When maps lie, and why it matters

Mapfrappe Australia vs United States.

We are living a lie. The maps are all wrong. They are an evil conspiracy designed to keep Europe and the USA feeling good about themselves.

The World is round and maps are flat. Taking a round thing and translating it into two dimensions turns out to be fraught with mathematical and political problems.

The classic map is a Mercator projection view of the World. How it is achieved is the mathematical part of the equation. The politics come into it when you realise that it’s impact is to make Africa and Asia look a lot smaller than they really are and exaggerate the size of Europe and America (well Greenland too, but that part doesn’t seem to worry anyone so much). I started digging into this when I came across a great website that superimposes the land-masses as they really are. In the classic map Europe and Australia look about the same size. In reality the Great Barrier Reef alone could stretch from Amsterdam to the tip of Italy.

Gall–Peters projection. Image: Strebe / Wikipedia under CC.

Without buying into the rich-poor politics of the thing, this perhaps helps explain why Americans tend to think their country is huge and why Europeans so often misinterpret driving distances in Australia. It also helps understand a disparity in understanding of issues like  infrastructure spending when you compare Europe to Australia. We have a huge expanse of space to cover with taxation from only a few people. I know we all know that, but it’s hard to really understand it when looking at a map which makes our country look smaller than it really is.

Similarly, it’s harder to grasp the impact of climate, for example, when the standard map has us incorrectly squished up towards the centre-line of the map.

There have been many attempts to come up with a better way of presenting a World map. The Gall-Peters projection is one of the most famous, partly because it became heavily entangled in issues of social justice politics and partly because it featured in an episode of The West Wing. Even it, however, isn’t entirely accurate. The core problem is that the minute you try to spread the three-dimensional globe onto a two-dimensional surface you’re entering the realm of mathematical representations. And this is entirely compounded by human nature – we want our maps on paper to be neat rectangles (this is a proven fact apparently).

MAPfrappe WA vs Europe.

Enter modern technology. Google Earth allows us to see a representation of the Earth as a globe and so it can avoid the need to peel the orange as it were. MAPFrappe is a Google Maps mashup that lets anyone outline an area on one Google Map, and compare that area on another Google Map. The results for Australia are fascinating.

The West Wing episode describes the whole underlying issue of the standard map misrepresenting the world better than I ever could:

Josh Lyman: “Woah, Woah, Relative size is one thing. But you’re telling me Germany isn’t where we think it is?
Cartographer: “Nothing’s where you think it is.”
[Introduces Peters projection map]
CJ: “What he hell is that?”
Cartographer: “It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”

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