Monday, February 10, 2014

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

Michael5000 continues his grouchy exegesis of that ubiquitous internet atlas of our times, Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World.

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

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.

21. "World Map of Vegetation on Earth"

Technical Merit: Not to be confused with a "World Map of Vegetation on Mars" or a "Local Map of Vegetation on Earth."  No, this is a world map of Earth.

But is it really a map?  I'd say sure, close enough, but if you wanted to get all "picky-picky" (I was recently accused of just this, if you can believe it) this might be less of a "map" than a "satellite image."  The line between the two things gets really blurry.  If you were saying "it ain't a map," you would point out that it is just a representation of what was more or less photographed from way up high, and hasn't been abstracted into the data-representing symbols that characterize proper cartography.  But then, the logical countermove is to point out that "more or less photographed" satellite imagery is a hell of a long way from a simple photograph.  Satellite images like this are mosaics obtained from multiple satellite passes (which allows editing out the cloud cover) in which the earth's surface is sensed with at all sorts of points in the spectrum, not just the little band that represents visible light.  Satellites send a raft of numerical data back to the home planet, and that data can be represented with whatever colors the guy at the console chooses.  It would be just as easy and logical, although a lot less intuitive, to render this vegetation map-thing on a scale of orange to purple, instead of tan to dark green.

It wouldn't be as pretty, though.

Artistic Merit: It's pretty!

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Sure.  Where things grow and where they don't is important stuff.  This image is a good jumping off point either to think about why the global pattern of world vegetation is the way it is, or to go in the other direction and think about how this pattern has in turn shaped the global map of world human behavior.

22. "Average Age of First Sexual Intercouse by Country"

Technical Merit: As a map, it is unremarkable but unobjectionable, except for its careless implication that, for countries that they don't have data for, the answer must be "19 years."

As for content, the map betrays a charming faith that, if you were to go around the world asking people about their early sexual behavior, they would tell you the truth.  

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": This a map of patently suspect data that can be used to made sweeping generalizations about the world.  That's one way of making sense of it, I suppose.

23. "If the World's Population Lived in One City"

Technical Merit: This is kind of interesting, but it doesn't have the rhetorical punch that the makers were looking for.  There are too many mental operations involved.  You have to be able to visualize Singapore, and then visualize Singapore in Texas, and -- wait, no, Houston is in Texas -- no, never mind -- and then Singapore stretches out over Texas and Louisiana and Oklahoma too!  Singapore is huge!  And everybody in the world lives there!  Hey, Singapore is bigger than Paris!  No, wait....

Then, there's the unavoidable wrongness.  Probably the cartographer here used city limit data, which works pretty well on an island like Singapore, but not in the other instances.  New York, San Fransisco, and London are indeed quite compact within their city limits, but they are also the cores of great sprawling swathes of suburb stretching over the horizon over every land surface available.  Count those in, as why would you not -- they are part of the social and economic unit of the city, even if not united under the same local administration -- and they'll look a lot more like Houston than like Singapore.  Or rather, the amount of land area they'd take up if everyone in the world lived in a single city that had their same density level would... crap, how does that work again?

Artistic Merit: Simple, but clean and attractive.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Maybe a little?

24. "The Number of Researchers per Million Inhabitants Around the World"

Technical Merit: Appears to have been made with the same kit software as Map #22.  Shares the same problem of blurring its "no data" category with points on the data scale.  That's to say, "no data" looks like 500 researchers per million or so, probably a lowball for a number of countries.  Also, what's the business with "FTE" and "HC" doing in the legend?

The scale of light blue to dark blue is fine from a data display perspective.  From a common-sense perspective, how could you not notice that in makes 3/4 of the world sink into the oceans and disappear?

Again, the prolix titles attached by the "Forty Maps" people crack me up.  "Around the World," you say?  And I thought this was a map of Spain alone!

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Sure, this is a legitimately important statistic with a clear regional pattern.  Sustained.

25. Worldwide Map of Oil Import and Export Flows

Technical Merit: Forget those regional maps of oil import and export flows, my friend.  This one is WORLDWIDE!

This map wants me want to play a boardgame.  It looks fun.

