The geographies of codified knowledge have always been uneven, affording some people and places greater voice and visibility than others. While the rise of the geosocial Web seemed to promise a greater diversity of voices, opinions, and narratives about places, many regions remain largely absent from the websites and services that represent them to the rest of the world. These highly uneven geographies of codified information matter because they shape what is known and what can be known. As geographic content and geospatial information becomes increasingly integral to our everyday lives, places that are left off the ‘map of knowledge’ will be absent from our understanding of, and interaction with, the world.
We know that Wikipedia is important to the construction of geographical imaginations of place, and that it has immense power to augment our spatial understandings and interactions (Graham et al. 2013). In other words, the presences and absences in Wikipedia matter. If a person’s primary free source of information about the world is the Persian or Arabic or Hebrew Wikipedia, then the world will look fundamentally different from the world presented through the lens of the English Wikipedia. The capacity to represent oneself to outsiders is especially important in those parts of the world that are characterized by highly uneven power relationships: Brunn and Wilson (2013) and Graham and Zook (2013) have already demonstrated the power of geospatial content to reinforce power in a South African township and Jerusalem, respectively.
Until now, there has been no large-scale empirical analysis of the factors that explain information geographies at the global scale; this is something we have aimed to address in this research project on Mapping and measuring local knowledge production and representation in the Middle East and North Africa. Using regression models of geolocated Wikipedia data we have identified what are likely to be the necessary conditions for representation at the country level, and have also identified the outliers, i.e. those countries that fare considerably better or worse than expected. We found that a large part of the variation could be explained by just three factors: namely, (1) country population, (2) availability of broadband Internet, and (3) the number of edits originating in that country. [See the full paper for an explanation of the data and the regression models.]
But how do we explain the significant inequalities in the geography of user-generated information that remain after adjusting for differing conditions using our regression model? While these three variables help to explain the sparse amount of content written about much of Sub-Saharan Africa, most of the Middle East and North Africa have quantities of geographic information below their expected values. For example, despite high levels of wealth and connectivity, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have far fewer articles than we might expect from the model.
These three factors independently matter, but they will also be subject to a number of constraints. A country’s population will probably affect the number of human sites, activities, and practices of interest; ie the number of things one might want to write about. The size of the potential audience might also be influential, encouraging editors in denser-populated regions and those writing in major languages. However, societal attitudes towards learning and information sharing will probably also affect the propensity of people in some places to contribute content. Factors discouraging the number of edits to local content might include a lack of local Wikimedia chapters, the attractiveness of writing content about other (better-represented) places, or contentious disputes in local editing communities that divert time into edit wars and away from content generation.
We might also be seeing a principle of increasing informational poverty. Not only is a broader base of traditional source material (such as books, maps, and images) needed for the generation of any Wikipedia article, but it is likely that the very presence of content itself is a generative factor behind the production of further content. This makes information produced about information-sparse regions most useful for people in informational cores — who are used to integrating digital information into their everyday practices — rather than those in informational peripheries.
Various practices and procedures of Wikipedia editing likely amplify this effect. There are strict guidelines on how knowledge can be created and represented in Wikipedia, including a ban on original research, and the need to source key assertions. Editing incentives and constraints probably also encourage work around existing content (which is relatively straightforward to edit) rather than creation of entirely new material. In other words, the very policies and norms that govern the encyclopedia’s structure make it difficult to populate the white space with new geographic content. In addressing these patterns of increasing informational poverty, we need to recognize that no one of these three conditions can ever be sufficient for the generation of geographic knowledge. As well as highlighting the presences and absences in user-generated content, we also need to ask what factors encourage or limit production of that content.
In interpreting our model, we have come to a stark conclusion: increasing representation doesn’t occur in a linear fashion, but it accelerates in a virtuous cycle, benefitting those with strong editing cultures in local languages. For example, Britain, Sweden, Japan and Germany are extensively georeferenced on Wikipedia, whereas much of the MENA region has not kept pace, even accounting for their levels of connectivity, population, and editors. Thus, while some countries are experiencing the virtuous cycle of more edits and broadband begetting more georeferenced content, those on the periphery of these information geographies might fail to reach a critical mass of editors, or even dismiss Wikipedia as a legitimate site for user-generated geographic content: a problem that will need to be addressed if Wikipedia is indeed to be considered as the “sum of all human knowledge”.
Read the full paper: Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R.K., and Medhat, A. (2014) Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers.
Brunn S. D., and M. W. Wilson. 2013. Cape Town’s million plus black township of Khayelitsha: Terrae incognitae and the geographies and cartographies of silence, Habitat International. 39 284-294.
Graham M., and M. Zook. (2013) Augmented Realities and Uneven Geographies: Exploring the Geolinguistic Contours of the Web. Environment and Planning A 45(1): 77–99.
Graham M, M. Zook, and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in the Urban Environment: Contested Content and the Duplicity of Code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3) 464-479.
Mark Graham is a Senior Research Fellow at the OII. His research focuses on Internet and information geographies, and the overlaps between ICTs and economic development.