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Painting by Numbers To Snap a Statistical Portrait of America

February 7, 2011 | news

“Social patterns are the key to understanding America,” declares sociology Prof. Andrew A. Beveridge. “Facts and figures are fine, but to really understand demographic data, you have to be able to visualize it.”

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Sociology Prof. Andrew A. Beveridge got a grant from CUNY CAT to help get his numbers research up and running.

For example, when the 2010 earthquake put Haiti on the international map, it was reported matter-of-factly by various sources that that country’s population was a little more than 9 million and that the United States has more than 776,000 residents of Haitian ancestry, 29 percent of whom are concentrated in New York City and Miami.

Beveridge’s recitation of these facts and figures is as dry as the Mojave Desert. That is, until he calls up Social Explorer, the award-winning online research tool he helped create. There, color maps of the United States illustrate and illuminate the numbers, painting a clear picture that makes his point arrestingly unforgettable.

“There are lots of demographic data like this thrown around every day,” the Queens College and Graduate Center professor says. “But it’s difficult for the average person to understand or use it in a meaningful way. The goal of Social Explorer is to get the data into the hands of the people by making it super easy to access and understand.”

Social Explorer was founded in 2003 by Beveridge and business partner Ahmed Lacevic, a Queens College graduate who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science. It grew out of a project started at CUNY in the early 1990s. At that time, Beveridge and some of his students started mapping U.S. Census data. “Nobody else was really doing it then,” he says.

Today, the site features 39 billion data points, 200,000 variables and 15,000 interactive maps. It includes data from every U.S. Census from 1790 to 2000, the annual updates from the American Community Survey to 2008, original U.S. Census tract-level estimates for 2006 and 2007, the Religious Congregations and Membership Study from 1980 to 2000 plus 2002 carbon data emissions from the Vulcan project. Data from the 2010 U.S. Census will be added next year.

“In the Census alone, the data are collected at billions of dollars of cost, yet it’s difficult for the average person to use the data,” he says. “With SocialExplorer.com, users can customize, save, print and e-mail maps and reports and export them to other programs and statistical packages for further analysis.”

Social Explorer, which was named a 2010 American Library Association/Reference and User Service Association Outstanding Reference Source, works with a number of institutions and has exclusive licensing agreements with The New York Times, Oxford University Press and Pearson publishing. It has received much of its funding from the National Science Foundation.

“The myriad ways in which Social Explorer translates data and statistics into vivid, pragmatic images offer an exciting glimpse into the digital future of researchers, scholars and students across the social sciences,” says Niko Pfund, vice president and publisher of Academic Research at Oxford.

Subjects like Haiti are serious, indeed, but Social Explorer often digs up demographic data on pop culture to engage the general public. One project traced the changes in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn since the filming of Spike Lee’s 1989 “Do the Right Thing.” In the wake of the “Twilight” vampire series, another blog post tracked the number of Romanians in Washington State, where some of the filming was done.

“We’re doing fun things, including adding color schemes like Pink Panther, Forest Fire and even Picasso, which, of course, is blue,” Beveridge says.

Visualization is the key to Social Explorer’s continued success, Beveridge says, and to speed development of state-of-the-art graphics, the company has turned to the CUNY Center for Advanced Technology.

“The CUNY CAT has helped us tremendously,” says Beveridge. “We got a grant for a camera-like device that is helping us scan hundreds of maps, and CAT is funding the use of the equipment.”

To date, Social Explorer has created 3 million maps for some 125,000 individual and institutional users. “I want us to have millions of users,” Beveridge says. “It’s an incredibly successful academic project, and I want it also be an incredibly successful commercial project.”