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 In Current Events, Data Resources for Nonprofits, Data Storytelling, Experts, How To

Maps are one of those things that seem like science. Sure, boundaries change. I still have an atlas kicking around from when I was in school that includes the Soviet Union but not South Sudan. But still, current maps, we can take those at face value, right? They’re objective, static, and not at all misleading. Maps help us understand the world we live in.

Except when they don’t.

Misleading maps are a bigger problem than you might think. Generally, between objective, static, and easy to understand, we get to pick one, maybe two — but almost never all three. How can that be? We’ve literally got satellites in space looking down at the planet so we can see where things are. How can misleading maps be a thing?

Here’s how.


Maps Display Geography, Not Population

“The size of countries on geographical maps represents…well, the size of these countries in real life. The bigger a country on our map, the more space on planet earth it takes up.”

Lisa Charlotte Rost

OK, the size of countries on a map isn’t always accurately represented, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The more pressing problem is that humans are not equally spread out around the globe. The largest countries in the world by physical geography are:

  • Russia
  • Canada
  • China

The largest countries in the world by population are:

  • China
  • India
  • The United States

Not a lot of overlap there. If we’re telling stories about geography, this is not a problem. But most of the time, we’re telling stories about people. And using a map to convey our information might give the impression that a problem in Russia affects more people than a problem in India. This great chart from Datawrapper shows us which countries’ populations are accurately represented by their size compared to the rest of the world.


Many Maps Don’t Even Get Geography Right

The vast majority of global maps in use today rely on the Mercator Projection, a map developed in the 1500s to allow us to see our spherical planet on a flat map. The problem with the Mercator projection is that it’s not entirely accurate. Countries further from the equator appear to be much larger than countries close to the equator, even when they’re not. Talk about misleading maps!

Don’t think it could possibly make that big a difference? Check out The True Size Of and drag Indonesia onto your own country. Or take a look at the actual size of Africa.

Why does that matter if we’ve already agreed that geography doesn’t accurately represent population?

“In our society, we unconsciously equate size with importance and even power.”

Salvatore Natoli, Educational Affairs Director, AAG

So when countries look small on the map, we treat them as less important. That’s two strikes against the people living there — we view bigger areas as more important, and we’re literally using maps that make some countries look even smaller than they are.


People With Power Decide What Maps Look Like

The issue of misleading maps goes beyond visual bias and skewed scales. There is a level of power at play here (at least when using maps with political boundaries). And it’s not something we tend to think about. Who gets to decide where one territory ends and other starts? We tend to take borders for granted, but someone gets to draw those lines — and it isn’t always the people who live there.

“I am concerned about many of the issues raised by using maps and colonial ways of thinking when it comes to maps. For instance, who has the right to define where a particular territory ends, and another begins? Who should I speak to about such matters, anyway?”

Victor Temprano

Native Land offers one of the most amazing maps I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s a complex map of indigenous territories in colonial areas, and it demonstrates how the people with power have imposed their own boundaries on other groups.


Dealing with Misleading Maps

Looking for alternatives to misleading maps is not a new phenomenon. There are a wide range of alternatives to the Mercator Projection. (Unfortunately, many of them are not especially popular because we’re all used to the maps we have. Alternative — more accurate — maps look distorted to us.)

Datawrapper recently announced the addition of cartograms to their app. Cartograms allow us to make maps that are more representative of the areas they depict in terms of population. They are, however, not geographically representative, which means they can be hard to decipher at first. (We’re used to landmarking countries by size, position, or shape, all of which can change in a cartogram.)

Maps developed from an alternate perspective (like Victor’s, or this effort by the Amazon Conservation Team) can remind us that political boundaries are only one interpretation of what the world looks like. As with data analysis, stepping back and considering where you’re placing the locus of power can make a huge difference in what you see.

Do you need help with misleading maps? Are you trying to convey information on a map that is both accurate and understandable? Let the data visualization experts at Datassist help. Contact us now.

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