To put things into perspective, I need to start this review with an unusually long introduction. Anecdotal evidence of geographical illiteracy have not been amusing, but the latest results from the National Geographic/Roper Global Geographic Literacy Survey are just plain depressing.
The survey polled 3,250 participants in nine countries, asking them fairly basic questions. The participants were 18-24 years old — the promising generation — many of them with college degrees and presumably wide-open minds and concern about world events. They were asked to: identify countries and bodies of water on a world map; choose the correct answer for the two most populous countries; give the population of the United States; name the country where both the Taliban and al Qaeda were based.
Considering that there has been some attention paid to Afghanistan in the past two years, you might think that the last question was a no-brainer, especially for Americans who took the lion's share in restoring humane conditions in that country. Think again. Only 58% of the American participants chose the right answer. Surprisingly, all the other countries fared better on this one. So too on the U.S. population-range question, which offered pretty wild options (between 10 million and 50 million, 150 and 350 million, 500 and 750 million, 1 and 2 billion) to make the correct guess even easier. Every country did poorly on this one, but not nearly as poorly as the participants from the U.S. Only one out of four chose the correct answer.
Some questions almost had the correct answer winking out at the respondents. For example, the question about which international organization endorsed the euro as a currency included the following choices: NATO, World Trade Organization (WTO), European Union (EU), Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), North American Free Trade Organization (NAFTA). Still, only 44% of the U.S. respondents made the correct choice — way below the participants from Europe (above 90%) and even from Japan (84%), Canada (72%) and Mexico (64%).
Knowing the abysmal geographic literacy, it is strange to see as I write this column the current issue of Newsweek. It not only describes the disagreement between the U.S. and Turkish governments about a buffer zone in Northern Iraq in case of a war, but also provides many geographic references to distances, directions and cities in Iraq which make even the geographically literate readers' eye glaze over. The piece is really begging for a map, but there is none.
The same is true for the otherwise excellent free site Scholastic News. It has a very good and up-to-the-minute background information about Iraq — the land, its cities, people, economy, history and the possibility of war — but it does not have a map. You can get a glimpse of parts of the country in the section entitled "Troubled Region," which shows maps of nine countries in the region. Lo and behold, to make the situation even odder, the list does not include Iraq or Israel. No wonder that geographic literacy is so abysmal.
Luckily, the World Atlas makes good maps readily available. Maps.com is not a newcomer, but you may have seen its former name, Magellan Geographix, as a watermark or logo on the maps shown at CNN, National Geographic and a number of other Web sites. Maps.com has many services and products that require a subscription or a one-time payment, but it also has many excellent freebies, including the World Atlas.
This is one of the most substantial and most comprehensive collection of maps available free of charge. There are physical and political maps for 190 countries and the 50 U.S. states. This does not mean that there are "only" close to 500 maps. For many countries, there are more than these two types of maps, and for many countries the preview versions of the fee-based raster and vector maps also may be very useful.
For example, the preview of the raster map of Iraq is superb in legibility and in showing more details of the major neighboring countries. However, its weakness, which makes it inadequate for use by itself without the good political map, is that it does not show most of the largest cities, like Basrah, Mosul and Kirkuk, while oddly it does show Tikrit, which only makes it on to the map because Saddam Hussein was born there and it is now the site of three presidential palaces.
The proportions and dimensions of the maps in World Atlas are appropriate. You may take this for granted until you have seen massively distorted maps, such as the one of Hungary at the World Health Organization site, which stretches it horizontally, or the one by Sense Resource Center, an adoption agency, which senselessly squeezed the decent map it borrowed, or should I say, adopted.
While some of maps.com's maps do not identify important cities, I found the names on the maps correct in my test. For example, I did not find any misspellings for such error-prone Hungarian town names as Kiskunfélegyháza and several other tongue-twisters. Nor did I find such brutal misspellings as I did in atlases, such as Bankok instead of Bangkok in Wayzata's Multimedia World Factbook. Certainly there are arguable spellings — Nabulus versus Nablus in Israel, for example — which appears in these two formats not only on maps of different cartographers, but also in the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names for the city and the region. Romanized Arabic and Asian names are the sources of most inconsistencies in maps, but they can't be considered inaccurate.
