The Cats of the World, Mapped

A lesson in digital privacy

There are a lot of cats in the world, and there are a lot of cats on the Internet. These two facts—one a longstanding reality, the other a longstanding cliche—often collide with each other in predictable ways. And sometimes in less predictable ways. Did you ever think, for example, that someone would take the time to locate the many cats of the world on a digital map?

Well, someone has.

Owen Mundy, an artist, designer, and programmer who teaches at Florida State University, recently published "I Know Where Your Cat Lives," a project that tracks the world's cats—or, well, 1 million of those cats—on, yep, an interactive world map. 

Owen Mundy

To make his cat-map, Mundy used data provided by cat owners—and/or cat fanciers generally—themselves. Humans, when they post a picture of their cats on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or what have you, often add a "cat" tag to the image to clarify, organize, connect with other cat-fanciers, etc. That tag is the key piece of information Mundy used for the project. He accessed photo-sharing sites' publicly available APIs, searching for those "cat" tags, and then ran the results through clustering algorithms (using, he notes, "a supercomputer at Florida State University in order to represent the enormity of the data source"). Then, he "located" the cats through the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in the metadata of the photos that depict them. 

Then, he cat-mapped.

Owen Mundy

To make the map itself, Mundy had to scale down his original ambition. "Currently," he writes, "there are 15 million images tagged with the word 'cat' on public image hosting sites, and daily thousands more are uploaded from unlimited positions on the globe." So tracking just a million cats was a compromise. 

But, then again, cat-tracking wasn't actually the point of the exercise. The point, instead, was to use cats to offer insight into how much information we reveal about ourselves—and our pets—every day. Often without realizing it. If I put up a "cat" photo on Instagram, I am not just sharing a cat photo on Instagram. I am offering up data about my, and my cat's, location. "I Know Where Your Cat Lives" is, as a title, meant to be vaguely threatening.

"This website," Mundy explains, "doesn’t visualize all of the cats on the net, only the ones that allow you to track where their owners have been."

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In