Getting to grips with mapping is a fundamental part of running a hyperlocal blog – this guest post by Hannah Waldram aims to give some top tips and tools for using maps on your hyperlocal blog. Hannah is one of the Guardian’s beat-bloggers and tweets here
Mapping is wrapped up with the very idea of local. It’s no surprise that one of the first things many hyperlocal start-ups do is work out exactly which area the blog aims to cover.
But what’s local to us is bound up with our day-to-day living – how the school is situated to the bank, how long it takes to walk to the nearest park, how close the post office is to the train station – these are all things which make up our private memory map of our local area.
In this way – using ordinance survey map data could pose a problem for hyperlocal publishers – since the reader’s local map is woven into the fabric of daily lives, their emotions and experiences. But if stories and new bits of information can somehow tap into this private map (make it emo-local) – and help the reader better understand, better digest, or give more meaning to something about their community – then the map is a very powerful tool for storytelling indeed. Part of the reason hyperlocal publishing has often been likened to the news industry is because there are aspects of being a community publisher akin to the traditional patch reporter.
But while local newspaper reporters may struggle to place the story in its emo-local context, hyperlocal publishers not only usually know their area through and through – but also have a number of easy to use online tools at their disposal to help. There are different types of maps that make up an area – some online tools will work very well for local reporting and some stories, while others will be just too complicated for volunteers working in their spare time to bother with. This post aims to give a brief overview of some online mapping tools hyperlocal publishers can use – with some practical tips for those getting to grips with maps for news gathering, storytelling and engagement purposes. I also aim to offer a few ideas for when these tools are best applied and what is the best practise for using maps for hyperlocal blogging.
This is by no means an extensive list – and I’m no expert – so I’d very much welcome comments in the section below linking to other good tools, ideas for best mapping practice and links to maps you’ve seen work well on hyperlocal blogs.
Mapping basics – go Google
Google maps is a god send to hyperlocal publishers – free, easy to use and a very simple way to illustrate a story – it’s worth signing up for a free Google account to take advantage of their mapping services.
Talk About Local gives a quick fire guide to creating maps using Google – and ways you might use them for storytelling here. One thing to bear in mind with Google maps is that for copyright reasons – it’s always best to embed the map rather than screengrab. You might find you want a screenshot of a road as shown in Google Street View – but it’s in their terms and conditions to embed rather than screen grab so make sure you stick to the rules. If you want an alternative to Google try Open Street Map, which will free you from any legal restrictions, and allow you to manipulate the map in creative ways. If you want to draw some shapes on Google maps but keep the measurements specific – try this Zonums tool which allows you to choose a distance calculator before you start. For wordpress.com bloggers sometimes embedding Google maps can be tricky. The best way I’ve found is to grab the embed code – whack it into the html – and then click save or publish and wordpress will convert it to a googlemaps code – there’s a more detailed guide here.
Finally, it is all so easy to succumb to the cute illustrated pins offered up by Google – but I often find the blue and red icons work best for legibility. You can also upload your own pin by clicking ‘Add icon’ and uploading a jpg, gif, bmp, or png image of 64×64 pixels.
Engaging with readers – creating collaborative maps
While reporting for Guardian Cardiff I’ve found that sometimes creating a map can help readers quickly find out how an event or story relates to them and where they live – but I have also found that sometimes readers what to share something with the community via a map.
For me, collaborative maps have worked best for stories which are time-specific and relate to a number of events or incidents taking place across a local area. For example, this collaborative map of local Halloween events in Cardiff, and this map of problems related to the winter weather such as potholes – in both cases the reader has something to offer and gain by plotting their event on the map. The result is something which benefits the whole community. One of the best versions of this I’ve seen is this one from Keep Wales Tidy who plotted all the events taking place in Cardiff over Tidy Wales Week – and invited readers to collaborate on the map. Make the map collaborative by clicking ‘collaborate’ above the map heading and altering the sharing settings to public.
View #0000FF;text-align:left">Tidy Wales Week 2010, Keep Wales Tidy. in a larger map
As I said, collaborative maps work best for events which are time specific – one off events or those limited to a period. This can work for instant events of breaking news – such as students setting up this collaborative map to show incidents related to the protests taking place in London. It looks like they’ve set up a Google form allowing users to submit specific information – which feeds into a spreadsheet and someone updates the map manually from this.
See also this Guardian Leeds map showing bin problems in the city here.
Crowdmaps – mapping the long tail
Collaborative maps can also work well for longer time periods – for example mapping Assembly election campaigns using Crowdmap – which some of the Cardiff students did at the Cardiff Student Media Cafe in January. Again, the best examples seem to be for time-specific, or one off events. But Esko Reinikainen has used a crowdmap for people to report problems to Monmouthshire council, and this crowdmap is charting arts cuts in Wales.