For example, according to a quick Google search for the fourth largest city in Iraq, Arbil is the most common spelling variant (with 5,450 hits), followed by Irbil (4,570 hits) and Erbil (4,180 hits). (I added Iraq as a mandatory co-occurring word to each variant). Maps.com uses Arbil consistently. Getty's preference is Irbil, but it recognizes both Arbil and Erbil as variants. There are no international standards similar to those established in the U.S. by the Board of Geographic Names for U.S. Locations, so the benchmark is more a measure of consistency than accuracy.
The accurate placement of cities on a map is absolutely essential. Still, I have seen maps where cities were incredibly dislocated. In Webster's Interactive Encyclopedia, for example, the map of Hungary and (part of) Austria shows Vienna about 100 miles northwest and Budapest 100 miles northeast of their actual locations (and, for a bonus, it also misspells Bratislava).
A map of Australia on the Medio Magazine CD-ROM looks very good for those who are not familiar with the continent, but it has blatant flaws. Many coastal cities and towns are shifted inward from each direction, like Cairns, Normanton, Wyndham, Derby, Port Hedland and Broome. Port Augusta is dislocated hundreds of miles south — off of the continent, plunked in the ocean. You can compare this disastrous map with a very good map by Magellan Geographix from its earlier collection. Maps in the current World Atlas show no locational errors in the map of Australia or any other country I tested.
World Atlas' currency is also good, but not perfect. It is up-to-date in applying new names for most cities, showing both the new and the old spellings, as in the case of Yangon and Mombai. But it does not yet reflect the new preferred spelling of Kolkata for Calcutta, which was changed at the end of 2000. More importantly, it does not yet show the name of East Timor, which became independent in May 2002. It is correctly identified on the map from the CIA World Factbook.
The World Atlas does not take sides in hotly debated territorial claims, such as to which country Kashmir belongs. It simply states that the region is disputed between Pakistan and India. Mind you this may not be sufficient for selling maps in India, which banned Britannica a few years ago for not showing Kashmir as part of India.
The excellent typography helps by showing the full names, even in crowded regions that have been troublesome for cartographers, like Caribbean region, which maps.com handles very well. It is not as good as the awesome maps of Dorling Kindersley, but it is better than the Picture Atlas of the World by the National Geographic Society.
In dire cases when there are too many countries in a small region, maps.com also uses the technique of identifying countries with a number on the map and adding a caption box to show the corresponding countries, as seen on the Picture Atlas example above. But the World Atlas simply does it better. This can be seen on the overview map of Europe for Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It is a much better solution than squeezing the country names or abbreviations on the map itself, as happens in other atlases that try to squeeze not only the names of capitals, but also the major cities on to an overview map, making them illegible and badly overcrowded. This is the case with Wayzata Technology. Of course, it is still a better solution than dropping the name of a country when push comes to shove, as happened to Denmark in the TIME map of Europe.
Maps.com's World Atlas also uses color and contrast well, which deserves mention after having experienced the poor contrast in many atlases, including the Hammond Atlas or the (now luckily defunct) Intergo Atlas, which managed to use a background color that made every piece of text hard to read.
World Atlas identifies more cities, rivers, bays and mountains than the perennially ever-better CIA World Factbook and still usually keeps the maps very legible. It uses only four colors, but it is highly efficient in showing countries with a broad spread. Indonesia, for example, shares islands with other countries, such as Malaysia, Brunei and Papua New Guinea. It also shares islands with East Timor, which is, however, not yet reflected on its maps.
Overall, the World Atlas uses screen space extremely well, in sharp contrast with the disappointing default screen layout of the National Geographic World Atlas, which displays maps on a small part of the screen, forcing the user to constantly slide the map in its pane, as if looking at it through a peep-hole — if the map ever comes up on the overloaded server.
You can select a country by clicking on the map — a logical step, but given the survey results many users may not have the slightest idea which continent to click on for, say, the Middle East, as it is not identified on the entry map. The alphabetical list, however, does identify it so that the user can at least be in the ball park when looking for Quatar.
For the same ease of navigation, it is a good idea to list in the alphabetical menu the region known as Former USSR, even if most of those republics appear with only their name abbreviations because of space limitations. For good measure, you can also search by the name of a country.In addition to World Atlas, maps.com has a good (though not the most current) U.S. State Factbook. It offers population and economic data from the files of the Bureau of Census and the Department of Commerce, as well as important geographic parameters. Of course, political and topographic maps for each state are also available. Some well-designed quizzes and games, a limited gazetteer with an unusual pronunciation guide and a series of useful tutorials about maps round out the free offerings. The excellent set of interactive maps that show, for example, the events at the Pacific Theater as they progressed are among the best of this genre.