National Geographic’s Poo Map

How to Map a Public Poo Problem?

A map on “the percentage of people defecating in the open air” is a concept that is both profound and perverse. The map (below) appeared in the National Geographic August 2017 issue, with the title, “A Place to Go.” The article focuses on India, but includes pictures of Haiti and Vietnam. To be perfectly plain, people pooping in the open go in fields, forests, bushes, rivers, or beaches—often due to cultural habits and/or lack of toilet access. This can risk spreading disease, like cholera, and stunting the growth of children due to sickness and malnutrition.


NGkey&top countries


Problems with the Map?

As a former National Geographic map editor, I applaud the designer’s use of brown colors as appropriate for the topic; however, to better visualize the nature of the problem, more creative symbols (below) could replace the boring boxes in the key.




I have a few other more serious issues with the map too:

Problem with Poo Percentages. With the exception of India, the use of percentages in the map legend results in smaller countries being highlighted rather than more populous countries, which possess prodigious piles of poo.  For example, the above table, “Countries with highest rates,” includes Eritrea (population 5.8 million), Sao Tome and Principe (pop. 197,000), and Solomon Islands (pop. 635,000).

Poo Gap in Map Key. Comparing “More than 40” to “25 to 39.9,” there is a gap that excludes 40. The countries of Mozambique and Madagascar (both at 40%) would be in the highest category if the key was changed to “40 or more.” However, on the National Geographic map, both countries were put in the second category (25 to 39.9) by mistake.

Angola’s Poo Color. As a map professional (some would say map geek), I noticed on the map that Angola’s exclave of Cabinda was not the same color as the rest of Angola. This is kind of a big deal — like not showing Alaska in the same color as the rest of the United States. Cabinda is a major oil-producer for Angola, with a population of some 700,000, about the same as Alaska.


War and Poo. The “No data” category on the National Geographic map includes Libya, a country that descended into civil war starting in 2011, resulting in the displacement of people and the destruction of sanitation facilities. This scenario also exists in Syria and Iraq where millions have lost their homes and are on the move as refugees. Open defecation happens in times of war, although authoritarian governments choose to hide it. Cholera outbreaks and epidemics in both Syria and Iraq, especially in 2015, provide evidence of the poo problem. Therefore, Syria and Iraq should be (at the very least) put in the “No data” category, due to government inability to provide basic sanitation services to millions of people.

I would add that North Korea should be added to the “No data (meaning no reliable data)” category due to recent cholera epidemics and the open use of human poo in North Korean society.


How to Make the Map Better?

A passage from the National Geographic article prescribes a poo map solution:

Tiwari moves on: How many people live here? About 1,500, a young man shouts. Tiwari explains that each person daily produces more than half a pound of feces, which means the village annually produces around 300,000 pounds. The crowd murmurs, and Tiwari leads them in a round of mocking applause.

This excerpt links population number to poo production. Changing the map from population percentages to millions of people would highlight more populous countries, as shown in the table (below) from a 2012 WHO/UNICEF report.


It should be noted that China, which shows as “Less than 1” on the National Geographic map, has a poo problem, with 14 million practicing open defecation. This problem was shockingly evident at the 2016 opening of Shanghai Disneyland. A populous country with a small percentage can lay down leviathan loads of poo, with 14 million Chinese producing an estimated 2.8 billion pounds per year.

DisneyLand Poo

While I admire National Geographic for taking on a topic with unpleasant pictures, the map could have been more effective — mostly by using absolute numbers instead of percentages. Obviously, I had a bit of fun with the topic, but analysis of the map design and data was serious doodie.


Mapping Travel Sites for National Geographic

I advised National Geographic recently on two travel books. National Geographic recruited me to review more than 50 maps and to make text comments where geographic information needed to be updated. Research involved lots of satellite images, government maps, and email correspondence; edits made with Adobe Acrobat Pro DC software.