But my lord, what a poor map. See how those red arrows are exactly the same width?  What that tells your eye is that these import and export flows are all of the same magnitude.  The two going from Africa to the United States, for instance, are labelled 68.3 and 18.4 million tonnes apiece.  That's to say, one of those flows is four times bigger than the other.  Unless you have some very strong reason not to, you ought to make its line four times thicker than the other.  It is an elemental element of cartography as using a little star to mark the capital, and could be done with great ease using any sophisticated modern graphics suite, such as the "Insert Shape" function in Microsoft Word.

Hey, wait!  Two flows going from Africa to the United States?!?  Since you very clearly delineated your regions in the key on the lower left, why are there two different arrows going from Africa to the United States.  Because -- this is clear after closer study -- you are clearly working with units smaller than the ones you so neatly defined.  "Africa" blends together North Africa and West/Central Africa; "Europe and Eurasia" mixes North Sea North and Western Europe, Central Europe, and Russia; "Asia Pacific," an unusually lame regional name, mixes together half a dozen places.  Some places are given little circles, some places are not.  This might be just the whim or the cartographer, or where she remembered to put them, or it might mean something, or it might be places where you can place your token at the start if you are using this map to play a board game.

My point is, if a map is going to represent the trade flows between eight regions, it needs to let you know where those eight regions are.  If it's going to represent the trade flows between twenty-something regions, same deal.  If it says "here are the eight regions, and here are a bunch of arrows between twenty-something discrete points on the map," then it is making you work too hard and undermining its own credibility.

Artistic Merit: This map looks very slick and professional as long as you aren't trying to read it.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Obviously a good map of world oil flows would help you make sense of the world economy.

Next Time Out: Maps 26 - 30


Morgan said...

I think we need to design a board game based off of 25.

Dug said...

OK - quickly without getting too wonky about these:

21. This is a map because the satellite data has been classified and georectified. wonk wonk wonk. My issue is that the background color is too similar to the lack of vegetation color. It's not awful but it does seem a bit like the vegetation of the Indian Ocean is similar to that of Arabia which just aint true.

22. Well the color scheme sort of works assuming that 19 is your average or median or whatever.

23. Use the same states! How am I supposed to compare Paris (no Texas) to London (no Miss.) Also Houston went on a suburban annexation binge. This was probably smart but makes them look like bigger land hogs than they really are. The city boundary is not really a fair metric for these.

24. It's OK I guess just doesn't really grab my interest. The color scheme doesn't help.

25. Unreadable! Yes all you said about arrow thicknesses but also the division of regions and coloring them as if that means anything. If you must color your regions make them different enough so it's not confusing that the Middle East is "greener" than Asia

Also, what are these places the arrows end up - Chicago's importing all of our oil from overseas?

pfly said...

Oh boy, more maps!

21. Pretty sure the first map is of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index data which, while arguably is "more or less photographed" if "photographed" means a "raft of numerical data" from "all sorts of points in the spectrum" like you say, involves quite a bit of data massaging besides mosaicking (I *think* that sentence is grammatical; also, points for "mosaicking" with a k?). Enough massaging that I might argue it is more a "map" than a "satellite image". The "more or less photographed" data has been rather "abstracted" into "the data-representing symbols that characterize proper cartography"—in this case a kinda biege-to-green gradient. Just saying. Also, I had a bunch of spare quotation marks lying around and needed to "use" them.

23. Right, a little confusing. One's eye is drawn to the maps first, or at least mine is. So I read the first one has "If the world's 6.9 billion people lived in one city, how large would that city be if it were as dense as...Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi." Um, and it says "Paris" there, so if the world's 6.9 billion were all in LA, AR, and MS, it would be as large as Paris. wait, I get it: the population of Paris is equal to Lousiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, which is as dense, hang on... Well, whatever they are mapping it's awfully convenient how it fits into whole state units—contiguous whole state units even. Unless they are rounding. They must be rounding, right? What was the question again?

Actually, once you wrap your head around it it is, as you put it, "kind of interesting". Funny, when I was typing up my wrong interpretations above I accidentally wrote it right before realizing I had made a mistake in trying to make a mistake.

24. Researchers, eh? Kinda vague. Like people who research obscure saints and post their finding to their blog? Okay okay, fine, I'll go to the source and see if there is more info. Ah yes: "Researchers are professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems and also in the management of the projects concerned." That clears it right up.

25. Tufte sheds a tear every time a map like this is made.