Monday, January 13, 2014

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume I

There seem to be an awful lot of people eking out a living these days by dredging the internet for stuff to repost in the form of a list.  You can tell that someone has told them that, to maximize your profits in this trade, you need to use the word "shocking" a lot.

Late last summer, the "Twisted Sifter" listing, uh, service posted a list of Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World.  The link was immediately sent, linked, or posted to me by approximately half the population of North America.  People who know me are apparently all but unanimous that I need help making sense of the world.  I'm expecting them to stage an intervention any time now.

Now, most of the maps on "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World" (hereinafter "FMWHYMSW") are fairly interesting or amusing.  But at the same time, curating a criteria-free list of stuff you found on the internet is just about the easiest form of creative endeavor imaginable.  To my thinking, if you trumpet your list of other people's graphics as helping me make sense of the world, you have written a very large check and you better by god deliver.  But what we actually get is merely Forty Maps that Seemed Kind of Cool, something any alert high-school junior could deliver if asked nicely.  Looked at this way, I can't help regard FMWHYMSW as something slightly... well, shameful, really -- a dumb internet presence along the lines of the perennial ads suggesting I lose weight using one to three weird old tricks or refinance my home with President Obama's sneaky new plan.

But what the hell.  A list of potentially interesting maps is a list of potentially interesting maps!  So what I propose to do over the next however many Mondays is to go through them in sets of five, assessing each on technical cartographic merit, artistic merit, and degree to which it really might help you make sense of the world.  Unlike most of the things I post in this internet periodical, I actually have the training and qualifications to speak with authority on this topic, so no doubt I will come off as more than usually full of shit.

Ready?  Good.

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume I

Note: In cutting and pasting the images (at low resolution and for purposes of critique in a non-commercial forum, yo!) I included "Twisted Sifter's" own attribution.  They aren't live links here, so to see the original you would have to go to the original post and click through from there.

1. "Where Google Street View is Available"

Technical Merit: Pretty pathetic.  If I'm not mistaken, this is simply a cut-and-paste of the Google Maps screen at its lowest resolution.  That gives it a ham-fisted lack of detail which implies that areas fifty miles offshore are covered by Street View, which, alas, is just not so.  It also glosses over disparities in detail of coverage, which I am willing to wager is lower in South Africa, say, than it is in the United Kingdom.

The biggest weakness of this map for my money is that it makes no distinction between places where there is no Street View coverage because there are no major roads (the Australian interior, the Canadian North, Greenland), and places where there are heaps of roads but some sort of political or economic barrier to their inclusion (China, India, Iran).  Since so much of the roadless world is in the extreme northern latitudes, it is too bad that the "Twisted Sifter" people cut and pasted the index screen with its Mercator projection intact.

You probably know this: a "projection" is a way of distorting the shapes on a spherical globe so you can squish them on to a flat page or computer screen.  Any way of doing this necessarily distorts the sizes and shapes of places.  The Mercator projection is one that preserves shapes almost perfectly, but distorts size increasingly radically as you approach the poles.  Pro-tip: When you look at a world map, compare India and Greenland.  In real life, India is about half again as large as Greenland.

The Mercator is great for navigation, just fine as a simple index map (as used by Google Maps), but completely hopeless as a map displaying data, as here.  Why?  Because it gives increasingly radical visual promenence to data as you approach the poles.  The information that Algeria is without Streetview looks pretty trivial on this map, relative to the information that Greenland is without Streetview.  Yet, Algeria is bigger than Greenland.

Artistic Merit: None

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Not bad.  Streetview coverage stands in here as a metaphor for access to practical information on the internet, and the map shows us how North America, Europe, Australia, and the arguably luckier areas of Asia and South America are relatively more privileged. 

Technical Merit: Adequate.  If you slavishly read the above, you have compared India, Greenland, and Algeria, and you're thinking "ooh, this is a better map for data display."  And you're essentially right.  If we are going to get technical, though, this particular data set has nothing to do with the area of countries.  It is, in fact, the first of several maps in the FMWHYMSW where I'm going to ask the question "does a visual representation of this information really improve on a list?"  In terms of conveying data, the answer here is "no."  A list -- "Burma, Liberia, the United States of America" -- is more compact, easier to produce, and more intelligible to anyone who can not immediately recognize Burma and Liberia on a map.

