The World's Data Holes, Quantified

It's not the ice that turns Greenland white, but the lack of data


Finally, a map that focuses on those corners of the world that are usually left out. And quantifies how little we know about them. Most data-free zone: Western Sahara. Where is that? Exactly.

You may not know the word choropleth – from the Greek for 'many shades' – but you have seen the principle applied on maps. Any map that variously shades or patterns areas in proportion to a statistical variable is a choropleth map. Except that on a world map, some countries or regions are likely to be left blank.

More often than not, those blank spaces include some or all of the following line-up of usual suspects: Greenland, French Guyana, Western Sahara, South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and North Korea.

UN Human Development Index map from 2001. Data holes: Greenland, Cuba, French Guiana, Western Sahara, Liberia, Somalia, Belarus, Afghanistan, North Korea. 

These are either highly secretive countries, nations too war-torn and/or chaotic to produce sound statistical data, or territories whose data is subsumed in that of their colonising/occupying power.

For The Unmeasured World, the mapmaker analysed 100 choropleth world maps, adding up how many times each country contributed data. Not only does this provide us with a ranking of the world's most notorious data holes, it also reveals a much longer list of data-weak countries.

Let's start with the world's worst blind spots:

  • 21 – Western Sahara: A disputed territory, Western Sahara is de facto a part of Morocco's figures but rarely labelled due to its unresolved international status
  • 22 – Greenland: Not an independent state, Greenland's statistics are often buried as a subset of Denmark's and warrant no entry in most international data sets. But unlike some sovereign nations, Greenland's vast landmass makes it hard to ignore on a world map.
  • 40 – North Korea: North Korea, an oppressive dictatorship, publishes figures that are distrusted and dismissed by most NGOs. The population is unavailable for independent surveys.
  • 40 – Somalia: Engulfed by civil war for nearly three decades, Somalia's Directorate of National Statistics published its last census in 1986. Since 2015, the federal government, aided by Statistics Sweden, has attempted to rebuild Somalia's statistical capabilities.
  • 48 – South Sudan: South Sudan's National Bureau of Statistics published several year books and censuses as a subnational entity of Sudan, but apparently funds ran out after the 2011 declaration of independence.
  • 49 – Eritrea: Eritrea is a dictatorship like North Korea, ravaged by civil war like Somalia, and a young nation like South Sudan. Apart from government budgets, their National Statistics and Evaluation Offices has published nothing since 2002. 
  • 49 – French Guiana: An integrated region of France, French Guiana is in the same situation as Greenland.
  • You will have seen these blind spots stare blankly at your from many a world map. But in a way, these 'known unknowns' are the lucky ones. As a close examination of this map shows, there are plenty of much smaller, lesser-known data holes - even if most of the world is doing fairly okay on the statistical front. 

    Countries in the darkest shade of brown appear in more than 90% of the examined maps. Many countries achieve a near-perfect score, including France and the UK (both 99), Germany and the U.S. (both 98) and India and Russia (both 97).

    In Latin America, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia and Chile all score above 90, but the rest of the region lingers in the 80s (Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, among others), the 70s (Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica) or even the 60s (Cuba, Jamaica, Suriname).

    With the exception of South Africa (94) and Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya (all in the 80s), Africa seems particularly lacking in consistent data. Worst performers, except the aforementioned blank spots, are Equatorial Guinea (52), Lesotho (53), Guinea Bissau (54), Gabon and Congo (both 59).

    Even Europe has its data-weak neighbourhoods, mainly ex-Yugoslavia, but also Albania, Moldova and Belarus (all in the 70s). Cyprus, because of its particular status – split between an internationally recognised south and a virtually unrecognised north – scores 42, atypically low for Europe, and is another data hole.

    Jordan (82) is doing well in a region stuck in the 70s, except war-torn Yemen (64), outsider Israel (91) and special case Palestine (35) – yet another data blind spot, albeit a tiny one.

    Remarkably, Afghanistan (70), although extremely poor and conflicted, is doing a lot better than peaceful, but secretive Turkmenistan (58). In Asia and Oceania, Bhutan (68), Birma/Myanmar (62) and Papua New Guinea (59) stand out as fairly remarkable data holes. But not as bad as tiny East Timor (24) – we almost missed it, just north of Australia. Oh, and look at Brunei (37) a bit further north.

    East Timor is another young, poor nation. And Brunei is the personal fiefdom of a sultan who may not value statistical transparency with the same keenness as a democratic government would. At least, that is how we rationalise the low scores of those two countries. But what is Singapore's (41) excuse? The high-tech city-state surely does not lack in stats, vital and otherwise?

    As indicated by the list of nations printed at the bottom of the map, choropleth world maps have a problem with showing data for the world's smallest nations – and often leave them out. That is why the Caribbean nations generally score pretty bad, and the Vatican appears on only 44 out of a hundred maps. Who would have guessed that the Pope runs a data hole even deeper than South Sudan? 

    UN HDI map found here at Cool Geography. This map found here on the Map Porn subreddit, where it won the May Map Contest. Congratulations!

    Strange Maps #843 

    Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com

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    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
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    • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

    On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

    How did the camps get their start?

    With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

    Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

    "I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

    DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

    "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

    Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

    Life in the camps

    Japanese American concentration camp

    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

    For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

    Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

    Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

    As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

    The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

    Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

    "They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

    Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

    The aftermath

    When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.