Why “Two Cities, Two Europes” stumbles at the finish line

So, National Geographic, let’s talk about one of your recent maps.

It appeared in the March 2015 issue of the magazine in the article “Two Cities, Two Europes” and there’s just something weird about it.

Now, first off, I should note that, all in all, I actually really liked this article as a whole. Most of the story wasn’t actually about the numbers; it focused on real people’s experiences in Athens and Berlin. It added a new angle to a topic that is somewhat tried by now and uses the data to support their points, instead of trying to rely solely on it. I think it’s a great example of how data can be used in a piece.

But this map makes what otherwise was a great piece stumble.

This map appeared in National Geographic's March 2015 issue in the article
This map appeared in National Geographic’s March 2015 issue in the article “Two Cities, Two Europes.” The article itself was great, but the map has some odd stumbling blocks.

At first glance it’s very pretty and for the most part gets the point across, but there are some weird bits.

First of all, while the red/green colour scheme is eye-catching, what’s going on with the grey layer? As you can see, the countries of Europe are divided into four greyscale categories based on their status in the European Union. I don’t think this is necessary. It’s not egregious, but it doesn’t really add anything to the article. All of the countries examined (Germany, Greece, etc) are all in the same category anyways. So why have it at all? It’s inelegant.

Secondly, a bubble map isn’t really the best choice for showing relationships like this. If the point is to compare numbers, a bar chart would be more reliable. People aren’t actually all that good at intuitively comparing the area of a circle. And if exact numbers aren’t the point – if highlighting countries is the most important part – a coloured map sans-bubbles may have been a better choice.

A close-up of the Europe map shows an odd design decision.
Why are Belgium and the Netherland’s bubbles two different sizes?

Anyways, this brings me to the final, and weirdest, point – the bubbles aren’t even scaled consistently. For instance, what’s going on with Belgium and the Netherlands? Why doesn’t 2 per cent equal 2 per cent? And while Greece and Spain are scaled correctly (Greece’s bubble has four times the area of Spain’s, I checked), why aren’t Greece and Germany? It’s doesn’t kill the graph – the comparison still more or less survives – but it’s still an odd error to make.

Now, like I said, all in all I really enjoyed most of the article. It’s a good, flavourful look at the economics of the EU and how they affect people. The map just leaves an odd taste in my mouth.