Wikipedia analysis: Johnson County produces 3rd highest rate of 'notable' people

List includes a number of people who've earned reputations in their fields

Published: March 25 2014 | 10:47 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:08 am in

If you stopped to think about where famous people come from, Los Angeles and New York likely would come to mind.

Many celebrities live and are born in these iconic American cities, but Johnson County, Iowa, actually produces a higher rate of "notables" than New York or Los Angeles, according to a Wikipedia-based analysis by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who recently received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and is a contributing columnist to the New York Times.

One in 862 people born in Johnson County from 1946-1964 went on to become "notable," or profiled in Wikipedia, which is the third highest rate in the nation behind Boston (in Suffolk County, Mass.) and San Francisco (San Francisco County, Calif.), according to Stephens-Davidowitz' data. He wrote about his findings in an op-ed called "The Geography of Fame" for the New York Times on March 22.

"I do not know the explanation, but I expect it is related to college towns generally doing very well," Stephens-Davidowitz said in the email of Johnson County's high ranking.

Thirty people of the 25,867 births in Johnson County from 1946-1964 made it to Wikipedia, Stephens-Davidowitz said in an email on Monday. All were born in Iowa City, he said.

The Johnson County list is hardly full of pop culture icons. Instead, it includes a number of people who've earned reputations in their fields, if not mainstream of society.

Violinist Robert Zimansky, Minnesota politician Sue Jeffers and college football coach Dan McCarney were born in Iowa City. Iowa state representatives Vicki Lensing and Mary Mascher also have profiles.

Classic college towns, such as University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (Washtenaw), University of Wisconsin in Madison (Dane County), University of Florida in Gainsville (Alachua County) and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. (Tompkins County), among others, dot the top of 3 percent of the list, Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in his column.

"Why is this? Some of it is probably the gene pool: Sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart," he wrote. "And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there."

"But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations and even record stores. College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople," he wrote.

Urban areas was the second biggest predictor of notoriety, while suburban counties had much lower rates. Iowa as a state ranked in the fourth lowest tier out of five tiers when it comes to density of notables.

Stephens-Davidowitz wrote that he found some surprising results, including that counties with larger immigrant populations produced a higher rate of people noted in Wikipedia, while there was no correlation between spending on education and a rise to Wikipedia fame.

Wikipedia was the basis for the analysis, which he admitted has its limitations, such as potential bias of editors that skew young and male. He didn't respond to a question about how having a large hospital in town might affect results.

Stephens-Davidowitz matched birth counties of the 150,000 people with profiles in Wikipedia, and focused on the baby boomer generation from 1946 to 1964. Those findings were compared to birthrates by county to determine the rate people from different locations become notable. Only counties with at least 20,000 births in that time period were included in the analysis.

"This evidence is very preliminary," he wrote. "It is meant to start a conversation rather than offer definitive answers."

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