United Data Communities of America

Who you gonna call? Somebody inside your data community, that's who. 

When you think of it, borders are paradoxical. They connect what they aim to divide. A borderline marks, with guillotine-like precision, where two territories separate; but no matter how far they expand in either direction, those territories resemble each other closest at their common boundary.

Borders can be impenetrable or irrelevant, and possess any degree of permeability in between: highly militarised, annoyingly bureaucratic, or merely symbolic. In any of those degrees, borders retain an iconic status. They’re humankind’s answer to the shorelines and mountain ranges of geology.

Without borders, a map is blind. With those lines, cartography is armed with a elementary tool for basic triage: here from there, us from them. 

But those boundaries serve another function. They mould the territory they circumscribe into a reassuringly familiar shape. This geographic Gestalt is why, even though the genesis of borders is mostly obscured by history, and their relevance is often obsolete, we get worked up when confronted with an alternate set of borderlines.  

Those alternate borders fascinate us because of their imaginative out-of-placeness. Take a look at Jefferson’s proposal for new states in the US’s new Northwestern Territories, for example: they seem all wrong - probably only because they never made it off the drawing board [1]. 

This map plays into our fascination with borders, both the iconic ones and their alternate versions. The linear base map shows the US subdivided into its constituent states and counties [2]. The colour overlay reveals so-called ‘call data communities’. 

The extension of these areas was calculated by MIT and IBM, analysing anonymised call data. The map delineates zones in which people are more likely to call someone inside those areas rather than outside of them. The result is a revelatory re-mixing of states of America. Some split, others merge with their neighbours. 

  • Some states seem made for each other. People in Louisiana and Mississippi form an almost perfect telephone union. The only spoilsports are two parishes in northeastern Louisiana (grey, so probably inconclusive data) and five counties in northwestern Mississippi, more inclined to phone a Tennessean friend. Otherwise, the state lines correspond exactly with the Louisissippi call data community. 
  • An equally perfect fit: New England. Barring a few counties in northern Maine and New Hampshire, and an overspill of two counties in upstate New York, the inhabitants of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine keep their calls pretty much a local Yankee affair.
  • Other bilateral phone exchanges exist between both Carolinas - barring some Virginian infiltration on the northern shores of the Tar Heel State, and similar intrusions in North Carolina’s westernmost inland extension, and South Carolina’s southern border with Georgia.
  • The latter two intrusions are part of an Alabama-Georgia phone zone, also extending north into southeastern Kentucky and into a significant chunk of the Florida Panhandle [3]. 
  • Florida, in return, annexes two Georgia counties just north of Jacksonville.
  • Another neat phone twin is Oklahomarkansaw. But Oklahoma loses its entire panhandle to No Overall Control, and Arkansas re-annexes the Missouri Bootheel [4] and nicks one county from Texas.
  • Texas itself remains fairly homogenous, ceding only the extreme west of its territory across of the Pecos to a New Mexico-Arizona telephone alliance.
  • Further west, a tri-state phone exchange exists between southern California, southern Nevada, and northwestern Arizona (plus a single Utah county). This Calnevari zone is bounded by a Northern California that is fairly modest in its telephonic expansionism (gobbling up only bits of Nevada), and a Utah spilling over into southern Idaho, and a slice of Wyoming (perhaps following Mormon settlement patterns).
  • A phone zone relaying all of Washington State with most of Oregon and the northern panhandle of Idaho, plus another one fanning out from Colorado - without occupying all of it - complete the western call data communities. 
  • Halfway back east, a Greater Minnesota dominates Iowa and northwestern Wisconsin, even slipping into Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota. 
  • Missouri is the central plank of a triptych, extending into Kansas and southern Illinois.
  • The rumps of Illinois and Wisconsin have banded together, infiltrating Michigan in a two-pronged attack reminiscent of the Schlieffen plan [5], in the process also pocketing the bayshore of Indiana.
  • Indiana, Ohio and Michigan are basically one-state call data communities, fighting off their neighbours’ attentions.
  • Those include a mighty Kentucky-Tennessee alliance, bursting at the seams, and a peculiar conglomerate of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.
  • Most of Virginia is phoning almost all of Maryland; Delaware, southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania are happy to talk to each other; and New York is yakking to the southern bit of its own state, the northern part of Jersey, and a teeny bit of Pennsylvania. 
  • What’s left is upstate New York, minus three counties, plus two Pennsylvania ones. And the rest is silence: you’ve run out of credit.

Some suggested names for a few of these new communication-based communities (or ‘communicities’). For upstate New York: Seneca. For the West Virginia-western Pennsylvania state: Monongahela, after the river (and the valley) that connects them. For Virginia and Maryland: Chesapeake. For more, see here at Underpaid Genius. Or here at the NY Times.

Many thanks for all who suggested this map: Jennifer Berg, Alex Meerovich, Serena Palumbo, Guy Plunkett III, and Jacob Schlegel. Hope I didn't miss anyone. Original context here at MIT's Senseable City Lab


Strange Map #522

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.


[1] Another map of alternate US state borders, mentioned earlier on this blog: C. Etzel Pearcy's 38-state proposal (#5).

[2] 50 states and 3,143 counties or county-equivalents, to be exact. The latter denomination includes the 64 parishes of Louisiana and the 18 boroughs of Alaska.

[3] For more on the history of the Panhandle’s separateness, see #84.

[4] The only part of Missouri extending below 36˚30’N, at one time called ‘Lapland’, because it is where “Missouri laps over into Arkansas”. It was included in Missouri rather than Arkansas on the lobbying of a local planter, who argued that the area had more in common with neighbouring Missouri river towns than with the Arkansas hinterland.

[5] The German opening move for the First World War. See #138.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.