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In our increasingly virtual world, it’s easy to assume the ideas we come across on the Internet simply float in the ether, untethered.

But every story, every post, every comment on the World Wide Web originates at a specific point on a worldwide map and travels from one user to another, each located in a real-world location. Grab those users’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses—location codes associated with online devices—and you can plot the route a given idea takes across a real-world map.

San Diego State researchers have found that the “geospatial footprints” ideas leave behind as they sprint through cyberspace can tell us a lot. For instance: where terrorist groups are actively recruiting, how quickly a flu epidemic is spreading, why a certain fashion trend is catching on in San Diego but not San Francisco.

SDSU professor of geography Ming-Hsiang Tsou is leading a four-year study funded by a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant to develop new ways of tracking and analyzing the popularity of online ideas.

The San Diego State team, which will present its early findings at the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science 2012 annual meeting in Vancouver, also comprises co-investigators Dipak Gupta, emeritus professor of political science; Jean Marc Gawron, professor of computational linguistics; An Li, associate professor of geography; and Brian Spitzberg, professor of communication.

Geospatial Perspective

“We are utilizing traditional web search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing to discover information and intelligence from publicly accessible websites,” Tsou said, “but we’re giving the search results additional perspective by using geographic information systems (GIS) and computational linguistics to analyze their content.”

The multi-disciplinary approach, particularly the geographical dimension, distinguishes SDSU’s study. "A lot of computer people have enhanced a search engine,” Gupta said, “but they haven’t considered the spatial correlations and time/space relationships behind that.”

Here’s what he means. In an early experiment, researchers typed the key words “burn Koran” into standard online search engines, mined the top ,000 results for IP addresses, and plotted the corresponding geographic locations on a map.

Not surprisingly, a cluster of online news reports and chatter—a geospatial footprint—showed up near a Florida church where the provocative incident occurred in March 2010, and in several major cities, including New York and San Francisco. Digging deeper, the research team also identified a cluster in Topeka, Kansas, where another church had threatened to follow suit.

“We’re enhancing a web search engine by giving it spatial perspective,” Gupta explained. “This allows us to visualize the spread of an idea. We also do a snapshot of what happened in the whole world at that moment, and over time we can see new hotspots emerging.”

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Mapping cyberspace is one of many ways SDSU faculty are leading innovation and discovery, a key initiative of the Campaign for SDSU. With a unique focus on the teacher-scholar model, SDSU attracts researchers interested in solving the world’s most pressing problems, while showing students how to provide future solutions. Learn more about how SDSU leads innovation and discovery, and how you can help.

The next step—overlaying the geographic results with demographics gleaned from census data—may help explain why. Age? Gender? Ethnicity? Education level? Employment status? Any of those factors could be the reason one community buzzes about a given issue while a neighboring town seems unconcerned.

The researchers believe the possible applications of mapping cyberspace will span multiple disciplines, starting with homeland security, public health and marketing.

“It has great potential for the future, not just for geography, but the whole of social and economic study,” Gupta said. “We can talk about terrorism more comprehensively. Why are people getting radicalized in one city, but not in another one? Who are these people? What are the policy implications?

“Or we can talk about marketing. What if you launched a new product and you can see people are talking about this in Albany, but not in Syracuse? What are the differences? We can look at all those factors.”

And at the same time, look at the spread of information in a whole new way.

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MULTIMEDIA

"I Believe" 30 second spot
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Shot throughout San Diego County, the spot features various community members repeating parts of the "I Believe That We Will Win" chant. Along the way, energy builds as the chant is joined by famous Aztecs such as Ralph Rubio and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

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Spring 2012 360 Magazine
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