How A Map Can Go Viral (In 8 Simple Steps)

Back in February of this year, at the height of the madness that was the Vaguely Rude Places Map, Ed Freyfogle from London’s #geomob meetup got in touch and asked me to come and tell the story behind the map. This is that story.

And so last night, in the Chadwick Lecture Theatre in the basement of London’s UCL, after listening to some amazing presentations on building a map of mobile cell tower coverage, of building a seismically powered alternative to GPS and a whole host of other great talks, I took my place on the podium and started where any good story needs to start … at the beginning.

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So, hello, I’m Gary and I’m from the Internet. I’m a self-confessed map addict, a geo-technologist and a geographer. I’m Director of Global Community Programs for HERE Maps, formerly known as Nokia Location & Commerce. Prior to Nokia I led Yahoo’s Geotechnologies group in the United Kingdom. I’m a founder of the Location Forum, a co-founder of WhereCamp EU, I sit on the Council for the AGI, the UK’s Association for Geographic Information, I’m the chair of the W3G conference and I’m also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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There’s a lot of URLs in the slides to follow and rather than try to frantically jot them down, this is the only URL you really need to know about. If you go there right now, this link will 404 on you but sometime tomorrow this where my slides and all my talk notes will appear here.

http://vtny.org/mo

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In today’s global market place when you choose a brand name you normally do some research to make sure that the name you choose doesn’t mean something unfortunate in another language. Most brands succeed at this …

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… some don’t

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But the names of most of the places in the world came about long before globalisation and the reach of today’s interwebs. A name that can have totally innocent or meaningless connotations in one language can appear amusing when viewed in another language

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Naming a village at the bottom of a hill half way along a traditional 12 mile race from the town of Newmarket seemed perfectly rational in the 1840’s and it’s only today that the name probably induces a snigger or two

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The same probably goes for a town believed to be named after Focko, a Bavarian nobleman in the 6th century. Today this Austrian town is more noted for having it’s signs regularly stolen and vain, but apocryphal efforts to rename the town to Fugging

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The word ‘intercourse’ used to mean ‘fellowship’ and ‘social interaction’. It still does, but there’s another colloquial meaning that makes English language speakers snigger. Of course, it’s the former meaning of the word that forms the etymology of the Lancaster County Pennsylvania town.

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And if you live near an area of coastline which relies on fishing, it’s totally natural to name your town after a suggestively shaped piece of wood that you would use to pivot the oar on your fishing boat. At least that’s what people would commonly understand the name of this town in Newfoundland to mean in 1711 which is the first recorded instance of this name for this town in this area.

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There’s a lot more of them … I know of at least 250 more, some more prosaic than others and some more profane than others.

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For a long time I’ve had a list of these, sitting in a file on my laptop. The product of a Friday afternoon when someone I worked with thought that cataloguing the rude place names in our geographic data set would be a really good idea. And there the file sat, taking up a small amount of disk space.

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And then someone, actually this someone, said some fateful words to me …

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And so I did … in 8 easy steps

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Step 1. Make coffee. An essential element to any form of geographic or cartographic endeavour.

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Thus fortified I moved onto step 2; trying to geocode the raw data and weed out those places which seemed to be more a product of wishful thinking than any geographical reality. I now had a basic list of place names, long/lat coordinates and the full name of the place according to the geocoder.

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Step 3 was to convert this raw list of names and coordinates into something that I could manipulate easily and so with the help of a couple of hacked together command line scripts which made use of PHP’s built in JSON encoding, I was able to spit out a file in GeoJSON

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… which looked something like this. a FeatureCollection array containing a the coordinates and formatted labels for each place name.

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Step 4 was to select a mapping API which could easily handle GeoJSON. Most modern APIs do but I’d wanted an excuse to play with Leaflet and this seemed like an ideal opportunity to do so. Leaflet also has a simple and flexible way to convert GeoJSON into a series of push pins or polygons on a map canvas. The only thing I was less than happy with was the map tiles that I’d initially used.

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Enter Step 5; using a custom OSM derived tile set called Toner from San Francisco’s Stamen.

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Thus armed with my data in GeoJSON format, my map tiles of choice and a custom push pin icon, all it took was 35 odd lines of JavaScript, plus some supporting HTML and the Vaguely Rude Place Names map was born. But this was still sitting on my laptop …

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Thankfully I’d registered the geotastic.org domain a while back and this seemed like the ideal place to put the map

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So to step 6. Open up an SSH connection to one of my web hosts, this one kindly donated as payment in kind for some WordPress hacking for a friend, and push the whole lot onto the public internet.

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Step 7 was sharing the code and underlying data on GitHub in the vague notion that someone might like this as a working example of a map.

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And finally step 8 was writing a blog post, tweeting about it and then moving on with life and forgetting about the map.

