AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

Developing Maps for Journalists   

A Washington, D.C., firm helps news outlets develop sophisticated ways of visualizing data. Thurs., November 10, 2011

By Tim Ebner
Tim Ebner (tebner86@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

How do you find one of journalism's players in the data visualization and mapping market? You might want to use a map.

Located in a narrow alleyway just off Washington's U Street corridor is where you will find Development Seed, an 8-year-old company with more than two dozen developers. Inside this two-story warehouse you will find hiding in plain sight a company that is building mapping tools to tell the "geo-stories" of journalism.

Development Seed has the attention of some national and international news outlets. The company has worked with news producers at NPR, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Radio Free Asia. And, company officials say the market for news mapping is about to expand, given recent advances in tools and services that allow anyone with knowledge of backend design to build highly visual and detailed data maps.

"Custom mapping hasn't hit its stride yet," says Eric Gundersen, president and cofounder of Development Seed. "But that's about to change. If you know a little CSS or HTML, you can be really dangerous with the tools that are out there."

Development Seed's product, MapBox, is an open source software tool that combines map design, hosting and sharing tools. The program joins other mapping services like PostGIS, Mapnik and Google Maps.

Most recently, NPR used MapBox to map national U.S. Census data. The project showed demographic changes in Hispanic populations in the United States and lists population shifts for tens of thousands of Census tracts.

And at the Chicago Tribune, where the philosophy is to "show your work," developers have used MapBox tools to design maps and share coding structures. The Tribune's News App Blog provides instruction on how to use a variety of different tools, including those created by Development Seed.

"With MapBox we provide the art of the possible," Gundersen says. "If we do this right―and I think we are―any media organization is going to want to tell a geo-story."

The MapBox service uses heavy amounts of data and visualizations to create data maps that are responsive and delivered at high speed.

The design tool for MapBox, Tilemill, was funded in part by a $75,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's News Challenge and serves as the basis for constructing maps from a variety of different hosts, including OpenStreetMap, a wiki world map.

In a fifteen minute demonstration, Gundersen is able to take raw flooding data and lay it onto a Google map of the Northeastern United States. The map uses geo-location coordinates to plot information showing severity of flooding.

In this demonstration, Gundersen creates his own composite map, but because the program is built around open access, it allows users to search through predefined maps with specific boundaries for things like rivers, highways, school districts or railways.

And for news producers and developers, there is an open forum space on Github where coding and technical questions can be addressed.

Users pay for access to Development Seed's cloud space, where servers store the volumes of data and imaging. What you see on your computer screen or mobile device streams from servers processing the visualized data.

By mid-December, Development Seed says it will roll out a variety of service plans, opening the market to individual organizations and nonprofits. Gundersen says this should also help with cash strapped or startup news organizations.

While the MapBox services have found a way into journalism, the Development Seed mission is focused on supporting NGOs, nonprofits and international development and relief agencies. Many of the mapping tools currently in operation make use of public access to open government data.

"In the international development space, you're dealing with large amounts of data, and you realize very quickly that maps are vital and come into play all the time," Gundersen says. "NGOs and international agencies can better communicate and coordinate projects using our tools."

Most recently, MapBox tools were used to construct data mapping on food security in Africa, the earthquake in Japan and flooding in Thailand.

A project with Internews, an international NGO, and Nai, an Afghanistan-based media group, helped to visualize data that detailed violent attacks on journalists in Afghanistan. Gundersen says the needs of international aid and relief services are not that far from journalism.

Gundersen says there is a need for agencies to show data to the public. At the same, he says journalists using data-enriched maps will understand news stories better.

"Map design and creation needs to be in the hands of journalists," he says. "If they use it, they will identify more story trends from around the world."