The World Factbook: The US CIA’s Encyclopedia of Nations

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What is The World Factbook?

The CIA world factbook is produced by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The Factbook functions like an almanac or encyclopedia of nations. The information source provides “basic intelligence on the history, people, government, economy, energy, geography, communications, transportation, military, terrorism, and transnational issues for 266 world entities” and the world’s oceans (CIA, World Factbook). The World Factbook was created to provide US government officials with a single authoritative source of intelligence about countries around the world. The Factbook was first published as a classified document in 1962 until the CIA began publishing an unclassified version in 1973. Since 1997 the Factbook has been available to the public online (CIA, History). Since 2010, the source has been updated weekly but has been criticized for some minor factual errors contained within it and outdated entries (Kim 2021).

Coverage and Content

The Factbook contains  information on countries, which is written from the perspective of the US government, meaning that place names are used based on official US policy. For example, the Factbook uses the Burma, intead of the UN-recognized name of Myanmar. The Factbook covers all of the countries recognized by the United States and some areas which are not formally recognized by the United States such as countries, namely Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Antarctica. Several other areas, such as North Cyprus, Palestine,which are not recognized by the United States are not included (CIA, Explore Countries). On the main page of the Factbook, there is a quick search bar for countries, quick several quick links to access information on oceans and country comparisons, and when was the latest website update (CIA, The World Factbook). The source itself is divided into the following tabs:

Countries: When selecting the tab “Countries”, it is possible to filter through the list of countries by their first letter. Each entry has several sections for the selected country. For example the entry for Czechia, contains sections for basic information, such as the country’s flag, maps, photos, background, geography, people and society, economy, energy, communications, Transportation, Military, and transnational issues. Each of these sections provides more detailed information for various  subcategories within the larger group. (CIA, Czechia).

Fig. 1: Selected portions of CIA World Factbook Czechia page (CIA, Czechia)

Maps: The Factbook contains several types of maps of different territories and countries it covers. Maps generally follow borders recognized by the United States. The maps are categorized according to world and regional maps, which can be further divided into political (borders, capital or major cities) and physical regional maps (size, geography, terrain). Additionally, there are CIA or location maps that more clearly define the transportation, regions, a physiography within a country. Specifically to the African continent, there are two additional categories of maps, NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) country maps and NGA population distribution maps (CIA, CIA Maps).

Fig. 2: Political Africa map (CIA, CIA Maps)

References: The “References” tab contains a Guide to Country Profiles, which lists the different categories, fields and subfields according to which the country’s profiles are organized. Besides the guide, the page contains different appendices, which explain the different codes, abbreviation, definitions, measurements, agreement and more. This helps the user to read the content of the source appropriately (CIA, References).

About: The “About” section provides the user some facts about the source and the most frequently asked questions. These are meant to clarify any potential uncertain information, such as when the data is being updated, or why certain territories are not listed as opposed to others or why certain data is not included. Moreover, there is access to archived World Factbook publications since the year 2000 (CIA, About The World Factbook).

Searching in CIA World Factbook

On the main page of the Factbook, there is a search bar, where free text can be typed, but it would only allow the user to select an exact match to a county. Some areas which are not countries are listed along with the countries, such as Antarctica, the European Union, and Puerto Rico.

Fig. 3: Search bar on the main page (CIA, The World Factbook)

Another way of searching for a particular country is going directly to the “Countries” tab and filtering results alphabetically. This type of filter is the most common throughout the different information categories.

Fig. 4: Explore All Countries filter options (CIA, Explore All Countries)

To illustrate further the search, let us assume that a user needs to obtain information about the GDP of Bahrain and compare its placement to other countries. In order to reach the data needed, the content category selected would be Economy, the user can press ctrl+F to find data related to GDP.

Fig. 5: Finding the Read GDP per capita for Bahrain (CIA, Bahrain)

For the purpose of the example, the GDP data selected is GDP per capita. On the country page, data is shown for between 2017 to 2019. When clicking on Real GDP per capita, all the countries are listed alphabetically with three values of GDP per capita data. However, in order to receive a better ranking view of the information, it is needed to proceed to “Country Comparison Ranking” (CIA, Bahrain).

Fig. 6: Accessing the Country Comparison Ranking (CIA, Real GDP per capita)
Fig. 7: GDP per Capita Ranking filtered to show Middle East only (CIA, Real GDP per capita)

On the ranking page, it is possible to filter by region in order to focus the results and find more easily the country’s position compared to the rest. Prior to the website update in 2021, it was possible to download the raw text file of the information directly from the page (CIA World Factbook for Country Information, 2017). However, it is possible to copy-paste the data directly to excel without formatting issues. 

Fig. 8: Country comparison table on the old website (CIA, The World Factbook)

Regions or oceans are not searchable using the search bar, but can be found when scrolling down on the main page. Information on regions of the world leads to a country list, which then leads to individual country profiles. Information on oceans can be compared, but it is not presented in a table form.

