The geoweb and innovation in journalism

Asmaa Malik, Ryerson University

Abstract

Internet-based geoweb tools, as well as software that combines mapping technology with social media information, have become integral to the digital news-gathering and reporting process. In light of this increasingly vital relationship, evaluating examples from leading news organizations and exploring both the 3E framework for participatory geographic information used to evaluate collaborative mapping projects and John Pavlik’s four principles of journalism innovation, I examine how participatory geoweb technologies fuel innovation in news media, permanently changing the ways in which we create, distribute and collaborate on journalistic projects and stories.

Author

Asmaa Malik (asmaa.malik@ryerson.ca) is an assistant professor of journalism at Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto, Ont. M5B 2K3. Her research focuses on how people find and share news on social networks.

Introduction

In the world of 1850s London, cholera was thought to be spread by air. After an outbreak in 1854, an anesthetist named Dr. John Snow mapped the locations of cholera victims in the St. James, Westminster, area of the city and discovered something surprising. His map found that most of the cholera cases were clustered around a pump near what was then called Broad Street.

Visually, he made a preliminary link between the water source and the spread of the disease. However, the map was just one piece of his research (Koch and Denike, 2009). His subsequent interviews with relatives and acquaintances of the dead confirmed his suspicions that the water at the Broad Street pump had been contaminated by sewage from a nearby cesspit.

In 2013, The Guardian recreated Snow’s map using modern mapping software. Snow’s work “changed how we see data and visualizations, and how we see microbes” (Rogers, 2013). The Guardian was able to give a more accurate representation of how many cases there were, using the size of the dots as an indicator. But the data included only addresses and deaths so they were not able to take it further.

Now imagine that The Guardian undertook a similar cholera-death mapping project in 2015 instead of Snow’s 1854 data-mapping. The biggest caveat, of course, is that getting access to public health data on a granular level is next to impossible. “In the event of an outbreak like this now, it’s inconceivable that the government would publish the data on grounds of privacy; that the victims’ addresses were personal data” (Rogers, 2013).

But putting these obvious limitations aside, what would a 2015 cholera map of London look like? Journalists could use a variety of tools to enhance the basic information. Post information about neighbourhoods with cholera cases. Upload images and video of sanitary conditions across the city. Use social-media geotagging information to show where people were tweeting and posting Facebook updates. Mash up the geolocation data with historic disease outbreak statistics and mortality rates. Plot income and employment stats for the hardest-hit areas.

The digital tools in a modern-day journalist’s arsenal are many. With progressively easier-to-use mapping software and a wealth of geocoded information at their fingertips, more newsrooms are relying on information not only from their reporters, but from their audiences. The network of technologies that allow journalists and their collaborators, often their readers and viewers, to share information via Internet mapping tools has been referred to as “the geoweb” (Scharl and Tochterman, 2007). Others have called it “new ‘spatial media’ ” (Crampton, 2009) and “volunteered geographic information” or VGI (Goodchild, 2007). The geoweb is broadly defined as the convergence of location with digital information technologies, including interactive mapping tools enabling collaboration (Leszczynski and Wilson, 2013).

Internet-based geoweb tools, including Google Maps and Fusion Tables and CartoDB, as well as software that combines mapping technology with social media information, such as Geofeedia and Banjo, have become integral to the digital news-gathering and reporting process. In light of this increasingly vital relationship, evaluating examples from leading news organizations and exploring both the 3E framework for participatory geographic information and John Pavlik’s four principles of journalism innovation, I examine how participatory geoweb technologies fuel innovation in news media, changing the ways in which we collaborate on, create, and distribute journalism.

Theorizing the geoweb

In their editorial in the 2013 issue of GeoJournal devoted to theorizing the geoweb, geographers Agnieszka Lesczynski and Matthew Wilson highlight the need for connecting scholarship about the geoweb to the various disciplines it touches. “Scholarship about the geoweb has not, however, yet made the leap to coming into conversation with a much broader series of literatures and discussions about digital culture. … This is not an option for geographers, but rather an urgent necessity” (Lesczynski and Wilson, 2013).

