How to distort reality

Posted by: Jane Davidson & Patricia Rogers


What’s not to love about the great ideas for data visualization that have taken evaluation by storm over the past few years? Awesome!

Perhaps not the most visually stunning example, but here’s Google Analytics’ map of where Genuine Evaluation’s 28,470 visits came from last year (2013). Just a few more countries to hit before we have the whole planet covered!

2013 visits to (total 28.470)

In today’s post, we explore how one particular representation of a reality we all live on (literally!) has distorted the way we view the world for hundreds of years. Yes, really!

But first, a Pop Quiz!

You may find the above map useful as a reference for this little exercise.

Visualize the answers before scrolling down …

  1. How big is Alaska compared to the contiguous US states (“the mainland”)?
  2. How big is Africa compared with (a) the United States? (b) China? (c) India? (d) the biggest countries in Western Europe?
  3. How big is Australia compared with (a) the United States? (b) the UK? (c) Germany? (d) Greenland?
  4. How big is New Zealand compared with (a) the United States? (b) Germany?

Do you have pictures of these in your mind’s eye? Good! Read on …

A reality check

Way back when we kicked off the Genuine Evaluation blog, we promised to bring you an international view of evaluation from a distinctly Southern Hemisphere perspective. In that spirit, see if any of these reality checks surprise you. And take a look back at the Google map above to see how that differs from reality.


The contiguous states of the USA are 4.7 times bigger than Alaska – but look at the Google map!



Africa is actually bigger in area than China, the USA, India, Japan, and all of Europe combined!

[There’s been considerable discussion of this image of Africa and some suggested alternatives in the Economist]




Australia is 3.6 times the size of Greenland




Germany is 1.3 times the size of New Zealand


Why this really does matter

How does perception of size distort our thinking and even influence international policy? This one will make you think …

Check out this short video clip from US TV series The West Wing … [if you are on the email feed, access the post on the Genuine Evaluation site to watch this.]

Just as we need to think hard about how the words we use to frame evaluation findings can either distort or illuminate the underlying realities, so too do we have to think about the same thing when it comes to dataviz and basically any way we represent reality.

What other examples can you think of for “Reality Representation Epic Fails”? Nominate one in the Comments section of this post (on the Genuine Evaluation site)!


3 comments to How to distort reality

  • Salaam to Jane! & Patricia!

    You illuminate the underlying realities!

    Thanks again


  • Ruth

    Great examples. If you haven’t seen it, there’s a new minimally distorted projection from a Canadian, — see, in particular, the Pacific View version with Australia and New Zealand in the middle (though, sadly, separated).

  • Geoff Howse

    Comparative analysis (whether for evaluation or any other purpose)needs a common basis for comparison – the “map” used to display Genuine Evaluation contacts is distorted because Cananda, Alaska and Russian Federation are at higher latitudes than most of the southern hemisphere countries. Mapping requires care before presentation!

    Would a better measure of GE access/participation be number of hits/contacts per XX population. Access to the internet (and in many countries access to electricity and technology) would also affect comparisons of “participation”. Best wishes for 2014!