Infographic of the Day: A Strange, Brilliant Map Of The World’s Population

In Fathom’s latest visualization, bigger graphical elements mean fewer people. Wait, what?

Infographic of the Day: A Strange, Brilliant Map Of The World’s Population

In the visual syntax of infographics and maps, bigger equals… well, bigger. Large dots on a map or bars in a chart correspond to a proportionally large quantity of stuff being visualized–like, for instance, the number of people living in a certain geographic area. But its new visualization of world population density called “Dencity,” Fathom turns this basic graphic language on its head. What if bigger dots on a map signified fewer people, sparsely scattered? As it turns out, this counterintuitive approach makes brilliant sense.

Fathom, the information-visualization firm cofounded by Processing inventor Ben Fry, created “Dencity” in response to a somewhat ambivalent milestone: the world’s population surpassing 7 billion souls. What does this look like, really? Well, it looks like a #$*&load of people squished into a relatively few urbanized patches of earth, and a whole lot fewer people spread thinly over everywhere else. Density, as the infographic’s title rightly implies, is the real story here–not absolute quantity.

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In that light, Fathom’s choice to represent larger quantities (the aforementioned #$*&load of people) with smaller graphical elements (smaller, brighter circles on the map) ingeniously captures the narrative of “what seven billion looks like.” In densely populated parts of the world, every person has less space–just like each of those small dots takes up less room. But by being packed tighter, they’re also brighter–literally (the light-colored small dots visually jump out of the map, just like glowing cities do in a satellite photograph). The smaller graphics also invite you to zoom in on those dense areas to really get a good look at what’s going on. After all, it makes sense to look at human activity in Beijing on a scale of meters, not hundreds of kilometers.

Conversely, huge patches of barely settled land–like Saharan Africa, northern Asia, and the Australian interior–don’t need that kind of detail to tell the same story. A zoomed-out perspective of darker-hued, larger dots (signifying the correspondingly less dense population) does just fine. And they recede into the background of Fathom’s map, just like the real human presence in those parts of the world does in comparison to denser areas.

This reversed graphic language makes Fathom’s map visually rich–the information-carrying graphic elements fill up the entire map, instead of clustering in pockets surrounded by neutral negative space. But it’s also narratively richer, as well. Glancing at the entire map at once tells a different story than peering closely at one of those densely packed yellow and orange clusters. No wonder Fathom is selling “Dencity” as a gorgeous poster: This is an infographic you won’t get bored of looking at on your wall anytime soon.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.



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