As people are connected more and more via smartphones and social networks, sharing location-based information has become a central part of their everyday lives and it is quickly changing the ways in which they interact with each other, as well as with their relationships to space and place. Because boundaries are shifting in myriad ways, Lesczynski and Wilson argue that “the geoweb cannot be understood, apprehended, or engaged in isolation from other (new) media emergences, materialities, subjectivities and practices” (p. 916).

It is with this call to action in mind that we can look at journalism as one of the disciplines profoundly affected by the growth of the geoweb, in terms of how it relates to (1) news-gathering by journalists, (2) news-sharing by journalists and (3) collaboration between journalists and their audiences.

Newsgathering by journalists

Journalists frequently use geographic information from such sources as Google Maps and Geofeedia, which maps the location of social network posts, to report on stories. Geofeedia, for example, offers useful real-time information related to breaking news events. In the case of a 2012 school shooting near Cleveland, a Gannett journalist using Geofeedia was able to find photos and social media posts coming from the locked-down school (Myers, 2012). Google Maps, of course, is a go-to tool for all journalists, digital or otherwise. Its street and satellite views offer tremendous detail that can often help journalists report breaking news “from the scene” when they are, in fact, sitting in a newsroom.

News-sharing by journalists

Mapping tools such as StoryMapJS can help journalists display geographically relevant information in a narrative way. The social-media-based news network Reported.ly used StoryMapJS to create a powerful interactive graphic that tracked the deaths of Yemeni civilians across the country, using personal stories and striking photographs that brought the map to life. Google Maps have become ubiquitous on news organizations’ websites and apps, used to present everything from the location of hip downtown coffee shops (Montreal Gazette) to electoral boundaries on federal election maps (Globe and Mail). Several media organizations, including New York Times and CNN.com, use proprietary mapping software to build their geoweb-driven interactive graphics.

Collaboration between journalists and their audiences
The relationship between journalists and their viewers and readers is crucial to their efficacy as sense-makers and distributors of news and information. In her exploration of the politics of VGI and everyday mapping, Wen Lin (2013) writes of the importance of the concept of networks for understanding the geoweb. In re-theorizing the nature of “publics” in this sense, the publics must be seen as inherently networked, “as linked sets of social and technological developments associated with the growing engagement of digitally networked media” (Lin, 2013). User-generated content on social media plays a significant role in reporting on news events and verifying stories, as well as keeping the audience informed. With geo-locative information embedded in social media posts on networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the geoweb is an often-invisible, yet essential, network in most people’s lives.

The 3E framework and innovation in journalism

Devised by Blake Byron Walker and Claus Rinner (2013), the 3E Framework is a series of questions and qualities designed to evaluate projects that use the participatory geoweb to inform spatial decision-making. The “synthesis of Web 2.0 concepts with online mapping technologies produces the participatory geoweb” (Walker and Rinner, 2013). I used the framework to determine whether collaborative journalistic mapping projects undertaken by news organizations can adequately be categorized as part of the participatory geoweb. I chose to look at four representative geoweb-related news projects: the New York Times “Best and Worst Places to Grow Up” feature, the Los Angeles Times “Mapping L.A.,” CNN.com’s “Walking the path of a tornado” and the now-defunct web news site Open File’s “The Poppy File.”

The Es in Walker and Rinner’s framework stand for (1) engagement, (2) empowerment and (3) enactment. Engagement is defined as the act of a securing a space in which the project entities interact with participants as well as the actors and networks themselves. In the case of journalistic geoweb collaboration, the news sites themselves offer a space in which journalists can interact with the readers. Empowerment is the means that allows citizen interests to be promoted and eliminates hierarchies. The permissiveness of user-generated content that is not subject to journalistic gatekeeping would, for example, be an instance of empowerment. Enactment allows information from the participatory geoweb project to be used as a valuable tool in a decision-making process. In all four of the projects I examined, reader input–active or passive–was used to determine the outcome and form of the information presented.

Once we can establish that journalistic mapping-related news projects are part of the participatory geoweb, we can evaluate them to determine whether they are examples of innovation in journalism and help contribute to ensuring the viability of news media in the digital age. Innovation in news media is defined as “the process of taking new approaches to media practices and forms while maintaining a commitment to quality and ethical standards” (Pavlik, 2013). The author identifies four principles that fuel successful innovation: (1) research intelligence, (2) freedom of speech, (3) truth and accuracy and (4) ethics.

