Your Map is all Wrong

The most popular maps are highly distorted and incorporate biases that influence consumer behaviour

Google Maps is the 4th most downloaded app of all time on iTunes, but despite being released in 2005, it is based on a map projection created nearly 450 years ago by Flemish cartographer (map maker) Gerardus Mercator. All map projections need to make distortions to allow the spherical, 3D world to be represented on a flat sheet of paper, Which distortions cartographers make (e.g. which way is up) reveal internal biases and affect how we see the world.

Google Maps zoomed all the way out showing the Mercator Projection (Source: Google Maps)

Google Maps zoomed all the way out showing the Mercator Projection (Source: Google Maps)

It’s a matter of size

The Mercator projection works by stretching the earth out into the shape of a cylinder and then unrolling it. The projection became popular because it the lines of longitude are straight, parallel and at 90 degrees to the lines of latitude, which made life easier for navigators on ships. The tradeoff is that land masses get progressively more stretched out the further they are from the equator. This means that the countries of the northern hemisphere look much larger than they really are. For example, the Mercator projection makes Greenland look roughly the same size as Africa, whereas it is barely the size of Algeria. It is also common practice to crop off the Antarctic, which shifts the equator to below the half-way line on the map and makes things even more Eurocentric. 

The reality is of course that China, India, the United States and most of Western and Eastern Europe could all fit into Africa at the same time.

The True Size of Africa (Source: Daily Mail)

The True Size of Africa (Source: Daily Mail)

Which way is up?

On 7 December 1972 astronauts on Apollo 17 took a photo of the earth as they made their way to the moon. The so-called “Blue Marble” picture has become one of the most widely distributed images of all time. What no one tells you is that the image fell victim to the 1970s version of photoshoping and was rotated so that north is on top. Which begs the question…why is north on top anyway?

The Blue Marble - the right way round (Source: By The original uploader was Latitude0116 at English Wikipedia (original upload date: 2006-08-01) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Blue Marble - the right way round (Source: By The original uploader was Latitude0116 at English Wikipedia (original upload date: 2006-08-01) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the earliest Egyptian, Chinese and Arab maps all show south at the top, while early European tradition was to put east on top. North’s position at the top of the map was only really secured at the beginning of the 16th century when modern cartographers like Mercator used the printing press to mass-produce large, beautiful maps based on those of the Hellenic cartographer Ptolemy. Ptolemy lived in Alexandria in Egypt in the second century AD. He knew the shape and approximate size of the earth and we can only presume that he preferred being in the top half.

Ptolemy wasn’t the only one to think that its better to be in the top than the bottom. In popular culture being “up” is perceived as better than being “down”. These biases affect consumer behaviour. Modern marketing research has shown that consumers associate a higher cost with a northerly direction although the advantage is that consumers were more likely to visit a shop in a southern location because they perceive travel southwards (“downhill”) to be cheaper. The good news is that these biases were reversed when consumers were shown a map with a south-up orientation.

Time for some new maps

MacArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World (Source: Al Jazeera)

MacArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World (Source: Al Jazeera)

It is of course total arbitrary which direction is up on a map. On Australia Day in 1979, Stuart MacArthur became tired of his nation being referred to at the “Land Downunder” and issued “MacArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World”. Although this map takes a south-up projection, its creator made the unfortunate error of placing Australia at the centre of the map.

To correct this and many other cartographic errors we are pleased to release the Louwdown-modified Gall-Peters Projection. The Gall-Peters projection comes closer to showing that land mass in the “South” is nearly twice as big as in the “North”. We simply turn it the right way round!

The Louwdown Modified Gall-Peters Projection (Modified from: By Strebe - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=161152420

The Louwdown Modified Gall-Peters Projection (Modified from: By Strebe - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=161152420

DR ANDREW LOUW CFA

(Sources: Wikipedia, Al Jazeera, Business Insider, Nelson and Simmons 2009, flourish.org, Daily Mail)