What's the roundest country on earth?

The flag of the roundest country on Earth, spotted here at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China. Image: Getty

From geography lessons at school and Sporcle quizzes at work to Trivial Pursuit at home and increasingly rabid arguments at pubs, we’re used to asking the big questions about countries. Which is the biggest? Which is the richest? Which is the richest per capita? Which has the highest population density?

All important questions, but at this point a little tired - perhaps, even, generic. Holding out for a hero as we were, Gonzalo Ciruelos, an Argentinian blogger and data-lover after our own hearts, took the time out of his life to look into the age-old question: Which country is the roundest?

The calculations are all made using the Natural Earth sovereign states dataset. It’s all very well to outsource the big ol’ issue of geopolitics, but it does come up with some rather quirky options.

“Cyprus No Mans Area” is the 204th most round country, Somaliland is listed as the 99th roundest (despite not really being an independent state), “Siachen Glacier” is the 85th, and “Scarborough Reef” (the never-before-heard Simon & Garfunkel B-side) comes in at number six.

If such entities are counted as countries without being adequately filtered, we should probably ask questions about the accuracy of the other bits of geography.

There’s also some very complex jiggery-pokery going on with mapping projections. The dataset uses a “WGS84” format – basically very accurate projections of latitude and longitude – which means that it comes out on what’s called an equirectangular projection rather than an azimuthal projection.

In short:  the equirectangular projection distorts things, making countries closer to the poles look bigger while countries closer to the equator look smaller; the azimuthal projection accounts for this. It’s like that bit in The West Wing with the maps and the overdone “wow I learnt something” faces,  and it’s the bad kind of map that is in question here.

To try to combat this distortion, the guy behind all of these calculations computed the midpoint of two random points on the country’s border. Admittedly not perfect but we’re told it all works out pretty well. Except when… well, we’ll get to that.

Caveats aside, the results are certainly interesting. The most circular country is Sierra Leone, with a roundness index of 0.934 (a perfectly circular country would have a roundness index of 1). The next four are Nauru, Zimbabwe, the Vatican, and Poland.

Monaco clinches 17th place, Antarctica sneaks in at 33rd, and the UK and France are in hot competition at places 170 and 171 repeatedly. Although these don’t look anything like the UK or France we’re familiar with:

Gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the presence of a lot of tiny overseas territories is mucking things up a bit.

And the least round country on the planet? The Marshall Islands.

In fact, sland chains dot the bottom of the ranking, with Tuvala picking up 203rd place, the Maldives in at 202nd, and Cape Verde, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and the Bahamas taking the spots from 200th place to 197th place.

And the least round non-island nation? Chile, of course:

The more you know.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.