Name That Data answers: week four

Well, gang, we find ourselves in uncharted territory this morning: none of you got the answer right. I'm giving myself a big high-five for finally stumping you, four games into this thing. Some of you did come pretty close, however, so before revealing the answer let's take a stroll down the gallery of People Who Were Wrong.

The Washington Post's own Philip Bump was first out of the gates with a brilliant display of deductive reasoning:

Nothing but my disappointment, Philip.

Many of you noticed the regular pattern of the dots out west, and concluded this might have something to do with highways or transportation.

Another popular line of thinking was telecom-related.

Twitterer "Emily" started off on the right track:

Some of you correctly guessed that the dots were the locations of zip codes:

But nobody correctly guessed how the dots were colored.

So let's look at a few things. The map below shows every zip code in the United States, with each dot colored by the first digit in the zip code. You'll notice a geographic pattern - zip codes go from low to high, east to west. They tend to follow state borders.

zips-01

Here are the zip codes colored by the second digit. The state borders remain distinct, but you can see different blocks of codes in each state. In New York, for instance, the city and surrounding areas have zip codes with a second digit of 0 or 1. Most of Upstate New York has second digits of 2 and 3. And western New York has second digits of 4 and 5.

zips-02

See where this is going? Here are zip codes colored by their third digit, which happens to be this week's answer. The individual blocks of digits are even smaller.

zips-03

For completion's sake, here are maps colored by the fourth and last digits, which basically look like random distributions because the geographic blocks are so small.

zips-04

zips-05

The idea for this came from Ben Fry's Zip Decode project, which is a nifty tool for exploring the structure of the nation's zip codes - type in your zip code, and it highlights which other zip codes share the same digits.

As I mentioned above, nobody got the answer completely correct this week. Twitterers Brian McGill, Will Cubbison and Stephen A.S. at least got the first part right by correctly identifying zip codes. I therefore award them the Glass is Half Full Award for Partial Completion.

But Katie Park and Darla Cameron of the Post's graphics department came the closest of anyone, guessing "zip codes, having something to do with the actual content of the zip code." At the risk of sullying the good name of the Name That Data challenge with charges of nepotism, I hereby grant them the Close Enough Award, and certify that they were Less Wrong on the Internet than Just About Everyone Else.

See you next time!

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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