05
Jul
09

They’re Watching Us

Today’s effort comes from Privacy International, a human rights watchdog…

2007 Surveillance States

Found at http://www.privacyinternational.org. No author given.

Two words: Mercator Projection.

See, back in the 16th century, this guy invented a map projection that helped make it easy to navigate at sea. And, if you happen to be making a nautical chart of the North Sea, this is probably a good projection to use. If you’re making a map of roughly anything else*, it’s a terrible choice (though this doesn’t stop Google Maps from using it). It distorts sizes greatly as you move away from the equator. See Brazil? Brazil is four times larger than Greenland, in reality. On a Mercator, Greenland looks like it could eat Brazil. There are also political arguments against using it as well, on account of the fact that it makes Europe and North America look larger, relative to Africa and South America, than they really are. Anyway, point being, there are many other better options for a simple world thematic map.

*Yes, there are a few legitimate uses for Mercator, but this is definitely not one of them.

Colors: Looking for countries that fit in the first three categories (“Consistently upholds human rights” / “Significant protections and safeguards” / “Adequate safeguards against abuse”)? They’re not on this map. Sorry, thanks for playing along with our legend! What there is, though, is Greece. Which is shaded a color that doesn’t actually appear in the legend. If you click on the picture you can see the table with the scores each country was given, and it’s clear there that Greece was supposed to be in the third-lowest category.

When you’re ranking countries according to a particular data set, such as how surveillance-y they are, you want to use colors that are likewise ranked, to visually show that these places can be ordered from most to least. Look quickly at North and South America and tell me, between Canada, Brazil, and the US, which is worse? It’s pretty hard to see any sort of natural arrangement there. Brazil is in red. Red is danger, right? But maybe the black indicates the dark and insidious police state that is the US. My favorite, though, is the bright magenta in places like France and India. What’s a good color to use that indicates that something is worse than red-level, but not as bad as black-level surveillance? That is the answer that someone came up with. Today’s surveillance alert level is bright magenta.

Also, I’m being a bit generous in interpretation, because the magenta in the legend doesn’t match the magenta on the map. The reds don’t really match, either. So, if you’re keeping score at home, a total of two out of the seven colors in the legend actually appear on the map. And I didn’t check the yellow that closely.

Grey probably means no data. But it’s probably dangerous to make assumptions about what colors mean on this map.

One nice thing: The colors are set such that the worst offenders, in black, are one of the things that stand out the most. Though, they are tied visually with the fourth-worst offenders, in yellow.

(Someone here in my lab disagrees with me on the above – given that there is a visual tie, the black doesn’t stand out sufficiently)

One alternate nice thing: It’s nice that there are insets to help clarify cramped regions.

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10 Responses to “They’re Watching Us”


  1. 1 nasroldagreat
    5th July, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    nice article..really have a lot of information

  2. 2 Daniel
    6th July, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I spent most of a recent weekend in airports and, as a result, heard frequent reminders that the national terror alert level is ‘orange’. Umm…does that mean I should be watching out for oompa-loompas? Or maybe pumpkins? Not particularly helpful. A quick google search shows that the levels go Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange, Red. Each of these has a term attached to it (Low, Guarded, Elevated, High, Severe) which I find much more useful, but still somewhat vague. For example, is high worse than elevated? Ultimately, this system and the map above suffer from trying to encode ordinal data with something that is more inherently categorical.

  3. 10th July, 2009 at 1:30 am

    This reminds me of my favorite West Wing episode where CJ is told about how Mercator maps promote social inequality and should be replaced by the Peters projection. It’s available on Youtube.

  4. 10th July, 2009 at 1:31 am

    PS. Could you change your stylesheet so links in the comments are visible?

  5. 5 Ian
    11th December, 2009 at 8:48 am

    What’s going on in Indochina? Is my eyesight so weak or are Vietnam and Laos under water?

  6. 6 Ian
    11th December, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Oh, and one other thing: Black has the obvious disadvantage that you sometimes can’t really distinguish two neighbouring countries. Or can you see the border between Russia and China, or Thailand and Malaysia?

  7. 4th June, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I loved your critique, very amusing.

    One problem you omitted — easy to do when there are so many — “Map of …”

    If you have to tell readers that “this is a map” by including the word “map” in the title, it’s probably a bad map.


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