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THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN

Jimmy Carter and The West Wing have embraced them. Now two unusual maps are coaxing millions to think outside the hemisphere.


By Katy Kramer

What’s wrong with a new world order? The crimp it puts in your ski routine. Or so Bob Abramms, E’73, discovered not long after former president Jimmy Carter was announced as last year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

The Carter Center’s press kit for the award ceremonies held in Oslo, Norway, in December featured something that made Abramms’s job more hectic: a world map. Not the familiar Mercator projection—the map on most classroom walls—but one published by ODT, Inc., the Amherst, Massachusetts, company Abramms founded in 1978.

ODT’s map, known as the Hobo-Dyer equal-area projection, portrays the relative size of countries and continents more accurately than the Mercator does. So when Carter’s staff wanted to highlight the sixty-eight countries to which the former president had made humanitarian missions over the past two decades, the Hobo-Dyer’s “fairness” made it the right choice.

During the twenty years Carter was circling the globe, Abramms was moving his own career along serendipitous paths: from successful management trainer, to publisher of corporate training materials, to purveyor of maps.

In addition to the Hobo-Dyer, ODT publishes a projection called the Peters, which made a cameo appearance on a West Wing episode two years ago. That was the break that first put the company on the map, so to speak.

“Now,” ODT president Howard Bronstein says, “we’re Maps R Us.”


Scratch a purpose, find a bias

Why are people so interested in looking at the world in a new way? Well, mapmaking is a highly subjective endeavor, one that requires choices.

Take the Mercator, created in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerhardus Mercator, for instance. It was developed for sea travel, allowing sailors to draw straight lines from port to port, and sail according to these lines guided by a constant compass bearing. To achieve this purpose, the proportions of the land masses had to be distorted somewhat.

Actually, even without Mercator’s particular bias toward ease of navigation, anytime you flatten the three-dimensional Earth into a two-dimensional drawing, you have to decide what you want to capture accurately: land-mass shape or land-mass size. You can’t render both with fidelity.

The Mercator is fairly shape-accurate; that means it distorts land area. For example, it shows North America as larger than Africa. In reality, Africa is significantly larger. Europe appears larger than South America, and Alaska looks larger than Mexico. Neither is true. On the whole, the Mercator makes equatorial countries and continents look smaller than they really are. So, if area equals importance, the map overemphasizes the Northern Hemisphere.

By the 1700s, the Mercator had become entrenched as the map of choice. Over the centuries, even as seafaring was replaced by other modes of transportation, it remained the standard projection used in atlases and schoolrooms.

Standards eventually get revisited, though. And Abramms, fifty-three, landed in the map business in the first place by being able to sniff out an up-and-coming market.

After he got his MBA, he became a leading expert on a hot business topic: “how to manage your boss.” It catapulted him into a half-dozen years of three management workshops a week. In the mid-1980s, when corporations were changing from, as Abramms says, “a kick-ass-and-take-names style to more communication up and down the line,” he became a corporate trainer.

“We were shifting from a view that ‘the organization will take care of me and my boss is in charge,’ to ‘Gee, I’m in charge of my reality,’” Abramms says. He developed a curriculum for creating self-directed work teams and taught managers how to oversee activities without telling employees how to do their jobs.

The lessons sold, too well. “I was overwhelmed by success, and not having fun,” Abramms says. So he restructured ODT to be employee-owned and promoted marketing director Bronstein to president. One of Abramms’s mottoes is “We play, create, have fun, and serve customers.”

And one of his missions is helping people learn to shape their world without being unnecessarily limited by social conventions. In 1987, Abramms—who rounded out his education with a master’s in counseling and a doctorate in applied behavioral science—produced a diversity program for management entitled “How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Stereotyping,” which included a workshop on corporate culture change. “We used the Peters map to help people think outside the box, to broaden horizons,” he says.

The Peters, created in 1974 by German-born Arno Peters, had taken a step toward correcting many of the Mercator’s inaccuracies. No longer focused on compass bearings, the Peters projection shows countries and continents in their accurate proportions and reduces the visual dominance of the North American hemisphere.

More size-accurate and less Eurocentric than the Mercator, the Peters was viewed as “fairer to all peoples.” And its startling new look challenged viewers’ assumptions—not just about maps, but about life in general.


A shifting landscape

Abramms says ODT customers liked the training but loved the products. From 1985 to 1993, the company went from 90 percent service and 10 percent product, to 10 percent service and 90 percent product. “We sold hundreds and hundreds of Peters maps to corporations,” he says. “Then we got hired by Peters to be the map’s publisher, because we sold more than anyone else.”

Soon Hollywood was on the phone. “Warner Brothers called and said, ‘We need a Peters map.’ Then they asked for the trainer’s pack. Then they asked for the corporate seminar pack. And then they asked for the electronic files,” says Abramms. “‘We need it for the set,’ they said. ‘Of what?’ I asked. ‘We’re with The West Wing.’” The show’s writer/creator, Aaron Sorkin, had stumbled onto <www.odt.org> while surfing the Web.

Fast-forward to February 2001, when 18 million West Wing viewers saw a make-believe group called the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality asking President Bartlett’s staff if the president would support legislation that mandated the Peters map be used in geography classes across the United States.

“The Atlanta Constitution wrote, ‘The show is fiction, but the map is real.’ Our business changed overnight,” remembers Abramms. “The twenty-four hours after the show, our server melted down twice.” During the week following the airing, ODT sold 400 Peters maps, up from the usual 2 or 3. “It was unbelievable.”

Since Abramms and Bronstein—who graduated from Newton (Mass.) High School a year apart—are ODT’s only full-time employees, they had to kick into uncharacteristic overdrive. “We have a commitment to a relaxed, fun work style. We ski days and work nights,” says Abramms, who also enjoys regular retreats to Guatemala. The business was a mixed blessing, he says, “the nightmare everyone dreams of.”

Despite its sales, the Peters had its critics. “A lot of people have not been happy with the map’s missionary zeal,” Abramms says. So a new projection—crafted by Mick Dyer, at England’s Oxford Cartographers—was born.

Derived from a 1910 Behrmann projection, the Hobo-Dyer (“Hobo” is a shortened combo of Bronstein’s and Abramms’s first names) has less distortion than the Peters, and many viewers find it more visually pleasing.

It’s also double-sided, each side showing the entire world in a different way. One view is Africa-centered, with north at the top of the map; the other is Pacific Ocean–centered, with south at the top.

ODT first published the Hobo-Dyer last August. Around that time, Carter Center staffers were perusing the Internet for the right map for Oslo. They spotted the Hobo-Dyer, liked how it represented the size of Third World and developing nations, and gave ODT a call.

“The message,” says Abramms, “is that you can’t understand things from one perspective. Every map has an agenda. And, bada boom, we’re in the forefront of changing people’s perceptions.”

Katy Kramer, MA’00, a freelance writer who lives in Epping, New Hampshire, wrote about architectural changes on campus in the September 2002 issue. She also contributes the magazine’s “Husky Tracks.”