Olivier Gergaud, Morgane Laouénan and Étienne Wasmer present in a Vox.eu column a most fascinating work. They “collected a database of 1,243,776 notable people and 7,184,575 locations (Geolinks) associated with them throughout human history (3000BCE-2015AD)”. Their findings are also available on a dedicated website, which has many interesting and thought provoking maps.

Gergaud, Laouénan and Wasmer collected “visible people” using existing databases and Wikipedia entries. I suppose that the “visibility factors” are going to be controversial, no matter how you can “validate” them. And yet this looks to be an impressive work.

The abstract points to some findings that deserve to be highlighted:

– Individuals with the highest levels of visibility tend to be more distant from their birth place, with a median distance of 785km for the top percentile, 389km for the top decile, and 176km overall.
– In all occupations, there has been a rise in international mobility since 1960. The fraction of locations in a country different from the place of birth rose from 15% in 1955 to 35% after 2000. However, notable people experienced international mobility a long time ago (see, for example, Erasmus’s trajectories as automatically detected by our algorithms).
– (…)Last and not least, we find a positive correlation between the contemporaneous number of entrepreneurs and the urban growth of the city in which they are located the following decades. More strikingly, the same is also true for artists, with the contemporaneous number or share of artists positively affecting city growth over the next decades. In contrast, we find a zero or negative correlation between the contemporaneous share of “militaries, politicians and religious people” and urban growth in the following decades.

The last point seems to suggest that Gergaud, Laouénan and Wasmer are not searching for any empirical grounding for what was called “the great man theory of history”: that is, that history is actually made by a handful of leaders and heroes. Urban growth goes together with a higher number of people employed in “productive labour,” and I suppose entrepreneurs are a good proxy of that. The authors are searching for “visible” not necessarily for “grand”.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the most visible people, in their paper they point out that “the post-1950 period sees the rise of the ‘entertainment category,’ which by far dominates the database. The governance category, most present until the beginning of the XIXth century, decreases after the 1840’s cohort and drops further after 1950.” Please don’t consider this as a comment on the U.S. election scene.