It all began with trying to establish the fastest way to find Waldo. And ended with one man developing the most accurate road trip maps across several continents.
Self-styled "data tinkerer" Randal Olson has determined the shortest routes for road trips spanning 48 states in the U.S., 50 notable spots across Europe and over 30 locales along the coast of South America.
At the urging of Tracy Staedter from Discovery News, Olson employed an algorithm he had previously devised to determine the best strategy for finding Waldo to figure out the best path for a car trip that would stop in at least one national historic site, national park, monument or natural landmark in each U.S. state on March 8.
"What I've been trying to do on my blog is make machine-learning problems more accessible," Olson said.
For the U.S., he found that it would take at least 9.33 days of non-stop driving — assuming a lack of traffic delays — to make the 13,699-mile cross-country journey. He left out Alaska and Hawaii in order to keep the trip via car.
In creating this map, Olson used data from Google Maps API and a Python script that allowed him to calculate the distances of all 2,500 routes between the 50 landmarks. From there, he used a genetic algorithm to visualize the most efficient route.
As a follow-up, Olson crafted a new map on March 10 showing a route through Europe that features attractions listed in a Business Insider article on "50 Places In Europe You Need To Visit In Your Lifetime."
"The Europe map was really for me," Olson said, adding that he has had a fascination with European history since he was a child. "I've always wanted to travel Europe myself."
The 16,287-mile trip mainly covers Western Europe, and requires at least 14 days of driving. Though Olson excluded some areas that were inaccessible by car, the journey goes through France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Due to the popularity of the first two maps, Olson created a third, showing the optimal road trip through South America on March 14.
This time, the trip would require not only a car, but also ferry and plane rides to complete. Using suggestions from TripAdvisor and the Huffington Post, Olson determined 36 sights and cities that would make good stops on what ended up being an 18,148-mile trek. (For anyone undertaking this trip, Olson recommends using the Isla Margarita as a starting point and going southward from there.)
"The biggest complaints I've gotten are from people who don't like the stops," he said. Olson said that he is working on creating more maps, including a map of Canada, and that he intends to finish up maps for every continent. His biggest challenge so far has been in choosing which spots to include on the trips.
Since he started this project, Olson has received more map requests than he has been able to keep up with. The South America map was done by reader request, though Olson, who is a PhD student at Michigan State University, notes that he has only looked through about 5% of all the requests he has received.
Olson released the code he used to make his visualizations on his blog, along with instructions on how to customize your own optimal road trip.
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