When distortion makes things clearer

Some distortion that El Guapo employed to make Hamburg into a circle


Distortion is usually a problem, whether it’s a terrible noise coming out of your speakers, or someone messing with the facts, or something that you can’t see at all clearly.

But there’s at least one case in which distortion can be used to improve understanding, or to make it possible for us to see things that are usually obscured.

Enter the cartogram, a map in which a different mapping variable is substituted for the usual land area. The one I’ll show you today substitutes population for that size dimension. The first map below is a projection of geography as we’re used to seeing it. The second map distorts each country to reflect the size of its population.



Very strange at first glance, right? The design helps us be more aware of just how many people are living in the countries whose borders are so familiar to us from years of staring at classroom maps.

That skinny little strip of Canada brings home the fact that for all its huge land area, there just aren’t that many Canadians. Australia, too, is barely a scrap. Russia is almost nonexistent; Indonesia has ballooned. Nigeria is giant, while there are other African nations that have nearly disappeared. Japan has spread wide.

Bangladesh, with a land area of almost 57,000 square miles, is home to almost 168 million people, a population density of about 3,000 people per square mile. On the normal map Bangladesh is a small shape on the eastern border of India—it’s a little bigger than Costa Rica. In the population cartogram it appears to be about the size of the UK.

El Guapo pointed out that somebody forgot to deflate Antarctica, “unless they’ve had an immigration wave that I haven’t heard about.” It’s probably just the latest example of “maps hardly ever do right by the polar regions.”

China and India are the biggest kids on the block, of course, bulging out on all sides. The map certainly makes clear which region of the world has the highest population density, and which areas are a whole lot of acres that are empty of people.

There are any number of other interesting questions we might ask about this map. The first one I want an answer to is, where can I find a much larger version so it’s easier to see all the details? I found the map used in an academic paper, but am not sure where to go to find a giant one.

In future posts I plan to feature different kinds of cartograms. If you have a favorite, be sure to let me know.

[Images: El Guapo, researchgate]



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