IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

One-of-a-kind maps put the world in perspective

Image: Metric systems
Are you a globe-trotter who loves ordering foot-long sandwiches? You better work on your conversion skills. This map highlights the three countries (in red) that don't use the metric system.Wikimedia Commons

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who use maps to get from Point A to Point B and those who use them to gain a better understanding of the world around them. 

If you’re among the latter, “40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World” on is must-see cartography.

Areas where Google Street View is available? Check. Driving orientation by country? Check. Likelihood of getting a drink, a cup of coffee or a Big Mac on your next trip? Check, check and check.

Clearly, these are not your grandfather’s Rand McNallys.


Instead, they’re visual manifestations of the fact that we live in an age in which data are being collected at an unprecedented pace and mapping software is increasingly user-friendly.

“We live in the Information Age,” said Rob Roth, professor of cartography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Information is being collected about literally everything all the time. The power of maps is when you take tidbits of that data and create narratives.”

The best maps “take the complexity of the world and simplify it into some sort of graphic that will either help you understand it or motivate you to do something differently,” he said.

An “upside-down” map with the Southern Hemisphere at the top, for example, is a vivid reminder that the convention that “north equals up” is just that while a map of countries that don’t use the metric system suggests that the only places you can hope to order a foot-long are the U.S., Liberia and Myanmar.

Others, like the one that depicts each country as its flag, are just pretty to look at.

Sometimes the stories that maps tell are more layered than they seem at first glance. To a cartographer, for example, a map depicting worldwide driving orientation isn’t just about which way to look before crossing the street.

“A lot of what I see in that map is the British Empire’s effect around the world,” said Mike Dobson, president of TeleMapics LLC, a geospatial consulting company in Laguna Hills, Calif.

Needless to say, the map showing the 22 countries that the British haven’t invaded parses the world quite differently.

Clearly, such maps are less about the practicalities of getting from Point A to Point B than graphically displaying data that the mapmaker found interesting. A map showing, say, the longest straight line you can sail on the planet won’t help you on your next cruise; on the other hand, a map showing the most violations of bribery by country might give you insight on whether or not to bring a few extra 20s.

But, for Dobson, even simple street maps have value beyond the uses most of us assign to them.

“When you drive, you only get this spiderweb view of the world; you only know about what’s on the roads you’re driving on,” he said. “Maps magically provide the bird’s-eye view — you’re above everything and can look down and see how things are related to each other.”

You can do that, at least to a limited degree, with a smartphone or tablet but there’s no escaping the fact that zooming out on a handheld device provides rapidly diminishing returns. Such devices are clearly better for routing than for random exploring or realizing how where you are relates to the world around you.

“Maps fill in the interstices of the knowledge we don’t get when we drive or walk around,” said Dobson. “They’re the key that opens the door to a broader landscape than you can find if you don’t use them.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.