27 June 2008


Hello and welcome to this fortnight’s SPOTLIGHT post on the use of maps by the news media.

We’ll start our journey by going back to see when using maps as online reporting tools really took off.

Then we’ll travel through the current media landscape to take a look at some of the many innovative ways that news sites are using maps to enhance their online coverage.

Along the way we’ll also see examples of maps which rely on user participation, before completing our travels with a guide to mapping resources for journalists.


Exactly eight years ago yesterday, Dylan Loeb McClain wrote in the New York Times:

“If The Associated Press succeeds with its newest project, people who read newspapers, watch television news broadcasts or scan Web media sites will soon see maps, maps and more maps.

“And not just ordinary, run-of-the-mill maps - those pedestrian items with a couple of roads and the names of some towns - but maps that show demographic data, or earthquake fault lines and the number and location of quakes along each fault or even the location of every tree and bush in a neighborhood.

“The new product, called MapShop, is a Web-based program designed to allow journalists to create in minutes sophisticated, information-rich maps that once might have taken hours or even days.”

McClain may not have backed the right horse in the software stakes but his prescient article does provide a pretty accurate picture of today’s multimedia mapping landscape.

Newsrooms are now able to create detailed maps integrating different kinds of data in a relatively quick and easy way which must have been almost unthinkable back in the early days of news websites.

The Advent of Google Maps

But it wasn’t MapShop that unleashed this mapping frenzy, rather it was the launch of Google Maps in 2005 which saw cybercartography become one of the most popular and exciting trends in online journalism.

Unlike the paid-for MapShop (now known as Map Studio), the Google Maps API is a free tool which enables users to create their own maps which can be embedded on their own sites.

Since then, growing numbers of mapping software providers offer their applications for free (listed at the end), but the Google Maps API is the overwhelming tool of choice for the majority of news sites.

Now let’s take a look at how news organisations in the UK and the US have created their own maps to add a fresh dimension to their stories.

The Three Degrees

There are three main ways that maps are currently used by news providers or aggregators, they can be categorised as follows:

1 Interactive Maps

The map and all its data is submitted and maintained by journalists/ technical staff. Users can usually interact by choosing which areas to view and digging down to find more content.

Examples:- Maps of restaurant reviews, traffic hotspots and special projects such as crime maps.

2 Collaborative Maps

Users can submit their own data to the map to supplement the information provided by the editorial team.

Examples:- Pothole and fuel price maps.

3 News Maps

These maps enable users to select news in areas of interest to them by browsing a map and are created using geotagging or geocoding systems – these will be discussed in next fortnight’s post.

Interactive Maps – UK

Maps can be used as part of a campaign issue and this is how the Manchester Evening News started the new year with its interactive multimedia map showing shooting deaths in Greater Manchester over the last eight years.

[Manchester Gun Murders Mapped – 10.01.08]

While Sky News used an interactive map to highlight the various environmental projects taking place throughout the UK, from individual actions to large-scale green schemes.

Maps can be used as an information resource and are particularly popular in relation to fuel price issues.

For example, the Lancashire Evening Post recently used a Google map satellite image to show where to buy the cheapest petrol in Preston.

Maps are also a popular tool for election coverage and here’s an example from the Liverpool Echo’s online reporting of the recent council elections.

And maps can be an effective way to communicate information from a breaking news story, demonstrated by the Plymouth Herald which used a Google map with an article about unsafe drinking water.

The Herald used the map to inform people of the areas potentially affected by the incident.

Journalists are also deploying mapping applications in order to provide a multimedia dimension to major news stories.

For example, the Ipswich Evening Star used several interactive maps in its coverage of a multiple murder trial.

[Multimedia Journalism Draws Traffic – 18.03.08]

Interactive Maps – US

Looking across the pond, maps are being used in similar ways but there are also several areas where maps really seem to have taken off in a manner not seen in the UK.

Interactive maps using real-time data are cropping up on a significant number of sites and a great example is the 911 Calls graphic from the Indianapolis Star.

The map, which received a notable entry mention at last year’s Knight-Batten Awards, enables users to see the most recent 30 emergency callouts for police and fire services.

While among the Toronto Star’s gallery of interactive maps is a traffic information resource which provides links to real-time pictures from the city’s traffic cameras.

In the US, journalists are also using maps to provide graphics on non-news stories and feature articles.

For example, the Las Vegas Sun illustrated its History of Fabulous Las Vegas with an interactive map charting the development of casinos along the strip.

While the Bakersfield Californian has mapped the favourite restaurant reviews of its resident food critic.

Collaborative Maps – UK

Collaborative maps are certainly a less common sight on UK websites at present but seem to be growing in popularity.

They encourage the active participation of users to help submit information and build a collaborative data resource.

Recent examples include an online map from BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme which asked visitors their experience of the credit crunch in order to create “a mood map”.

[Users Help Beeb Map Credit Crunch – 13.05.08]

Another example of an innovative collaborative map can be seen at the Sunderland Echo where expats from the north-east can add their locations and details about themselves on a map of the world.

Collaborative Maps – US

The Bakersfield Californian boasts a number of interesting collaborative maps, including the potholes graphic where users have helped map potholes so they can be brought to the attention of local services.

In addition, the website has a Quirks map where registered members can post details about their favourite quirky features and local landmarks in the area.

The Bowling Green Daily News is using collaborative mapping to serve the community through its Yard Sales map where users submit information of garage and yard sales.

Finally, the Times Herald-Record used collaborative mapping tools to create its Gas Watch graphic showing petrol prices in the region.


There’s no shortage of online resources about mapping so here’s a just a few links to some useful sites.

Directions magazine has regular podcasts about geospatial technology and many include discussions on the use of maps by news media.

While the Google Maps Mania blog offers an abundance of hints and tips through its Special Features posts such as 100 Things to do with Google Maps Mashups and a four-part series on how the news media is using maps.

Other useful posts about Google maps include this entry from 10,000 Words on how to use pictures with Google maps and this Google maps tutorial post from Andy Dickinson.

There are lots of other mapping software providers and here’s links to a few of them:

Stamen Design


Quik Maps

Map Builder

MappedUp – This displays stories from news source RSS feeds and puts them onto a world map

Frappr - Enables users to map visitors to their websites

Platial - Social mapping provider

So that’s it for this fortnight’s SPOTLIGHT post, next time we’ll be looking at the accompanying subject of geotagging.

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