Learn How to Turn Data into 'Maps' that Tell Stories

Latest tools make it easy, and powerful, says Saturday's Master Class instructor Hugh Stimson.

By David Beers 1 Apr 2013 |

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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Spatial storytelling is transforming how journalists, and others, communicate: Stimson.

In a corner office of The Tyee's newsroom Hugh Stimson spins data into interactive gold. He rents space with us, his clients are many, and when The Tyee is fortunate enough to gain a bit of his time, he makes groundbreaking digital projects for us like this one: B.C.'s first Interactive Carbon Map.

This Saturday Hugh offers a Tyee Master Class that will get anyone quickly up to speed on latest tools and techniques for turning information into online "maps" that engage the public and go viral. There are still a few spaces left for the five-hour session at Tyee headquarters that includes lunch and grape derived refreshments.

As Hugh says on his "Web Mapping and Data Herding" Master Class info page: "There are stories in the data. You need to get them out of there, and onto a map, preferably on the web. We'll talk about what tools to use, how best to use them, and do some hands on work to get you started." Those tools will include Google Maps; Google Fusion Tables; OpenRefine; Google Chart Tools; Microsoft Excel; MapShaper; Quantum GIS; Geocommons and Leaftlet.js.

Who better then, to ask about how data mapping is changing how people absorb and make sense of information? We strolled over to Hugh's corner and asked...

What is the pleasure you find in turning data into 'maps' the average person can understand and use?

"People are really good at understanding things, even complex things, if they can just look at them laid out over space. Tables and sometimes even charts can be tough, but humans are almost supernaturally good at cueing into patterns of spatial arrangement. Rezoning listings? Boring. A map of the Downtown Eastside with proposed condo developments lit up a certain color? Potentially quite interesting.

"In a town like Vancouver there are so many organizations that can benefit from the ability to tell spatial stories like that, and the tools are increasingly there to be used. Putting them together has a high reward-to-effort ratio."

How do data maps on the web change our basic understandings about journalism?

"Not much, but they do expand the kinds of stories that journalists can apply their traditional principles to, how they dig into them, and how they deliver the results.

"Many stories have an important 'where' component to them, and I think we're going to remember the time when that component could only be described in the text of the piece as a bit like the time before reporters carried cameras. Not every story needs a photo, but many benefit from them and some really need it. Likewise with maps and other visualizations.

"That benefit is set to increase as stories are increasingly going to emerge out of what you might call "data" -- spreadsheets, government databases, structured police reports, document dumps from access to information requests, and the like.

"Reporting is still going to be about acquiring facts, using experience to spot important narratives in those facts, and then framing those subjectively identified narratives within objective delivery of the surrounding information. But with a map or an interactive chart or a sortable inline table a reporter can do more of both at the same time: highlight the narrative they think is most important, but also allow the reader to peruse the underlying data to find other stories, or just to convince themselves that the reporter's narrative judgment was sound."

What's a particularly successful project on the web now that uses some of the skills you'll be teaching in your course?

"I liked Chris Pollon's use of the most basic kind of Google Map to illustrate for The Tyee the journey he took while reporting on the proposed northwestern hydro corridor. It's not fancy but it doesn't have to be: the where of that story is important, and with a simple embedded sidebar map he got that across.

"The Vancouver Sun worked through the most recent census and discovered a whole series of geographic stories about the city, which they told using text and also the free Google Fusion Tables platform.

"At the other end, this very custom-coded Fraser Basin map by Watershed Watch both provides the user with real information about watershed health and also gives the visceral impression that serious people have invested a lot of real science in attempting to understand and conserve the ecosystems that are now under threat."

What kinds of mapped data projects tend to churn a lot of traffic?

"What people actually find and use -- and I think this might be encouraging to non-specialists considering making a simple map -- are single-purpose maps that give casual visitors quick access to a well-identified topic. People come to maps through keyword searches for a particular thing, or because they see it shared in their social feed. It turns out that 'All of the City of Vancouver's Data In One Mapping Interface' makes for a less compelling tweet than 'Map of Bicycle-Car Collisions in the West End.'

"That said, I'm glad that institutions build larger geoportals, because it meant consolidating their spatial data into a department with the mandate for releasing it. Now those departments are creating data catalogues that expose all of the underlying data, instead of the maps themselves. And they have been promising their bosses that if they do that, journalists and civil society groups and businesses and so on will take that data and make the kind of maps that do draw a crowd. I'm hoping that our course will facilitate a few more deliveries on that promise."

Do you see a new kind of journalist -- or maybe a better word is "information-sharer" -- emerging on the landscape with a new mixture of skills -- and what are those skills?

"We now have a category of professional data journalists working in cross-disciplinary teams to mine massive data dumps and author epic visualization features. There are also individual reporters with traditional journalism backgrounds (like Chad Skelton at the Vancouver Sun) who are becoming one-person data journalism departments. I'm interested to see what happens as subsets of those skills filter out to people who work on diverse beats and who don't think of themselves as data pros.

"For those folks a great deal can be accomplished just by knowing where to do your mouse clicking and which things to click. Tools like Google Maps, Google Map Engine Lite, and Google Fusion Tables are all free and make pretty good maps. And if you're willing to get adventurous you can take advantage of the recent explosion in geoweb startups, who have made some really elegant mapping platforms that produce beautiful and highly customizable interactive cartography.

"Some of those tools require or benefit from web skills like HTML and Javascript. During the course we will copy and paste and maybe even write some of that code. If you want to generate your own data or do your own analysis it can help to have a handle on some basic Geographic Information Systems software, and we will download, install, and take on a little map-based analysis. Data often arrives in an inconsistent state that refuses to upload nicely into your mapping platform of choice, and we will look at some free and/or familiar tools for cleaning up, de-duplicating, joining and summarizing data.

"But I think the most important skill is being aware of when a story might be mappable. When you see a spreadsheet with a street address column, do you wonder what it would look like if you ran those addresses through a geocoder and stuck the resulting points on a map of the city? If you haven't seen that spreadsheet, do you consider deploying your reporter savvy to acquire it? Data-thinking is the real new skill, and I think web maps will increasingly be a way for reporters who are also data-thinkers to share the results of that mindset with their readers."

Still some seats left, don't delay

Hugh stresses his course isn't just for journalists. Many organizations can benefit from having a person in house who knows how to convert data into powerful and persuasive stories. There are still a few spaces in his April 6 Master Class, "Web Mapping and Basic Data Herding." As one who is fortunate enough to share office space with the guy, I know you will enjoy spending time with Hugh as much as we all do at The Tyee. The day is sure to be as fun as it is informative. Attention Tyee Builders: You get a discount! Find out more about Saturday's class by clicking here.

And to learn about other Tyee Master Classes being offered this spring, click here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Media

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