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Visualizing

A New Map Of The U.S., Created By How Our Dollar Bills Move

Using a site that tracks dollar bills, a theoretical physicist noticed that our state boundaries are rather arbitrary, but that money tends to stay within new, more realistic boundaries.

  • <p>Theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann used the dollar bill tracking site Where’s George to see how money moves, and create new state boundaries based on our economies. The darker the blue lines, the less likely it is a dollar bill will have crossed it.</p>
  • <p>The Northwest is one large state.</p>
  • <p>California takes over parts of Nevada and all of Arizona.</p>
  • <p>The southwest and mountain west are one nebulous region, with some slightly less solid internal boundaries.</p>
  • <p>All of the upper midwest is one unit.</p>
  • <p>A new state is created around the Ozarks (though Missouri has a distinct east/west boundary); Texas remains more or less intact.</p>
  • <p>The area around Chicago becomes one large state.</p>
  • <p>The entire deep south is also joined together.</p>
  • <p>New England becomes one unit, effectively walled off from New York.</p>
  • 01 /13

    Theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann used the dollar bill tracking site Where’s George to see how money moves, and create new state boundaries based on our economies. The darker the blue lines, the less likely it is a dollar bill will have crossed it.

  • 02 /13

    The Northwest is one large state.

  • 03 /13

    California takes over parts of Nevada and all of Arizona.

  • 04 /13

    The southwest and mountain west are one nebulous region, with some slightly less solid internal boundaries.

  • 05 /13

    All of the upper midwest is one unit.

  • 06 /13

    A new state is created around the Ozarks (though Missouri has a distinct east/west boundary); Texas remains more or less intact.

  • 07 /13

    The area around Chicago becomes one large state.

  • 08 /13

    The entire deep south is also joined together.

  • 09 /13

    New England becomes one unit, effectively walled off from New York.

  • 10 /13
  • 11 /13
  • 12 /13
  • 13 /13

To theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann, the borders of the United States are out of date.

"Some are kind of arbitrary like New Mexico, Arizona: They’re just kind of drawn on the map," says Brockmann. "Often, they no longer correlate with our behavior."

Specifically, they no longer correlate with how we move.

Brockmann was doing research on human mobility in 2005, and struggling to find useful sources of data, when on the way back from a conference in Canada, he stopped by the home of his old friend Dennis Derryberry in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Over a beer on the porch, he told Derryberry about his research. Derryberry asked: "Do you know about WheresGeorge.com?"

You can think of WheresGeorge.com as a primitive FourSquare for $1 bills. "Georgers"—as users call themselves—"check in" their bills by entering the zip codes and serial numbers, then write or stamp "wheresgeorge.com" on the bill. If someone finds the bill and enters it again, they get a "hit." The top Georger—an ammunition dealer who goes by the handle Wattsburg Gary—has entered more than 2 million bills and has nearly half a million hits.

This was, according to Brockmann’s account, the beginning of "Where’s George?" research: "Forming a mental image of millions of these dollar bill journeys in my head, I was convinced that analyzing this data would reveal essential properties of human mobility, the driving force behind the dispersal of bank notes."

Brockmann has, in fact, used the dollar bill data to reveal certain "essential properties" (specifically, that our travels follow a Power Law), and also to model the Swine Flu epidemic. But one of his coolest research projects is his work on "effective boundaries."

Brockmann took data for how the dollar bills traveled, and used network theory to draw lines where dollar bills are less likely to cross. In places they follow state borders, but not always; Missouri is divided into East and West, as is Pennsylvania. The "Chicago catchment area" includes a big chunk of both Indiana and Wisconsin.

The resulting map shows how "effective communities" don’t necessarily follow state lines. "I don’t know so much about the culture of the U.S.," says Brockmann, who grew up in Germany. "But when I give talks on this, normally someone in the audience says, 'Oh, this makes perfect sense."