Fig. 9: Marine fisheries comparison (CIA, Marine fisheries)

Although “World Travel Facts”, “One-Page Country Summaries”, and “Flags of the World” are accessible directly from the individual country’s profile, they can be quickly accessed from the main page and redirected to the PDF document. This feature is useful when needing to obtain the same documents for multiple countries more quickly (CIA, The World Factbook).

Fig. 10: Quick links on the main webpage (CIA, The World Factbook)

If the user’s aim is to compare particular categories for multiple countries, going directly to “Country Comparisons” on the main page will lead to all the categories. When searching for GDP per Capita of Bahrain compared to other countries using the method of the initial example, it takes six clicks to reach the comparison table as opposed to three clicks when going directly from the main page.

Search outputs

The main outputs which can be obtained from searching and browsing the World Factbook are various data datasets from different geographical, social, governmental, economic and other indicators, travel facts, one-page country summaries, maps, different photos and archived documents. Some of the possible outputs have been described below:

Travel Facts: This document provides a quick overview of the US government travel advisory, visa requirements for US citizens and the location of the US embassy in that particular country. Despite the US-centric information, other countries’ nationals will find it useful as it contains information on the climate, currency, electric plug type, languages,, time difference, road driving side, cultural practices, area code and more (CIA, World Travel Facts).

Fig. 11: Bahrain’s travel facts (CIA, World Travel Facts)

One-Page Country Summaries: They contain a one page overview of the most important country facts, including the country’s flag, a map indicating the position of the country in the region and the size of the country compared to the US (CIA, One-Page Country Summaries).

Fig. 12: Bahrain’s one page country summary (CIA, One-Page Country Summaries)

Archived documents: The Factbook archives their publications as compressed .zip files, so that users can access older publications. However, country comparisons and indicators are not available for view in the file. In case multiple year comparison is needed to fill in a dataset, it is easier to access the old webpage through the digital archive of The Wayback Machine (Wayback Machine, 2021). As The Factbook has renewed their website in 2021, it would be necessary to input the old URL: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook, instead. The search methodology is slightly different from the new website, however it is more intuitive than searching through the available archived documents.

Fig. 13: Wayback Machine history browse (Wayback Machine, 2021)

As the Factbook is updated on a weekly basis, when selecting a date to go back to in the archive, it is best to select a similar day and month to the most current update. At the time of the review, the website was last updated on the 18th of March, 2021 and therefore the closest selected archived date with a similar day and month is the 21st of March, 2021.

Fig. 14: Selecting the date to go back to in Wayback Machine (Wayback Machine, 2021)
Fig. 15: Country Comparison GDP per Capita archived view on 21st of March, 2021 (CIA, Country Comparison)

In order to access the “Country Comparisons” in the old website, it will be necessary to go to the “References” tab, Guide to County Comparisons and select GDP – per capita (PPP).

Final remarks

Overall,  the CIA World Factbook is a good general resource for reliable information about the countries of the world. The Factbook likely contains some minor errors but these are rare enough that researchers do not need to double-check the information it provides. Individuals using the Factbook, to research politically sensitive issues should also be aware that listed information represents the US government’s official view which may not correspond with how the information would be written in a neutral encyclopedia. When planning for an international trip, the source is useful for accessing recommended travel guidelines quickly without any additional distractions. As the Factbook has made available its archived information from 2000, researchers can rely on the source to build datasets for various indicators. 

 

Works Cited

CIA. (n.d.). About. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/about/

CIA. (n.d.). Bahrain One Page Country Summary. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/static/0c698595c3065357ad154aa5db9d7e98/BA-summary.pdf

CIA. (n.d.). Bahrain Travel Facts. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/static/f3c769d8ff880f796d6ab3422a3d916d/BA-travel-facts.pdf

CIA. (n.d.). Czechia. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/czechia/

CIA. (n.d.). Explore Countries. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook

CIA. (n.d.). History. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/about/history/

CIA. (n.d.). Maps. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/maps/

CIA. (n.d.). Marine Fisheries. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/field/marine-fisheries

CIA. (n.d.). One Page Country Summaries. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/references/one-page-country-summaries/

CIA. (n.d.). Real GDP per Capita. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/field/real-gdp-per-capita

CIA. (n.d.). Real GDP per Capita Country Comparison. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/field/real-gdp-per-capita/country-comparison

CIA. (n.d.). References. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/references/

CIA. (n.d.). World Factbook. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook

CIA World Factbook for Country Information. (2017, August 3). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxCg5ufso3w&t

CIA. (n.d.). World Travel Facts. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/references/world-travel-facts/

Kim, T. (2021). CIA factbook full of errors about Korea. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://newsarticleinsiders.com/cia-factbook-full-of-errors-about-korea

Wayback Machine. (2021). The Wayback Machine. http://web.archive.org/