Website Review The CIA World Factbook

Vision 65

Website Review

The CIA World Factbook


Erin M. Hartshorn

Copyright © 2011, Erin M Hartshorn, All Rights Reserved



The World Factbook ( really is a one-stop shopping place for information about the world. It's updated weekly and includes, as it says, "information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 267 world entities." It's also one of the U.S. government's most accessed publications.


Want to know the average income for someone living in Tanzania? How about the current military branches of China (6, including the People's Armed Police and the PLA Reserve Force) or the military service age and obligations (2 years compulsory service between 18-24 years of age, with certain caveats and clarifications). Interested in knowing the challenges the hero of your thriller might encounter in Latvia (transit services are well developed, so if the hero is just passing through, there are no real problems, but if he's trying to cut cross country, the land tends to be too wet and might slow him down)?


It's all there.


Each geographical entry contains a flag, a map to locate the place in the world, and facts in all those areas enumerated above. Some also have photos available. In addition to individual countries, the Factbook has entries for the World, Antarctica, various oceans, the European Union, and United States Pacific Island Wildlife Refuges. I strongly recommend taking a look at the World entry (, whether you need the information for a story you're working on or not. One use I can see for it: I write science fiction, and looking at things like the breakdown of languages spoken around the world (2.5x as many people speak Mandarin as a first language as speak English), religion, literacy rates (rates of highest illiteracy are concentrated in the Arab states, South and West Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa), and participation in international law organization -- because if we've got colonies off this planet, what we've got now is going to be a model for what develops then, and it's not all going to be like the TV wasteland of primarily white upper middle-class Americans. (I will note, however, that some of the entries begin sentences with lowercase letters, which I find personally irksome and unprofessional.)


The reference section includes definitions and notes, a guide to country profiles, a guide to country comparisons, maps, and flags. The definitions and notes not only provide basic information (for age structure, "This entry provides the distribution of the population according to age. Information is included by sex and age group (0-14 years, 15-64 years, 65 years and over)."), but also why it's important and how to interpret it ("The age structure of a population affects a nation's key socioeconomic issues. Countries with young populations (high percentage under age 15) need to invest more in schools, while countries with older populations (high percentage ages 65 and over) need to invest more in the health sector. The age structure can also be used to help predict potential political issues. For example, the rapid growth of a young adult population unable to find employment can lead to unrest."). This information is helpful when world-building for any world.


The Factbook also includes several appendices: abbreviations, international organizations and groups, select international environmental agreements, cross-reference lists of country and hydrographic data codes, list of geographic names, and weights and measures. The geographic names list is fascinating just to browse, including as it does local names for English equivalents, former names, notes on what country a place is located (or claimed by), and the latitude and longitude for each place listed.


In summary, I think this is a Website that everyone should have bookmarked, whether they're writing fiction set in our world or creating their own. If you don't want to spend all your time on the CIA site, the Factbook is available for download (, although you might want to check back occasionally to see what has been updated on the site. You can also download editions of the Factbook going back to 2000.


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