The Power of Comparison: Just How Big Is It?


If I said a country was 1594719800 metres squared it would mean a lot less to you than if I said it was about the size of Greater London (so long as you know about how big Greater London is). For this reason the media tend to report the extent of a flood in relation to the size of the Isle of Wight or Icebergs in relation to the size of Wales (or Luxembourg) so that we can imagine the extent and scale of a disaster or news story. Despite plenty of comment on how ridiculous such comparisons are, and a great website that will convert standard measurements into the fractions or multiples of the size of Wales, I am yet to see a mapped representation of our increasingly standard units of area. The one I produced above is not meant to be definitive, just a starting point to what I hope will be a new system to replace the metric measures we are used to*.

A much more effective alternative to simply stating an area in terms of its relative size to another area is of course to produce a map.  Geographically correct maps contain most of this information in the first place but they aren’t much good if you want to compare two things at either ends of the World or even the Solar System. With loads of mapping data online it is now easy to start shifting things around and laying them on top of each other in the same way the BBC’s How Big Really? website does.

This is fine if you want to compare a couple of things, but the map gets messy if you want to do more than that. For more complex comparisons you need to start with a fresh map (be careful of the projection) and shifting everything around to fit on a single page. Doing this can have a big impact as Kai Krause did with his “True Size of Africa” map.

Such maps can be particularly effective when comparing the size and shape of cities to each other…

…sparsely populated areas (UK Cities on top of the Highland region of Scotland by Alasdair Rae)…

…and their transport systems such as subways (by Neil Freeman)

and cycle hire schemes (by Oliver O’Brien).

I think they offer a new perspective on the world and use maps as more abstract forms of information visualisation, so lets hope we see them more often to accompany the usual descriptive “relative to Wales” statements.

*I don’t seriously mean this.