"The True Size" map lets you move countries around the globe, to show how big they really are

The US, China and India combined: still not quite as big as Africa. Image: The True Size.

The problem, you see, is that the earth isn't flat. This is generally considered to be a good thing: it means you can travel east from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, for example, without falling over the edge – but it's a right pain in the bum for cartographers.

That’s because the surface of a sphere cannot be turned into a flat sheet without some major distortions around the edges. The Mercator Projection is a case in point. Invented by a Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the 16th century, it re-imagines the earth as the surface of a cylinder.


When laid out flat, it’s pleasingly rectangular, and its eastern and western edges line up neatly. This projection is pretty useful if you're, say, trying to steer a ship across an ocean, so in its 446 years of life it's become one of the standard maps of the world.

But it's also done some odd things to our idea of how the world looks. In reality, lines of longitude converge at the poles; on the map, they're parallel. As a result, the closer you get to the poles, the more distorted the map becomes, and the bigger things look relative to their actual size.

Thus it is that we’ve all got stuck with maps of the world which show Africa (30.4mkm2) as basically the same size as Greenland (2.2mkm2), rather than a whole order of magnitude bigger.

Until now.

The True Size is a website that lets you compare the size of any nation or US state to other land masses, by allowing you to move them around to anywhere else on the map. So, when left right up in the north of the map, Greenland does indeed look huge:

Place it next to Africa though, and you can see it really isn't all that:

You can see how vast India is, next to uppity islands that conquered it:

Or how small even a big European nation like France would be in Africa:

Some US states are actually pretty big...

...but even the US looks tiny next to Africa. Africa is huge:

The site is the work of James Talmage and Damon Maneice, who were inspired by (what else) an episode of The West Wing. It’s worth quoting an entire speech from the episode in question, in which a guest character argues that cartography can warp how we view the world:

When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Or, to put it another way, Africa is much, much bigger than you think it is – and Europe much, much smaller.

You can play with The True Size map here.

Like this sort of thing, do you? Why not like us on Facebook, too. 

 
 
 
 

With its social housing green paper, the government has missed an opportunity to tackle the housing crisis – again

Trellick Tower, a GLC-built property in Kensal Town, west London. Image: Getty.

A Labour London councillor on today’s green paper.

London faces a housing crisis: it’s one of the most obvious statements a politician can make in 2018.

Too many Londoners can’t afford to buy their own homes. Private renters have little security and face extortionate rents and fees. Council housing waiting lists remain stubbornly high.

None of that is new news. And yet, the government has once again shown that it completely misses the point when it comes to the housing crisis.

Today’s much anticipated, and delayed, Social Housing Green Paper should have been a chance for the new communities secretary James Brokenshire to make a break from past missed opportunities. Unlike his rather flash predecessor, current home secretary Sajid Javid, Brokenshire has talked honestly and with apparent understanding about the housing crisis and the need for real action.

It is therefore all the more disappointing that the Green Paper is a complete damp-squib when it comes to new policy that will make any difference to tackling the housing crisis.

It’s welcome news that the final nail has been hammered into the coffin of the government’s 2016 plans to force councils to sell-off ‘high value’ council homes – something I and many others have campaigned against since it was first announced and which, according to housing charity Shelter, would have seen as many as 23,000 council homes sold-off in a year.


But it’s hard to celebrate, when there’s not a single penny of new funding for local councils to build new council homes.

There was no announcement that Right to Buy will be fixed, so that homes lost are replaced like for like in the same area.

Worst of all, the government failed to announce its support for the single simplest policy it could adopt, which would help councils build thousands of new homes and would cost the government absolutely nothing – lifting the red-tape that stops councils from borrowing to build.

The artificial cap on councils’ ability to borrow to build new council homes is maddening. The ‘New Homes Blocker’ is stopping councils across London from building new council homes.

The reason the government won’t change its position is because the UK is one of the only countries in Europe that counts such borrowing as part of national debt. A simple change in accounting policy would allow councils to borrow prudently, and at record-low costs, to finance the building of thousands of new council homes, repaying the borrowing through the rents on the new homes.

Councils like Islington are building more council homes now than we have for the last 30 years. But without either significant government investment or the lifting of the borrowing cap for councils, our ambitions to fight the housing crisis face yet more hurdles to overcome.  

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.