Breadth Portfolio: Part 1 – Maps and Forms

In this series of posts I’ll share part of the report I wrote for the MA Online Journalism’s Multimedia Journalism module, in which I describe some experiments I developed in the last months. I’d appreciate some feedback and ideas on this.

Maps and Forms

One of the most interesting phenomena in online journalism is how media can easily be left out of the process of delivering the news: they are no longer the source of information to a wider audience, but most times sit on the sidelines trying to grasp what is going on before their eyes. As we have learned with breaking news stories, it has been the crowd, the common users, that have revealed events to the world faster, more accurately and in a more diverse fashion than “regular” media is able to.  We saw that happen with the Hudson River airplane near-crash, lots of earthquakes from China to Haiti, with the demonstrations in Iran. All were relevant for different reasons, but their dissemination to a wider audience has a few points in common: social networks, and the absence of media, at least in the very first instants.

I’ve been defending for a while that journalists are no longer mediators between fact and public, but news DJs that remix the information available, building on preexistent content, generated by users, authorities, and other media.  Yet, media seem to fail to gather and organize this torrent of information.

When on the 20th of February a storm hit Madeira Island, causing mudslides and floods, the silence on most news websites, radios and TV stations was deafening. But on Twitter there were accounts from local people about what was going on, and, above all, they had videos. The event was being tagged as #tempmad, so it was easy to follow all the developments, but the information seemed to be too scattered to get a real picture of what was going on in the island, and since there was no one organizing the information available, I decided to create a map on Google[ii], to place videos, pictures and other relevant information.

Starting off with links to YouTube videos published by witnesses on location, and asking for more content, I quickly put the map together and made it available to everyone and although it hadn’t many items, it started to get hits at an impressive rate. Since it was Saturday, and most newsrooms were empty, it was the only visual representation online of the events in the first hours, and it was used by some Portuguese media[iii] in their coverage of the event (more specifically, two national newspapers and public television). It got 10.000 views in the first hours and reached 30.000 in just two days. One month later, it has the impressive number of 77 thousand visits.

Madeira Map

But that was relatively easy, since all I had to do was to place and embed the video and photographic content available into the map. When I started collaborating on the second day with an impromptu team that was aggregating data about the floods in a Netvibes website[iv] created by IT student, I started thinking about how to create ways to make information available in real time, or with the direct participation of the community. We were already trying to create lists of missing people, when doubts started about the number of dead. So we asked people to share the information they had, and since we couldn’t be waiting for that information to show up on the timeline, I created a form[v] where people could – with some detail – give out the names, residence and origin of the victims, and where they were found. Rumors placed the number of dead around the hundred, but final count marks 43, and that form was useful to have some grasp on reality. The form would then feed a spreadsheet automatically, placed on the website.

I also installed two maps, one giving the number of dead by district[vii], fed through a spreadsheet that automatically placed the marks in the right geolocation; the other was a recent Umapper development, showing geolocated tweets[ix] using the referred #tempad tag. These were easy to set and place and I think they did their job quite well.

It is hard to present a structured research for this assignment about this situation. The technical skills required are not that demanding, and the most rewarding and interesting tools for live mapping did not apply or were too complicated to put into use in a breaking news operation. But as geolocation gains more and more relevance in the production and sharing of content, the standards for online news coverage start to revolve around the concept.

One of the things that struck me is that despite these are tools available for free and easy to use, media don’t take advantage of them. It was really fast to deploy these features on the website, and there wasn’t much science involved, all that is required to respond in a breaking news situation. GoogleDocs are simple to use, and the latest developments allowed them to become almost “just-add-water” apps. What is the real challenge is to choose the right way to present information. It’s the journalist’s discerning view that will make the difference between good and bad web-based newsgathering.

Links and references

[ii]Google Map

[iii] Post with media references

[iv] Netvibes website

[v] Form on page

[vii] Death Map (on top)

[ix] Ummaper tweet map at the end of the post

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