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All of this happened on February the 6th. I forgot about the map, forgot about the blog post, forgot about the tweet and got on with my day job

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But then

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Someone pinged me an email which basically said …

you need to look at Twitter, search for the URL of that map of rude places, see what’s happening

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So I did. People seemed to like the map, or maybe they liked what the map was showing, or both. Who knows? All I know is that it started proliferating across Twitter at a frantic speed. This wasn’t what I expected. This wasn’t what I intended. You put stuff onto the internet to satisfy whatever motive you have, whether it’s to blog, to tweet, to release code on GitHub or any other of the multitude of reasons. Most times it gets ignored. But sometimes, just sometimes, something strikes a chord and you find yourself on the receiving end of the phrase ‘going viral’.

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Of course, it’s not just individuals who read Twitter. It’s individuals who work for companies that read Twitter as well. Before I knew it the map was appearing in the traditional media as well as social media

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From the Huffington Post …

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… the Daily Telegraph

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… the Independent

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… and further afield, such as the Sidney Morning Herald

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… into regional publications such as Germany’s Der Spiegel

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… and Denmark’s Ekstra Bladet, even if this is a Danish Equivalent of the UK’s red-top tabloids. There’s loads more examples of this that I won’t bore you with, most of them unoriginal pieces that copied and pasted other articles. I even ended up getting interviewed on US and Irish radio chat shows

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But talking of the tabloids …

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This also got picked up by the Daily Mail which provided the only negative view of the whole episode. It would have been nice it the journalist responsible could have spelt my name correctly and if you’re going to lift the copy and paste my blog post wholesale, ignore the Creative Commons license that specifies attribution and don’t rewrite it, littering it with other spelling and grammatical errors. But we live in an imperfect world.

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So what lessons have I learned by making the Vaguely Rude Places map?

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Firstly, if something’s going to go viral on the interwebs it happens very very quickly and without you necessarily noticing it initially

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From a minimal number of hits, presumably from Twitter followers and connections on other social networks, things started to take off around February the 10th, peaking on the evening of February 19th with, to me, a staggering 48,000 hits an hour, totally 310,000 hits for that day.

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Having bandwidth really helps if the equivalent of being Slashdotted happens to you. Thankfully, the geotastic.org domain lives on a server with absolutely no bandwidth restrictions. If I’d have hosted this on my main, paid for, web host, I would have ended up using a year’s worth of bandwidth allocation in less than 48 hours.

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Since February, my web server’s analytics tell me the map has been viewed almost 30 million times; 22.2 million of those in February alone and most people stay and explore for around 5 minutes. Roughly 75% of traffic came from referrals. Surprisingly the lion’s share of referrals were not from Twitter or Facebook but from key worded Google searches. Maybe word of mouth is still more powerful than social media.

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By March, traffic had ramped down to around 2.2 million hits

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And this month has so far produced around 96,000 hits, at least when I took this snapshot at the start of the week. Extrapolating this out, it’s not unreasonable to predict around 1 million hits this month but I fully expect this to tail off even further

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None of this surprises me now, today’s viral hit is quickly forgotten as the next big thing happens and people’s attention goes elsewhere. I’m more than happy about this. I never set out for this to go viral. I never set out to make something that made social media briefly buzz or to get written about in the more traditional press or to end up speaking to people on radio shows. It’s been fun.

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In fact this has been the most successful thing on the internet I’ve ever done, which probably says something about what I do and about what people seem to like. But now the fuss has died down I’m glad to go back to being someone who makes maps for a living and writes the occasional blog post or PHP or JavaScript code which is usually maps based. The Vaguely Rude Places map turned my life upside down for a few brief weeks. Life goes on and it was good to get back to normal again. And now I leave you with the last word on the subject …

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… which my old friend and ex-colleague from our time at Yahoo had to say. I think this tweet and the animated GIF of Bert and Ernie sums it all up rather neatly. You can see the full animated GIF here.

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Thank you for listening

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

3 Comments

  • Loved this blog post. Not to mention the fact that you found a naan almost as big as Mr Iliffe. Genuinely though, the behind the scenes of making a map is something that should be expressed with more gusto within the geospatial community (from the view of transparency and from the perspective of beginners who have an idea but little in the way of construction wearwithals). This post also made me return to the url of one of my favourite maps, where (let this be off record), I giggled.

    • Thanks Laura! I may even take this a stage further and write a step by step guide on how I started from scratch. But not today.

      And on the topic of the Naan … it was the product of Akbar’s in Manchester, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

  • Suggest as a souvenir to the whole episode you buy yourself (and all your friends) all the ‘Great’ place names of Britain on a tea towel made by my lovely cousin and wife (enterprising product designers in need of something going viral): http://www.greatplacenames.co.uk/ includes Six Mile Bottom, Bishop’s Itchington, Great Tosson and Little Tosson and Lord Hereford’s…. well yes you get the picture.

    Congrats on your time of fame :)