World Maps, Data and Patterns

Don’t we love patterns? Given a set of random data points, we try to search for familiar patterns and form our own theories out of it. But what if such a manifestation can reveal information which would otherwise be very difficult to interpret? And what if such a manifestation can explain us the mysteries of history and evolution of mankind?

If each user of facebook is represented as a node and friendship as vertex, we end up with millions of nodes(users) and billions of vertices(friendship links). If these are plotted on a blank canvas, it looks like a world map. The following visualization is based on data from 2010:

It is to be noted that all these nodes & vertices are just on a canvas and all the illuminated regions that we see are just due to friendship patterns on facebook. What is mysterious in this image is that large chunks of the world is missing. As expected, China is missing due to its communist policies & censorship which extends deep into its cyberworld as well. Africa is still a dark continent when it comes to social networking. Surprisingly, Brazil, which was the behemoth during the era of Orkut, is missing the action in facebook (in 2010). So, the map which we see in the above image (manifested from facebook data) is the perspective of world from an average social networking user. 

3 years later, facebook released the latest visualization using same technique and this is how it looks now

Notice that in 3 years, India has witnessed much deeper penetration of facebook, while Brazil seems to be catching up.

That was about the world according to facebook, a site for armchair thinkers. Now, lets get out of the chair and look at the real world. Recently, NASA used its satellites to record lighting details from every part of the world and released that data under the title “Earth Lights”. When this data is plotted on a dark canvas (yes, you guessed it right), it looks like a map of the world. (Click image to enlarge)

Notice how India appears to be uniformly illuminated. That is due to the population density which is more or less uniform throughout India, thanks to the rivers and fertile lands throughout the nation. In a way, the distribution of lights & illumination levels is an indicator of the economy & urbanization as well. For example, the east of US is relatively better illuminated compared to its west. Notice the sharp contrast between North & South Korea.

Africa is the dark continent when it comes to city lights as well, which indicates the lack of street-lighting & urbanization in the continent. Compare that with the Africa in facebook map, in which it has brighter vertices (means more social connections). Does it mean that the penetration of internet in Africa is better than that of streetlights? This article sheds some light on this aspect:

As expected, coastal lines are relatively better illuminated (Especially the coastal Europe) because of the ports along coastal cities which have been playing highly significant roles for centuries and become business hubs.

How about going back in time now? In ancient times, it was not “data” but descriptions which would drive patterns & maps. Especially descriptions from travelers & rulers who went out to explore & conquer (respectively) the world.

2300 years ago, when Alexander the Great was on his quest for world domination, he moved eastward and almost conquered India but turned back at the demand of his troops. Throughout the conquest, he had described geographies & terrain which later came in handy for a Greek Mathematician named Eratosthenes who used those description (data) to sketch a world map.

It is not to be confused with Pangaea which was the geography of the world millions of years ago.
2200 years ago, the geography of the world was the same as what it is today, but the above world map shows how Eratosthenes sketched it based on data (information) from Alexander. Since Africa was not explored beyond Libya, the entire stretch was named Libya but the course of river Nile was depicted pretty accurately. The entire mass of America (North & South America) is missing because the land to the west of Europe was not yet explored.

He thought India was a squarish land (albeit some elongation at the lower right) and along with an island called Taprobane (ancient Greek name for Sri Lanka) to its south west.  Indus & Ganges were identified as the major rivers of India.

Now comes the next logical question. If Eratosthenes sketched a map 2200 years ago based on the inputs/data from Alexander, how did the world map before that? A Greek historian named Herodotus had sketched a map of the “world” based on the data (description) from local conquests by local kings back in 450 BC. So, the following sketch was the world map taught in schools 2500 years ago:

According to the Greeks 2500 years ago, based on the inputs they had, the world was divided into 2 major parts: Europe in the North, while Asia was thought to be just under it (south), with India occupying almost half of Asia with Indus (no mention of Ganges) as the only prominent river.

Each of the above images have their own stories & mysteries in the form of layers which can be unearthed upon scrutiny. I suggest you check all the reference links (under each image and hypertexts), analyze them further and share your findings and analysis here.

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