Artistic Merit: However, displaying this particular data in a cartographic context serves a didactic function.  It's an intentional way of emphasizing the United State's isolation as a country still using a pre-modern system of measurement.  The important information is not really what is in the high-visibility red, but the overwhelming dominance of low-visibility grey.  So, although this is not a particularly artistic map in and of itself, I'm giving it points for rhetorical florish.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Not bad.  The UnitedStatsian insistence on Imperial measurement is a piece of evidence in support of a case that the military and economic giant is in important ways out of step with the rest of the planet.  Understanding that concept helps a body make sense of the world.

Technical Merit: Clunky and clumsy.  WHY THE ALL CAPS, STUART?  Why the incredibly thick pointer lines?

Artistic Merit: None.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Poor.  The single point this map makes is that the United Kingdom ("Britain"?) has been a major player in world affairs.  Beyond that, the vast array of different contexts in which "Britain" has "invaded" various countries are so disparate that it makes very little sense to combine them under a uniform coat of brick red.  The lengthy occupation of British India, for instance, was rather a different thing from the colonies-gone-independent sacking and burning of the United States, was rather a different thing from the taking of Madagascar from Vichy France in World War II, was rather a different thing again from whatever Mr. Laycock is considering a British "invasion" of Japan.

Adding to the map's conceptual blurring is its failure to grant a newly independent country a clean slate in its relations with the UK.  Eritrea and Azerbaijan, for instance, have never been invaded by "Britain"; Laycock is still considering them part of Ethiopia and the late Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  A bit patronizing, that.

Technical Merit: This is an attractive, well-designed, and unscientific map.  The first two qualities are pretty obvious.  The last one is, come to think of it, pretty obvious too: the countries of the world were still aeons in the future when Pangaea was a thing, so why project them onto our theoretical map?  Subsidiary problems branch off from that key problem.  For instance, once you've decided to project current countries onto Pangaea, you kind of have to use ALL of them, and that tricks you into including countries whose land area did not exist at that point in geologic time, such as the Central American countries (a johny-come-lately group of volcanos) and the Himalayan countries (a very recent buckling formed where India is smashing into Asia at speed).  Antarctica is shown in its current shape, although an awful lot of that shape is ice sheet, not actual land, and it is shown in a sub-polar location, although if I remember correctly it ought to be roughly at the Equator as a Pangaea component.  The African Great Rift, one of the fastest moving faults on the planet, is frozen all the way back through the millenia here, in order to keep the contemporary map of Africa intact.

In short, attaching the country borders to Pangaea forces you to make radical distortions to our best notions of what Pangaea must have looked like.

Artistic Merit: Handsome!  I am a sucker for jewel tones in cartography.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": The only way this one can help anyone make sense of the world is to remind them about tectonic theory and refresh their memory on the whole "Pangaea" concept.  Which is, as my father would say, better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Technical Merit: Listen, if you are going to give us data by country, and then have a separate graphic to give us the number of outlets in various countries, then you might as well make the map in such a way that it contains some information about the relative density of McDonald's per country or, better yet, McDonald's per capita.  But deliberately or no, this map is built so as to obscure this information.  Business Management EU wants to paint the world red and shout "MCDONALDS IS EVERYWHERE," and this agenda is best suited if you can splash a country red whether it has 13,381 outlets or 1.

Another technical problem with this map is that it is not accurate.  Take that large splash of red which is Algeria.  Let's ask the corporate overlords at McDonalds itself:
We have not set a firm date for the development of McDonald's restaurants in Algeria. 
I rather suspect somebody at Business Management EU got Algeria and Morocco confused.

Here is an aesthetically wincey but much more intelligent map of McDonald's distribution:

And here's a link to its source in the Guardian, which has a lot of other McDonald's data if you are into that kind of thing.

Back to the image in question: Mercator is bad for displaying data.  The fact that Greenland doesn't have any McDonald's is not significant enough to occupy a continent-sized chunk of your visual field.

Artistic Merit: It has a slick, Time magazine infographic look to it.  It invites a good comfortable browse.  Pro-tip: when an infographic invites a good comfortable browse, enjoy! and get your guard up!