The most obvious benefit of a crowdmap is the ability for the user to text in information which will automatically appear on the map – crowdmaps now also have a new tool for administrators to verify this information. I look forward to seeing how people in Wales track the Assembly election campaigns using this tool.
Sometimes maps can be used to show a variety of moods, trends and comparisons which illustrate a story.
For example, this map illustrates the story ‘How Welsh is your area?’ - and it’s clear the shading of each area is key to making sure the reader instantly grasps something of the story and relates it to them. This was done using Open Heat Maps – which seem to work best when there is an element of comparison there. Another tool I’ve used to show comparative figures is Zeemaps – it allows you to enter multiple files and will show them all on one page – where as Google maps might separate them onto a number of pages – which doesn’t help with making the understanding of the story instantaneous. Paul Bradshaw has written a great blogpost on Online Journalism Blog showing how you can use Open Heat Maps to map UK data, and I wrote this blogpost on how I used Zeemaps to plot local ward data and recycling rates in Cardiff onto a map.
Mapping breaking news
We’ve already mentioned how collaborative maps such as the student protest Google map can be a great way to pull in bits of information related to a location. But if a story is breaking – and it involves a number of people stuck in their cars who all use Twitter on their mobile phone – then you might think to use ‘Co-location communities’ which is a fancy way of saying ‘a map based on tweets from a location’.
This can be used to plot a Twitter trend on the map – hence it being perfect for a one off event people are tweeting about – such as a power cut or a traffic jam. The BBC used Dimensions to allow you to compare the size of a global event by mapping it over your own postcode – this might be a nice way of looking at big story in a local way.
Mapping local government data
Returning to the theme that maps are integral to hyperlocal reporting – mocking up a general map of your area, and places of interest in the locality is a good way to start off a hyperlocal blog. Indeed, it will no doubt spark up a debate about the exact ward boundaries of your area.
This post on gritting routes in Bournville, written by Dave Harte, included a few pars and a map showing the priority gritting routes for the council in times of snow and icy weather. Within minutes the post attracted a comment from a local asking what exact boundaries were considered Bournville – whether roads from neighbouring wards Cotteridge and Stirchley could not be included – location for hyperlocal bloggers in bound with emotion.
Dave has since told me that making the map was a very tiresome process – not least because the information is not readily available in council archives. But mapping your electoral wards can be helpful to the community when it comes to engagement with their local elected ward members – and the politicians responsible for representing the needs of the area.
This comes into the fore around election time – so it’s good to have the maps outlining the ward boundaries ready to go ahead of the campaigns. Mapping ward boundaries is not easy – as I explain in this blogpost – getting hold of the ward data is not as simple as you’d think. But it’s doable – and again I’d use Zeemaps to see a number of wards in a space. For the general election a number of big media organisations quickly knocked up a map showing the election campaigns.
The Guardian mashed up the electoral boundary data with the polls to create this nifty swingometer. When it’s not campaign time, maps are a great way of presenting boring council data which could otherwise get lost inside thick council documents – but which can be very useful or informative for the community. Check out Ed Walker’s blogpost on using maps for local council reporting.
Maps can also be a good way to add background to a specific story – or better more – if you have a local map which you can frequently refer to in order to put your story straight into context, then it will reduce the amount of time you spend creating separate maps for individual stories. For example – lots of people like to the Hyperlocal map which is consistently updated with all the hyperlocal blogs across the UK. Bing’s local lens aims to show all the local blogs in one area. Creating a local map of bloggers in your hyperlocal community is a chance to celebrate the hard work of individuals as well as bolster pride in your local area.
We’ve looking mainly at how you would map one or two sets of data to help illustrate or tell a story, but the more tech-friendly of you will undoubtedly move into mashing data to create more ingenious maps – check out Cloudmade for apps and this schooloscope which shows school ratings in your local area. You might also want to think about running a project using maps for your local area like this fabulous audio mapping project for London Road in Brighton.
A final note on mapping
I don’t know if you’ve found this useful, prescriptive or down right patronising, but even from this brief look at maps it’s clear there are examples in which people have used maps to effectively to add something to the local community. What we haven’t really looked at is bad examples – but there are plenty out there. I wanted to end on one simple note – don’t use a map unless it adds something to the story.
Hyperlocal publishers – many of whom are doing it in their own time and for free – don’t need to waste time by producing sparkly maps which add nothing to their community. This is the biggest pitfall of mapping – creating them for the sake of having a map. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask if you’d find the map useful and easy to navigate. Don’t underestimate the guidance you will need to give the reader in using the map – especially if you open it up to collaboration.
Think hard about what your map with show – what it adds and how your reader my use the map again in the future.
[Since writing this blogpost the Home Office launched their new police.uk crime map showing local data street by street. Talk About Local published this post looking at how hyperlocal publishers might use the map for new gathering and Michael Grimes makes a good point that readers may also need to be skilled up in how to navigate the map.]
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