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August 2, 2016

What’s the roundest country on Earth?

From geography lessons at school to Trivial Pursuit at home, we’re used to asking big questions about countries.

By Jack May

Which is the biggest? Which is the richest? Which is the richest per capita? Which has the highest population density?

All important questions, but at this point a little tired – perhaps, even, generic. Holding out for a hero as we were, Gonzalo Ciruelos, an Argentinian blogger and data-lover after our own hearts, took the time out of his life to look into the age-old question: Which country is the roundest?

The calculations are all made using the Natural Earth sovereign states dataset. It’s all very well to outsource the big ol’ issue of geopolitics, but it does come up with some rather quirky options.

“Cyprus No Mans Area” is the 204th most round country, Somaliland is listed as the 99th roundest (despite not really being an independent state), “Siachen Glacier” is the 85th, and “Scarborough Reef” (the never-before-heard Simon & Garfunkel B-side) comes in at number six.

If such entities are counted as countries without being adequately filtered, we should probably ask questions about the accuracy of the other bits of geography.

There’s also some very complex jiggery-pokery going on with mapping projections. The dataset uses a “WGS84” format – basically very accurate projections of latitude and longitude – which means that it comes out on what’s called an equirectangular projection rather than an azimuthal projection.

In short: the equirectangular projection distorts things, making countries closer to the poles look bigger while countries closer to the equator look smaller; the azimuthal projection accounts for this. It’s like that bit in The West Wing with the maps and the overdone “wow I learnt something” faces,  and it’s the bad kind of map that is in question here.

To try to combat this distortion, the guy behind all of these calculations computed the midpoint of two random points on the country’s border. Admittedly not perfect but we’re told it all works out pretty well. Except when… well, we’ll get to that.

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Caveats aside, the results are certainly interesting. The most circular country is Sierra Leone, with a roundness index of 0.934 (a perfectly circular country would have a roundness index of 1). The next four are Nauru, Zimbabwe, the Vatican, and Poland.

Monaco clinches 17th place, Antarctica sneaks in at 33rd, and the UK and France are in hot competition at places 170 and 171 repeatedly. Although these don’t look anything like the UK or France we’re familiar with:

Gonna go out on a limb here and guess that the presence of a lot of tiny overseas territories is mucking things up a bit.

And the least round country on the planet? The Marshall Islands.

In fact, island chains dot the bottom of the ranking, with Tuvalu picking up 203rd place, the Maldives in at 202nd, and Cape Verde, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and the Bahamas taking the spots from 200th place to 197th place.

And the least round non-island nation? Chile, of course:

The more you know.

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