean should depend on actual wins or fan fervor is probably a philosophical question.

Google's status as a data giant is undeniable, and tracking its search engine queries by state produces some very interesting maps.

Google Trends reports on many common questions, such as "How do you spell ..." Categorized by state, it's clear that covid had an influence in 2020's searches for correct spellings, since "quarantine" and "cancelled"--both long words--were the most popular in a large number of states.

In three states, the most searched spelling word was only four letters long: "cook" in Kansas; "gray" in Kentucky; and "tong" in Vermont.

Other state's searches are head- scratchers, too: "because" in California; "auntie" in Arizona; "bidet" in Mississippi; "rehearsal" in Rhode Island; "opinion" in Nevada. The state that takes the cake, though, has to be Virginia--where the most common word Google users asked how to spell was "Virginia."

Leading up to the 4th of July last year, Google Trends formulated a map showing the most common answer by state to "how to grill ..." searches. Various veggies led the answers, with corn on the cob the most common (and the winner in Arkansas). Along the eastern seaboard, it was mostly fish or shellfish, except for South Carolina where the winning answer was "hamburger."

Likewise, Google Trends tracked uniquely searched Super Bowl LV foods by state, subdivided by main or side dish, appetizer, dip or dessert. In the competing teams' home states, staple food fare won out: Chiefs fans searched buffalo chicken dip and Buccaneer fans sought chicken wings.

But there were some shockers. Wyoming's choice of chia seed coconut milk dessert is a little out of sync with the Cowboy state image, and Montana's search for Keto egg bites wasn't a home-on-the-range standard.

Arkansas' most uniquely searched Super Bowl food result was itself unique among state answers: Wagyu beef, a richly marbled beef variety that is among the most expensive in the world.

The holidays are just around the corner, and there's a most watched holiday movie in each state. In Arkansas, it's my personal favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life," as it is in New York, home state of the film's fictional Bedford Falls.

"Elf" is most popular in the north and northeast. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" leads in the sunny southwest. Oddly, "Home Alone" is most popular in scattershot border or coastal stats, from the Gulf to North Dakota and Minnesota to Virginia and Oregon. You can guess the only state where "Christmas in Connecticut" is most-watched (that's a classic, if you haven't seen it).

Finally, mapping Google's autocomplete for each state serves up some algorithmic stereotypes. "Why is [state] so" returns a host of expected standards: for Arkansas and several others the answer is "poor;" for some predictable others it's "hot" or "cold." Among the single state answers: Idaho is "boring;" Oregon is "cloudy;" Illinois is "broke."

College football fans everywhere will commiserate with Alabama's autocomplete: "good."


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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