A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Africa is a lot bigger than you probably think.

That’s because the world map most people know best is the Mercator projection. Designed in the 16th century by a Flemish geographer, it remains the most commonly seen cartographic presentation of the earth’s surface, reprinted in geography textbooks, scientific papers, and shower curtains the world over. And it is famously distorted: North America and Europe are exaggerated well beyond their true proportions, while Africa and South America are substantially shrunken.

An early 19th century view of the world, in the Mercator projection. (Library of Congress)

For decades, political scientists, historians, and some cartographers have argued that the Mercator’s lopsided configuration misleads schoolchildren (and everybody) towards a colonialist view of the world, where the lands that are home to brown and black people matter less than those settled by whites. In 2017, Boston Public Schools took the unusual step of swapping out its Mercator maps for an alternative: the Gall-Peters projection, which equalizes the surface area of the continents and projects them as a flattened-out globe. “This is the start of a three-year effort to decolonize the curriculum in our public schools,” one district administrator told the Guardian.

But some cartographers were frustrated by that decision. The Gall-Peters projection isn’t the only equal earth map out there, and it has its own distortions—namely, the shapes are all wrong. Land masses are stretched horizontally near the poles, and vertically near the Equator.

So the three master cartographers—Bernhard Jenny, an associate professor of visualization at Australia’s Monash University; Tom Patterson, a retired cartographer for the U.S. National Park Service; and Bojan Savric, a software engineer on Esri’s projection team—decided to make something better. For the next school district that decides to switch maps, or literally anybody else, their brand-new Equal Earth projection is now available as a free (and gigantic!) download.

Equal Earth, compared to other map projections. (Esri)

While Gall-Peters attempts to show a three-dimensional globe on a two-dimensional, rectangular surface, Equal Earth embraces a more rounded shape at the top—so map readers get equalized continents, plus a sense of how the planet’s curvy shape distributes the land.

“We try to show the world as accurately as possible so that people can get the right impression,” Savric told me in September. “The maps you use emphasize the story you want to tell.”

A view of Central and South America, Equal Earth-style. (Equal Earth)

Forever indebted

Some 44 million Americans carry more than $1.4 trillion of student debt. They’re disproportionately black and Latino, with low and middle incomes. A lot of them are millennials, but many are over 40.

And as my CityLab colleague Claire Tran reported last week, student debt has a geography. A new interactive map from the Center for American Progress shows the most debt-pressured U.S. neighborhoods, breaking down the percent of income spent on student loan payments for each zip code across the nation.

Student debt, mapped in two major East Coast cities. (Mapping Student Debt)

Tran writes:

Researchers found that debt burden is highest in neighborhoods like southeast D.C., where employment rates are low, signaling how the student debt crisis is closely linked to the health of the labor market. Areas with low debt burden tend to have higher average loan balances, like in Manhattan, suggesting that those who take on more student loans already have the financial stability to pay it off more easily, or more access to high-paying jobs post-graduation.

One researcher believes that geographic disparities “are caused by more than just higher salaries, but also the stark racial and income segregation within cities,” she continues. Read the rest of her story here.

Mappy links

Party city? European capitals just keep getting richer and younger. (CityLab) ♦ Robots, get your act together: The autonomous car companies with the most California crashes. (Tech.Co) ♦ False earth: A strange account of why Google Earth stopped photographing one spot in Nevada. (Motherboard) ♦ Map porn alert, Baltimore streetcar edition. (Twitter) ♦ What’s left unlabeled: A new report says Google Maps is violating its human rights commitments by failing to recognize Palestine. (+972) ♦ Who’s rooting Blue? A silly infographic shows the geography of World Series fandom. (Yahoo)

Share MapLab with a friend—have them sign up here. See you after the midterms, and meanwhile, send me your election-related maps and ideas.


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