Research intelligence

In 2015, the New York Times launched an online project on how a child’s home affects his or her chances of escaping poverty. “The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up” was an information-rich interactive that gave detailed information about counties across the U.S. But one thing was different from other map-based infographics: the lede of the story and the focus of the map changed based on the IP address of the user. This gave the reader instant context for the story and offered actionable intelligence. Times graphics editor Amanda Cox said they wanted to cut out the unnecessary steps between readers and the information they want. “It’s a fine line between a smarter default and being creepy,” she said (Ellis, 2015). The reader’s collaboration in this case was passive.

Freedom of speech

First launched in 2009, the Los Angeles Times “Mapping L.A.” project posted a version of boundary lines for 87 Los Angeles city neighbourhoods. The map was then redrawn, readjusting more than 100 boundaries, with the help of readers who agreed or disagreed with the initial boundaries. The “Mapping L.A.” project became the newsroom’s resource for neighbourhood boundaries, demographics, crime and schools. “But readers didn’t just comment on the boundaries; hundreds sent notes — short essays, really — on the places they live. They were informative, humorous, thought-provoking and often eloquent,” the project team explained on the site. The Times and its developers ensured that not only were the readers’ contributions central to the content of the project, but they were given the freedom to draw the boundaries as they saw best. They were no restrictions about whether the neighbourhood lines directly corresponded to the geographic ones. All valid feedback was incorporated in some way.

Truth and accuracy

In 2013, after one of the most destructive tornadoes in history, CNN.com opinion columnist and native Oklahoman John Sutter walked the 17-mile path of a tornado that killed 24 people, including seven children, and caused almost $2 billion in damages. “Would I be able to reach the rural stretch of land where the storm dropped from the sky like a pencil pushing through the clouds, as one resident told me? Would it be possible to track the storm, mile by mile, minute by minute, on foot and in detail?” Sutter asked before he set out on his journey (Sutter, 2013). He live-tweeted throughout the trip and used a GPS-mapping app, geolocating his photos of the aftermath and pinpointing the neighbourhoods where he spoke to residents telling their firsthand accounts the destruction and devastation. In addition to telling the stories of the people who had lost their families, their homes and their livelihoods, Sutter’s journey serves as a kind of an in-real-life verification exercise. He travelled with the reports that came out of the tornado and its aftermath and found people to tell their version of events. It’s a very hands-on approach to truth and accuracy.

Ethics

On Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, 2010, the Toronto-based participatory news startup Open File, which is now defunct, launched what it called “The Poppy File.” The project mapped the addresses of Torontonians who were killed in the Second World War. After the war, citizens answered newspaper ads asking for names of casualties who might have been missed in reports. The cards documented more than 3,300 people who died over Germany in air raids, fighting in Normandy, and in training accidents. Developer Patrick Cain used data from 12 boxes of cards to create the map and added archival photos and recently shot videos telling the stories of soldiers killed in the war. “It turned out that I was committed to what ended up being 55 hours of data entry, working steadily through box after box. Letters and scraps of personal information were a helpful reminder that I was dealing with records of real people, and that the grief over their deaths had once been fresh, and in some cases life-destroying” (McGrath, 2010). Readers were encouraged to send their geo-located stories about fallen relatives and acquaintances. This collaborative effort was steeped in a sense of collective respectfulness and sensitivity. This is a great example of a consciously ethical approach to storytelling, in terms of sharing valuable data, encouraging participation and telling compelling and relevant stories in their neighbourhoods. As Cain puts it, “the streets where we live all have stories to tell” (McGrath, 2010).

Concluding thoughts

The burgeoning participatory geoweb is fertile ground for journalism innovation. In many ways, including content creation, distribution and collaboration, it is leading to a closer relationship between journalists and their audiences. It’s clear that while there are still challenges to overcome, among them barriers to access, truth and verification hurdles, and privacy concerns, these are still valuable opportunities for news organizations. As more and more consumer technologies seamlessly link geo-locative data with form and function, the wealth of information available to share with audiences is also growing. The Internet has spurred the dismantling of the traditional role of the reporter and editor as gatekeeper and collaborative mapping projects have gone even further. They have allowed readers and viewers to redraw the boundaries not only of their own geographies, but also of their relationship to news media.

References

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