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Nah.  The unbridled success of a franchise burger joint that sells marginal processed food is relevant to the state of the world's food supply, economy, and popular culture.  But you can't ask an iffy map of countries where McDonald's are located to carry that much conceptual weight.  This is at best a map that might illustrate ideas you already had about the world, or maybe, in extreme circumstances, a map that would inspire you to ask interesting questions about the world.

Next Time Out: Maps 6 - 10
Seen a map that you'd like me to take a shot at after I'm done with these?  Let me know!


Morgan said...

"40 Maps, some of which are fairly interesting"

Michael5000 said...

"A man showed me these 40 amazing maps, and you'll never believe what happened next."

Dug said...

As one who has a map blog that delivers 52 (give or take) maps that might make sense of something, I had a few too many people e-mail me this link. I took a quick look, had a general sense of "meh" and got on with it.
Some general thoughts on your five:

1. The google street view map was once interesting if you zoomed way in and saw what what towns, roads, or areas were done vs not. Now they're all over those countries so not so much.

In addition to the other awful aspects is the background map's topo shading. OK New Zealand is blue-ish but Greenland is white and Algeria is brown, what does it all mean? Totally distracts you from the pointless point of the map.

2. Right on! Make a damn list. OK, there's Burma(Myanmar), Liberia, the US and what's that other country? Oh yeah, that's also the US.

3. Ugly but I didn't realize how pointless this map was until you pointed out its pointlessness. Or maybe I didn't care enough to think about it.

4. I'm OK with number 4. Despite its historical problems it still might help someone make sense of something. Like that I didn't realize how close I live to Morocco.

5. Marketing, cheerleading blah blah. Makes sense of the world if you want someone to buy stock in a certain company. B'gosh how do people even live in a place like Mongolia?

Overall very well done-you still got mad cartographic critiquing skillz.

pfly said...

Oh my. I don't know if I'm ready. These Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World were vaguely amusing at first, then mildly annoying as more and more people apparently thought I really needed to see them, then very annoying to the point where I began to rant at people who were apparently late to the bandwagon. ...but what the hell. I may be forced to comment on your comments, or make further comments (ie, rant). Ready? Good.

Where Google Street View is Available: Not only what you said, but zoomed out this far, some of the arguably most useful bits for potentially "making sense of the world" are invisible. Like the fact that there is almost no street view in Germany. Zoomed out the blobs seep in and cover Germany, but in fact there's very little street view there. Well, that alone doesn't help me understand the world. Knowing *why* might...a little. Even a zoomed-in map wouldn't tell me that. I think there's a German law, or something. There's also little to no street view in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and on down to Greece. Nor Belarus or Ukraine, and much less in Russia than this map would lead one to think. Misleading! Bad map! No biscuit!

Countries That Do Not Use the Metric System: What you said, and also: Either somewhat misleading or overly simplified. Perhaps if the map was titled "Countries That Have Officially Adopted the Metric System". Because many countries that have have only partially implemented it. Canada and the UK are obvious examples of partial metrification. And for that matter, the metric system has been widely used in the US for a long time in certain fields (science, military, quite a bit of retail, etc).

In short, this isn't a map of "countries that do not use the metric system" (and "countries that do", as the grey is obviously supposed to indicate)—I say here in the US as I decide whether to open this 2 liter bottle of seltzer or this 750 ml bottle of California wine while watching a British show in which people are ordering beer by the pint.

The only 22 Countries...Britain Has Not Invaded: You summed it up nicely. I admit I found this one somewhat interesting when I first saw it.

The Pangea one: Yes, attractive and unscientific. As art I like it. As far as helping me make sense of the world, barely. In your list of things that didn't exist when Pangea (Pangaea?) was around you could have also mentioned Iceland.

McDonald's Across the World: Ugh. Just no. I can't take it...and there are 35 *more*? Kill me now.

pfly said...

...I mean, um, can't wait for the next installment! ;-)

Michael5000 said...

Ya know, I almost tossed this concept out as too snarky and cumbersome, but folks keep telling me they like it. Very flattered to have Dug and pfly add their critical perspectives/jump onto the dogpile.