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Data Scientist Computes the Best American Road-Trip Route

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Randy Olson

Randal Olson is a computer science graduate at Michigan State University. He’s the head moderator for the subReddit r/dataisbeautiful, which focuses on, as you might imagine, data visualizations.

One of Olson’s hobbies is what he calls “data tinkering,” in which, in his words, he “tackles a new data analysis problem.” This week, he decided to compute the optimal road trip for hitting all 48 contiguous states in the U.S.

The criteria – as put forth by Olson and the person who posed the challenge, Tracy Staedter from Discovery News – are as follows:

1. The trip must make at least one stop in all 48 states in the contiguous U.S.
2. The trip would only make stops at National Natural Landmarks, National Historic Sites, National Parks, or National Monuments.
3. The trip must be taken by car and never leave the U.S.

Staedter then compiled a list of 50 major U.S. landmarks: one in each state, excluding Alaska and Hawaii and including D.C., and two in California.

Olson helpfully outlines his methodology as well as a lot of the problems with computing a route between all the landmarks, but it’s all a little above our heads, so we’ll just link to it.

Eventually, Olson arrived at a “near-perfect” solution that makes a complete trip around the U.S. in only 13,699 miles, or 224 hours of driving, which would take about 2-3 months to complete.

“The best part,” Olson writes, “is that this road trip is designed so that you can start anywhere on the route as long as you follow it from then on.” His site includes an interactive version of the map, so start your planning for summer now. And hey, if you need a playlist, we’ve got that covered, too.

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