New Map in the News Not Revolutionary, Merely Cool

Hi. So this shit is happening again. We’ve learned nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not long ago in early August, three cartographers dropped a cool new map projection called Equal Earth into the world’s lap and it seemed to me a sufficiently arcane thing that it wouldn’t leak out of Cartography Twitter. But it has and the reporting has been predictably lackluster.

Newsweek

Yes, Equal Earth is a spiffy new map projection and! trust me! it’s really neat but lemme dampen the breathless media rapture:

Blah blah blah peeling an orange blah blah blah that fucking episode of West Wing blah blah blah THERE IS NOT, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN NOR WILL THERE EVER BE A PERFECT 2D MAP OF THE WORLD AND THAT INCLUDES THE LAST ONE. IT IS TOPOLOGICALLY, MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE AND IT WILL NOT HAPPEN PRIOR TO THE CATASTROPHIC UNRAVELING OF THE SPACE TIME CONTINUUM AT WHICH TIME/SPACE THE AESTHETIC QUALITY OF SOME SMALL SCALE MAPS WILL NOT BE AMONG YOUR MOST PRESSING CONCERNS. SHOULD THE PERFECT PROJECTION APPEAR (which it won’t) YOUR PUNY THREE DIMENSIONAL BRAIN WILL EXPLODE LIKE A SQUARE MEETING A SPHERE FOR THE FIRST TIME.

Despite spawning terrible headlines itself, the Equal Earth projection was actually inspired by terrible media coverage of maps. Boston Public Schools somewhat infamously banned the use of the Mercator Projection throughout the school system last year in an act that drew eye-rolls and ire of many cartographers. From the published Equal Earth submission paper:

The media reporting by major national and international news outlets, such as The Guardian (Walters 2017), The Huffington Post (Workneh 2017), National Public Radio (Dwyer 2017)orNewsweek (Williams 2017), largely focused on these all-too-familiar themes: the Mercator projection is bad for world maps because it grossly enlarges the high-latitude regions at the expense of the tropics (true); nowadays, the Mercator projection is still the standard for making world maps (false); and only maps using the equal-area Gall-Peters projection can right this wrong (false) (Sriskandarajah 2003, Vujakovic 2003, Monmonier 2004).
The reaction among cartographers to this announcement, and to others like it in years past, was predictable: frustration (Vujakovic 2003, Monmonier 2004, Crowe 2017, Giaimo 2017, Mahnken 2017). It is noteworthy that most of the news stories did not publish comments from professional cartographers. Our message –that Gall-Peters is not the only equal-area projection –was not getting through. We searched for alternative equal-area map projections for world maps, but could not find any that met all our aesthetic criteria. Hence the idea was born to create a new projection that would have more ‘eye appeal’compared to existing equal-area projec- tions and to give it the catchy name Equal Earth.

In other words: this was primarily an aesthetic and marketing innovation aimed at providing alternatives to the Gall Peters map to prove that there is no One True Map. This should have been an obvious point to make because surely a OTM wouldn’t be this ugly:

Gall Peters. Barf.

The new projection to rival Gall-Peters had to be equal area but it also had to be very good in other ways:

  • It would be an equal-area update of the Robinson map so that it would be familiar to most audiences.
  • It would remind people that the Earth is round by using curved rather than rectangular sides.
  • All lines of latitude should be parallel and even and the lines of longitude evenly spaced.
  • The code should be simple enough that your CPU won’t self destruct trying to render it.

Those may be aesthetic requirements and Equal Earth may be primarily an aesthetic innovation but it’s also an aesthetic innovation that involved a shit-ton of math. Geomatics and the science of creating ever more sophisticated mathematical models of a lumpy planet are basically magic to me. They take work and they take skill and it took three very talented professionals to make an equal area map that is as pretty as the Equal Earth map. I don’t pretend to understand all of it. Or even much of it.

An actual figure from the Equal Earth submission paper.

I can play around with projections a little bit and do some funky things with QGIS though ultimately I rely on others to do the work of making these definitions available for mere mortal cartographers like myself. As a user, I’m interested in what the projection is good for and how this projection will fit into the work of cartographers today. Since Equal Earth is based on the Robinson Projection, let’s start there.

Robinson is a psuedocylindrical map (basically a tweaked Mercator Projection) that does a pretty god job of balancing area, direction and distance. Because of some distortion it is best used for small scale (large extent) maps of the whole world- it’s not for a projection for the state of Oregon or Phnom Penh because when zoomed in that far you’d really notice the deviations. The directions between places is also distorted enough that you shouldn’t use it for surveying or negotiating national borders. The Equal Earth projection is just like that only it has finagled its way into a true equal area map without making the continents totally misshapen and unfamiliar like Gall-Peters. So how does it look?

Not that different? Equal Earth is still really similar to the Robinson. Neither have accurate lines of direction so airline pilots will not navigate with them. They use some complicated math and probably won’t render map tiles well so web maps probably won’t use it. You will probably never see it outside the context of an artistic representation of global data like this:

Which means you will probably have a difficult time distinguishing it from a Robinson or a Winkel III and you probably won’t care unless you start pressing a ruler up against your computer screen to see how long Madagascar REALLY is. Equal Earth is equal area which is great. It’s pretty, which is great. I probably won’t notice it in the wild. It’s not a revolution. It’s still not perfect. Nothing is. Nothing will be. I’m going to be loading this bad boy into my next map. The rest of you can proceed with your lives.


To quickly return to the purpose of the new projection, what’s a more radical thing to do to show people that there is no One True Map? Well, first you can get them to read this thing I wrote a couple years ago. Then make a map and….

  • flip it upside down! Of course a globe doesn’t have an up or down.
  • Or more radically, rotate it 90 degrees!

All of those maps are valid. In some way. There are purposes for which they might be adequate and purposes for which they would be very stupid. They tell a small chunk of Truth at the expense of reality. We already have a perfect 1:1 map of the world that is 100% accurate but it’s pretty big, it’s full of rocks and you can’t put it in your hand. Well, Raffi can. Maps are useful BECAUSE they lie, not in spite of that fact. Equal Earth has just figured out a new way to lie a little less when telling some geographic stories in a way marginally better than one of the many ways that geographers have been doing it for centuries.

There’s one big question left: If there is no OTM and there are so many ways that a map can look, how do we tell if a map is good or not? In my post about a certain New York Times election map, I offer the principle measuring stick by which to gauge a map’s quality: how well did it do the thing that the author set out to do? Aesthetically and technically, I love the Equal Earth projection and I can’t wait to use it but the objective that its authors stated was to help shift the popular news narrative about how maps work and how they are fundamentally human artifacts that express our biases both conscious and unconscious and therefore are not objective or wholly scientific- there is no One True Map. In a cruel irony, this map seems to have been misinterpreted and misunderstood in the popular imagination just as badly as others in the past as people are trying to call it the new One True Map. In that lone respect, it fails miserably.