Understanding Global Population Density

Riley —  April 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

Most of the infographics that I post are complex, colorful images. They’re easy to understand (usually), but they’re also meant to be engaging, visually appealing, and graphically innovative. But while those things all make for a more compelling overall experience, they aren’t always necessary to convey the ideas being represented. In some cases, using a minimalist, raw approach to visualization and letting the data speak for itself can be just as powerful.

That’s the case for a new interactive infographic on global population density created by Derek Watkins, a graduate student in Geography at the University of Oregon. His map is based on the idea of “population islands,” a kind of abstract geography of human habitation. It has no reference to physical geography or national borders, the only distinction is between population densities; over a certain density per square kilometer and the area is represented in black, under and it’s represented in white.

At the most general level, 5 people/square km, the map roughly reflects continental geography, with Canada and Australia being the only noticeable absences. But as you slide the scale upward toward greater density, more and more of the world drops off the map. What becomes immediately apparent is how phenomenally dense India and China are. Even at 500 people/square km they still have dense swathes of black. I had an idea of how dense India and China were, but no understanding of what that meant.

And that, I think, is the real value of this map: it lets us examine not just density, but relative density. Static population maps, even heat maps, have a tough time conveying the magnitude of difference between populations. One amazing graphic that does the job is this one by Joe Lertola, published in Time Magazine in ’06:

The 3-dimensionality of this image does give us a profound visceral understanding of population densities, in addition to being a beautiful image. But unfortunately no such map exists for the world at large. Watkins’ map, even though it seems dull by comparison, is the first I’ve seen that conveys the way our own population densities are absolutely dwarfed on a global scale.

What I think these different graphics emphasize though, is that data can be effectively represented in all kinds of ways, and that visual appeal isn’t an automatic indicator of success. What matters at the end of the day is conveying information in a way that’s accessible to people, because understanding like that can change the way we view the world.

Sources: FastCo.Design, DerekWatkins.com.



Riley MacPhee is a recent graduate of Pomona College with a B.A. in Environmental Design and a minor in Philosophy, and has been writing for the JA blog for the last 3 years. He is passionate about architecture and design, and will be applying to M.Arch programs in the fall.

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