Google Maps: One Way to Tell Your Data Story

This week, my students will be taking a look at how journalists have used maps to tell data stories.  They will be watching a quick video I did (without audio unfortunately), as well as checking out a variety of Google maps others have created. One sad, powerful example they’ll look at specifically is the map the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York did on the homicides in 2005. (They just updated a map last week on more current homicides, too.)

The discussion I hope to prompt is one that centers on telling data stories in other ways aside from text.  Though they will examine data later in the semester to, in fact, tell a data-driven story, I want them to see how accessible and comprehensible data becomes when is expressed in a visual form. Sometimes, that visual form is a map.

So, they’ll begin small.  First, they are going to do a simple map that tells their biography–things like where they went to high school, their favorite  neighbor spot to eat, the park where they walk their dog.  Then, they’ll create a map that fits into their blog theme, something that they believe will hold value to their readers.

The maps won’t necessarily be sophisticated as, say, this one on toxic hotspots.  But, doing these two maps will start my students on a journey that will lead to a lot of other data visualization.  And I’m sure to be learning more skills right alongside them.


Curation Journalism

We’re about three weeks into the semester and my multimedia students have set up their Google readers, created Twitter accounts, and started their own WordPress blogs.

Time for something new.

This week, they’re going to practice curation. That is, they’re going to build a “story” out of Twitter posts, using Storify, one of several tools than can synthesize information from the Web.

There’s good reason to have my students play around with this. Social media is clearly a large part of the information landscape now, and journalists are in the middle of an experiment on how to garner its potential. Through social media, they’re cultivating sources for traditionally told stories, they’re promoting stories they’ve written, they’re networking. But social media is not a one-way pipeline, and to ignore what social media users themselves are saying is to miss a large part of the story.

One journalist who recognized the story-telling importance of social media–Twitter in particular–is Andy Carvin. He’s been curating Tweets from the streets of the Arab Spring since the beginning. He does this both by selecting and retweeting information on Twitter and using Storify. To subscribe to his Twitter feed is to get an urgent and compelling look at the view on the ground.

Of course, if you’re on social media, you could do this yourself. You could take the time to search Twitter for key terms and key people who are immersed in the events of the day. You could filter out those Tweets that don’t pertain, retweeting those that do. In fact, Twitter users do most of these activities already.

The difference comes down to the tenets of good journalism–storytelling, balance, verification are all reasons to seek out curation done by journalists. In fact, according to David Brewer, that’s what journalists have been doing for years, only without the benefit of high-tech tools.

What to watch out for:

  • Social media moves quick. You’ll need to as well, or your curated stories will be less relevant.
  • At the same time, you’ll need to be careful. Information from Tweets and other social media can be wrong. You’ll need to corroborate what you use. And since faulty information gets passed along so readily on the Web, checking it against other Tweets can be risky as your sole source of confirmation. Crowdsourcing, alas, is not infallible.
  • If you’re pulling retweets from others, be mindful that those tweets may reflect information that’s no longer up to date. Carvin explains it to Ethan Zuckerman this way: “Twitter can echo in the sense that it’s loud at first, then reverberates for a while. So something one person might’ve posted 12 hours ago gets retweeted by someone who’s just checking Twitter for the first time, causing it to propagate further.”
  • It could be tempting to just throw a bunch of parts together without giving much thought to the shape that’s created. But then, that wouldn’t be journalism, so consider what the story is that you’re trying to tell before you curate.
  • In fact, it can be easy to overdo on the assets (number of parts you bring in from the Web, Twitter, and the like). Think like museum curators who cull and arrange artwork, suggests Mindy McAdams.

After trying my own hand at Storify, one of my concerns is that curated topics can seem a bit superficially covered. That’s ok. Curation sits alongside other storytelling methods; it doesn’t replace them.

Want more on curation journalism? Check out my piece on Storify for a list of sources on the topic.

Tips on Establishing an Editorial Calendar for Your Blog

You’ve decided on a topic for your blog.  You set up your blogroll to ensconce yourself in that particular community.  You’ve connected your Twitter account to your blog and asked your Facebook friends to check out your new blog. You post once, twice, maybe even three times.  Then?  Nothing.

Why?  You’ve run into writer’s block and can’t think of what to write about.  Sound typical?  It is.  But there’s a way around this: establishing an editorial calendar.  That’s exactly what my JOUR 121 students are going to do and that’s exactly what I’m doing, too.  What’s an editorial calendar?  It’s a list of ideas for your posts and, possibly, when you plan to post them.

There are several different ways to organize your editorial calendar:

1. Each day has a different theme (especially good for bloggers who post daily).  One blogger suggests a weekly schedule that might, say, look this: Mondays–tech posts; Tuesdays–writing tips, etc.  Tell your readers about your schedule, and they’ll begin to anticipate your posts.

2.  You could also do monthly themes.  As with the previous idea, once your readers know what to expect, they’ll be more likely to come back to your blog, especially if the themes offer them something they need.

3.  Or you could establish the categories you’d like to create blog posts for.  For example, Pushing Social asserts that bloggers actually mentor people, and that as such, your blogs posts should do one of three things:  1) guide people, 2) inspire confidence, or 3) provide tools.  With this in mind, Pushing Social says, each post in your editorial calendar planning should seek to achieve one of these goals.

You might have your own categories in mind.  For our department blog, I came up with three primary categories:  a) where they are now (for a look at what current and former students are doing now in the field), b) career and major advice, c) tips from professionals in the field, and d) department news.  Once I did that, I was able to easily brainstorm post ideas under each category.

Of course, you can always deviate from your calendar (unless you’ve broadcast it to your readers), should new ideas come to mind.  But one thing’s guaranteed:  Establish an editorial calendar for yourself, and you’ll spend more time writing and less time with writer’s block.