Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A world distorted by inequality


A cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty -- or at least that's what Wikipedia says. This dour definition leaves room for optimism: a clichéd phrase could in principle regain its vitality. Take the hackneyed expression, "A picture is worth a thousand words." In a recent article in PLoS Medicine, Danny Dorling has managed to transform lifeless data about global health inequalities into a set of maps that are both visually arresting and downright appalling.

The usual maps on distribution of disease and health indicators start with Mercator-type maps, and just stick data on the different countries, like this. Or they use colors to indicate differences in disease prevalence, like this. But Dorling and other collaborators on the Worldmapper project do something else: they have designed a computer program where different kinds of global health data are visualized on cartograms in which territories are drawn in proportion to the health value being mapped. You can compare the results with a map depicting the planet's current population, just to see how out of whack we globally are.

The result is a whole new world, or rather, worlds. For example, have a gander at Worldmapper Poster 214, which charts private health spending. The United States looks as if it has been inflated by a giantic bicycle pump, ready to burst, while all of Africa shrivels to a narrow strip of land, except for the bulbous tip of South Africa. The map on Physicians Working (Poster 219) is much in the same vein. You can make Africa reappear (and India!) by calling up the Early Neonatal Mortality map (Poster 260), where the Democratic Republic of Congo by far dwarfs the whole of North and Central America. In the map on malaria (Poster 229), it is Africa's turn to burst. For those who find the health-related maps depressing, there is always Toy Exports (Poster 57), and the worldmappers are planning to issue a Films Watched map in the future.

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