Coastal Alaska

The first book, “Coastal Alaska: Ports of Call & Beyond,” is a perfect destination if you are suffering from the Washington DC area’s heat. August temperatures are in the low 60s for most of the south coast of Alaska, including Anchorage. You can get even cooler by going into the mountains on the White Pass & Yukon scenic railway (image below).

The train travels 20 miles and climbs 3,000 feet amid ice capped mountains.
The train travels 20 miles and climbs 3,000 feet amid ice capped mountains.
Edits to map showing Yukon & White Pass railway (red line).
Edits to map showing Yukon & White Pass railway (red line).





The Caribbean

Mt. Obama, a popular hiking site on Antigua.
Mt. Obama, a popular hiking site on Antigua.
Boggy Peak renamed Mount Obama in 2009.
Boggy Peak renamed Mount Obama in 2009.

For those planning winter vacations, perhaps National Geographic’s Traveler guidebook, “The Caribbean: Ports of Call & Beyond,” is for you. This book includes travel information for tropical islands ranging from the Caymans to Trinidad and Tobago.

A map edit example involves Antigua’s highest point, where Boggy Peak was renamed to honor President Obama. Mount Obama is becoming a major attraction for Antigua (map and image below).

The guide on coastal Alaska was released earlier this year, and the Caribbean islands guide is scheduled for October 2016.










How to Measure a Country’s Freedom

Political Geography in GEO230 & GEO210
Political Geography in GEO230 & GEO210

Measuring freedom is a subjective science, but  Freedom House recently updated an interactive map ranking a country’s freedom based on political rights and civil liberties. Click on the “interactive map” hyperlink to see the map (shown below), revealing free countries in green and the not free countries in purple. Click on the United States to see that it has a Freedom Rating of 1 (Free), India earns a 2.5 (Free), Mexico scores a 3 (Partly Free), and Russia rates a 6 (Not Free).

Rating countries from Free to Not Free: Worst of the Worst

Freedom Can Change Over Time

This map also reveals freedom’s trend over time. Click on the arrow (below the map) to see how much the world has changed from 1995 to 2015. Click on the year 1995 to see the status of freedom for some 195 countries in that year. In 1995, the U.S. ranked 1 (same as 2015), but India and Mexico received a relatively poor 4, and Russia rated a better 3.5 freedom score. Measure the fleeting nature of freedom:

  1. Click on various countries, especially countries you are interested in, and name a country that seems to have increased in freedom since 1995.
  2. Name a country that has decreased in freedom, other than Russia, since 1995.
  3. For those taking Geo 210 or Geo 230, please add a short blog comment giving the names of countries that have lost or gained in freedom since 1995. You can also add a sentence on why there was a change in freedom.

Work on the MAP Book

Earlier this year, Phaidon Press (London) asked me to write articles on some historic and modern maps. As a frequent user of maps in my NOVA geography classes, I jumped at the opportunity. My articles describe maps that illustrate pivotal times in history, ranging from 16th century St. Augustine (Florida) and 19th century Russia to 20th century Disneyland and 21st century Afghanistan.

This week I received the advance copy of the book, Map: Exploring the World (left). The brightly covered cover features floating circular cutouts of some of the more than 300 historic and modern maps. The book, an international effort, offers a visual record of how the art, science, and technology of mapping has changed throughout the centuries.

Magic of TILT’s green screen

Showed the book to Kirstin Riddick, Supervisor, Technology Innovation in Learning and Teaching (TILT). She liked the book’s colors because they matched furniture colors (above, left) in the bright TILT offices.

Next we decided to have some fun with TILT’s green screen, producing an enlarged book, with the contributing author in the foreground (above).

The book was a labor of love, with one of my favorite maps being the “Serio-Comic War Map for the Year 1877,” by British cartographer Fred Rose, where Russia is portrayed as a giant octopus threatening nearby countries, such as Germany and Turkey, with its tentacles (below). A close look reveals one of the tentacles bloodied by the Crimean War in the 1850s.