Ever since Gerardus Mercator created his iconic map of the world in 1569—the one that first enabled ships to navigate at sea without getting lost—people have been drawing maps using the same fundamental concept of conveying physical space.
Cartographers have gotten more sophisticated over time. They’ve figured out how to distort that space, how to portray that Massachusetts has more electoral votes than Wyoming, or that countries closer to the equator are larger than we think. But for hundreds of years, we’ve been tethered to the idea of looking at the world through the shape of its land. Now that there’s virtually none of that left to explore and discover, it may be time to start thinking about our world in new visual ways: not according to physical space, but to how people are distributed across it, and what their presence can tell us about global poverty, health inequality, environmental impacts, and geopolitics.
Take a look at this map of the world:
It’s a gridded population cartogram on which areas containing lots of people are stretched in size, while sparsely populated places like the Himalayan Mountains are minimized to almost nothing. This video, from Benjamin D. Hennig, animates what it looks like when we transform our understanding of the world according to its land to a picture, instead, of its people.
"The background for this map is that there are different spaces that we live in," says Hennig, a research associate with the Social and Spatial Inequalities Group at the University of Sheffield in England. "There are social spaces that determine our lives much more than the actual physical space."
When we turn to maps to understand people, we’re usually looking at a lot of wasted space. About 95% of the world’s population lives on 10% of the land. That means that 90% of land area shown on a typical map isn’t telling us anything about human populations, how they live, or what their challenges are. If you wanted to try to represent, say, the population of the world that lives on less than a dollar a day, you’d have a hard time cramming all that information on to Mercator’s map.
"With these maps," Hennig says, "I try to create those social spaces and give them adequate representation."
The genius of Hennig’s cartograms is that they distort space while retaining some semblance to the world as we recognize it. And so Hennig can combine a better understanding of where people really live (down to the neighborhood level) with more traditional maps of, for instance, the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Here, he takes one such map from Conservation International and turns it into a gridded population cartogram that hints at the influence of human populations on threatened ecosystems (densely populated parts of Brazil, shown here, sit atop the threatened Atlantic Forest).
"We’re not telling new stories in terms of knowledge," Hennig says, "but we’re trying to give them a new shape."
He can apply this same mapping tactic to global infant mortality trends, refugee movement, or landmine casualties (see the slide show above). And this is all possible thanks to the ever more fine-grained data we now collect about our planet and the people on it, and to the computers now capable of illustrating it (Hennig’s cartograms are powered by an algorithm developed by physicists).
"The notion that a picture is worth a thousand words probably applies similarly to a map," Hennig says. "If you think of policy-makers, decision-makers, politicians—these groups that simply don’t have time to read through scientific reports of hundreds or thousands of pages—if you put a few key visuals in, this will be what they’re looking at."
He hopes the general public can now visualize complex global issues this way, too. We’re not born, after all, with the ability to read even maps like Mercator’s. We learn how to do that in school, or within our families. And so Hennig would like to think that we could equally learn how to view population cartograms like these until they—and their insights—start to seem just as familiar.