Over the last few days, we’ve been thinking a lot about how news organizations can most effectively integrate web maps into feature articles or investigative reports. There are millions of amazing examples out there of dynamic graphics or data visualizations bringing news stories to life — sometimes even supplanting the text itself. In fact, last week, NYTimes.com featured this on its front page.
But when it comes to maps, it gets harder to find truly well incorporated web graphics. Many times you have either relatively static reference maps or over-saturated dynamic tools that make it difficult to actually look at a distinct set of variables in relation to each other — which is, in its essence, what makes maps so powerful.
You can see the New York Times struggling with this exact issue in its recent coverage of Ukraine. “Ukraine Crisis in Maps” is a sort of comprehensive, visual summary of the developments in the continuing conflict over Crimea. It’s a chronological series of static maps accompanied by brief paragraphs of text and links to the full-length articles that originally covered the events. And while the maps themselves definitely do a good job providing context and visualizing factors such as troop moment or the locations of violent clashes, they still suffer from this same lack of integration.
There are, of course, exceptions to make every rule. Groups like MapBox and Stamen have been leading the charge for more beautiful interactive maps for years now. And it seems like every week their blogs announce new, amazing features. (Post about some of those exciting developments to come…)
Other groups and tools are starting to emerge. Just last week we came across StoryMap JS. StoryMap JS is a free web-mapping tool out of Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, built to help the user “highlight the locations of a series of events.” It is built using Leaflet, with map tiles by Stamen and data from Open Street Maps. And though it is still in beta, it has already been featured on Al Jazeera America and The Times.
What’s cool about StoryMap JS is that though you can embed images and videos directly into the map, it also allows you to lay both text and pictures over/next to the map without having to build them into the map itself. So, if you wanted to, you could hypothetically show both a static, zoomed-in thematic map and a dynamic locator map at the same time. Ideally, you could investigate a pattern on a small scale without losing the context of the larger one.
The fact is, this arena of both web mapping and digital as a medium for maps is still pretty new. And it’s clearly one with a ton of room for innovation. As a team, we are not only enjoying watching it develop, but are also excited by how the lessons learned in digital journalism can be applied to the field of public health reporting.
We love hearing about new projects, tools, and perspectives, so please share your thoughts and examples with us! firstname.lastname@example.org