What you think you know about the shape of the world has likely been skewed by a visualization technique. Most of us grew up thinking that Africa is about the same size as Greenland. I believed this from being a child at school. I could go to my atlas and check the picture, and there it was printed and bound in all its bookish authority. Africa looked roughly the same size as Greenland. The fact is that in reality it isn’t – no way. Africa is vastly bigger, more than 14 times the area of Greenland. This misconception is an outcome of the how the maps were made. The world map that we see most often in atlases (and on the web still) is a modern version of the projection created by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. The map projection he drew became widely accepted as it was useful for nautical purposes (as evidenced by this article). Mercator was working around the fact that when the surface of a sphere is fitted onto a rectangle there is distortion. Mercator’s method of drawing the ball of the Earth on a flat plain (or ‘planisphere’) particularly distorts the land nearer the poles, stretching Greenland as it does. Despite this characteristic, Mercator’s approach has become near ubiquitous. But it’s simply one projection. There’s another profound, unintended implication of the geometry though, which is that the prevailing viewpoint that many people form of the world has been and is influenced by Mercator’s sizing. This world view lessens the global importance of Africa, while making the temperate zone countries (where Europe, the USA and Russia sit) more prominent. It could be argued that Mercator remained popular through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries because it reinforced cultural and political views of the time in the ‘developed’ world. The Mercator projection is a clear example of how visualizations need to be placed in a broader context to be understood well. The viewer is a reader, and needs to be able to unpack and consider who created a visual and for what purpose. Map distortion is still a controversial issue. Here in the UK the main map the BBC uses in its nightly TV weather forecasts is a cause of debate, which shows that even in an age of satellite imagery editorial choices still reflect bias. The virtual camera angle selected by the London-based BBC has the effect of making the North of England and Scotland appear smaller than they actually are. The map projection reduces the perceived north-south length of Scotland by about a third, while making the South of England appear much larger. Now, you may say that most of the UK population lives in South Eastern England, so that makes sense, right? No, not really. About a third of the UK’s total population lives in the South East of England (see UK map scaled by population). Tellingly though it’s where the key political power structures are located, reflecting the UK’s atypical tendency towards centralization. Geographic maps should never be taken at face value, there’s likely a story being told, or an opinion being expressed, couched in the visual language of cartography. Qlik Business Analytics Strategist, has been speaking, writing and advising organizations on BI and analytics worldwide for decades, both as a software professional and as a Gartner analyst. My first Qlik Sense app came about because I’m a huge music fan, so I got hold of the UK pop chart data going back to 1952 and built an app to explore that. Source.