Warning: This is another post about The Earth Awaits. Because the site and this blog share a certain amount of DNA (and a single author), I’ll probably be talking about it here from time to time.
When I started writing The Earth Awaits, it became very clear very quickly that I would need to present information on a number of topics about which I have little experience. I’m a healthy, able-bodied heterosexual white male. In other words, my experience in traveling the world (and navigating the world in general) is about as easy and trouble-free as it gets. That said, I tried to be thoughtful and have always wanted The Earth Awaits to be a useful tool for everyone, so at launch, a few pieces of information about LGBT rights and women’s equality were present.
The first time someone posted an article about TEA on a major website, I got a contact email from a reader.
I really want to get excited about sites like this, but always feel like the “Quality of Life” scores are based on life as a white man. As a woman who would be living alone, I’d love an accurate assessment of the sexism I’ll be facing in another city. It’s clear that life as a woman in NYC is completely different than life as a woman in Rome, for instance.
Also, as a minority, I’d love to know what it’s like to be one in another city. What is the level of racism I’ll encounter? Will people treat me like I’m “exotic” instead of just a regular person? Will they follow me in a store or refuse to pick me up in a cab? Will police treat me with disrespect while treating my traveling companions completely differently? These are all things I’ve experienced in cities that you’ve rated with a high quality of life score, and all things that left me sad, discouraged and anxious to go back home. Not everyone can walk through life unencumbered by others’ perceptions based on their race or gender. I hope one day that sites like this will acknowledge that.
This email really had an impact on me. I don’t know anything about the experience of being a minority or a woman in my own country, let alone the 120 countries currently present on The Earth Awaits. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it, but it was important to me that this visitor, and anyone else visiting, feel that I at least see their experience and concerns as legitimate, and that I make my best effort to give them a basis for comparing cities on the criteria important to them.
The hard part about taking abstract concepts like “rights” and “racism” is that for the purposes of a computer program, everything has to be reduced to numbers. On The Earth Awaits, representing some things is easy– either a certain right is guaranteed (true, or 1) or it’s not (false, or 0). For other more elusive concepts, like racism, it gets pretty hard. How do we tell if a city has a high prevalence of racism? How do we compare one city against the next and determine which one is “more” or “less” racially biased? It’s even more complicated on a site like The Earth Awaits, where any data point needs to have a data set that is worldwide and objective.
I have been reading for weeks trying to answer my own questions from above. I finally came upon an interesting 2013 article from the Washington Post. In the article, a group of Swedish economists had been attempting to determine whether a more free economy made people more or less racist, which required that they come up with a way to numerically quantify racism. These clever economists used the results of the World Values Survey (WVS), a survey of thousands of people across over a hundred countries on many topics, as the basis for their analysis. In the survey, respondents were asked to pick from a list of groups whether there were any they would not want as a neighbor. Those that picked a group of another race were considered to be showing a racial bias. It turned out that this response was a pretty good proxy for the level of societally accepted racism.
There were a few issues with some of the numbers being counted improperly (Bangladesh had the numbers reversed, making it appear far more biased than it really was), but I loved that this approach at least gave me a starting point for addressing the concerns of minority travelers. I took all of the survey data by the WVS taken since 1995, analyzed it myself, and added the latest data available for about 100 countries to The Earth Awaits. Now, when you switch to the “Freedom” tab for a city in a country with WVS survey data, you will see a section on racial bias, the percentage of people who would not want a person of another race as a neighbor, and the tooltip for that section will show you when the data was taken and how many people were polled in the survey.
You can now filter search results based on the incidence of racism, too.
This approach isn’t foolproof, and it certainly doesn’t go all the way towards quantifying the experience an individual will have in a given country, as there are so many variables to account for. Someone might have a strong bias against a particular race and not care at all about another. As a start, though, this metric is a pretty good proxy for just how acceptable it is in a given society to harbor a racially biased sentiment.
On a related note, I have expanded The Earth Awaits‘ section on Women’s Rights in the Freedom tab for every city, showing the legality of abortion under several circumstances, and whether or not that country has a constitutional guarantee of equal rights. Again, an imperfect measure, but hopefully a useful start.
What concerns do you have as a traveler that you feel are neglected by the mainstream travel sites? How could The Earth Awaits be more useful to you in this regard? You’re always welcome to reach out to me about this stuff in the comments, or privately. I’m always listening.