Round-up: Innovative Public Media Maps

Posted on Thursday, July 07, 2011 in Insights, iMA Innovators Blog,

This post is the first in iMA's Public Media Innovators series about innovative public media projects. Written by Amanda Hirsch, the goal of the series is to get people talking about content and community engagement strategies that make public media a relevant and viable media enterprise for the 21st century. This conversation complements discussions already happening in the public media Facebook group and elsewhere. Email story ideas to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

"The best journalism is like a map. It shows where you are in relation to others; it provides a sense of topography, a glimpse in to a new world, or a better understanding of a familiar one. Ideally, journalism helps citizens and communities discover where they are, so they can better decide where they are going." - Krissy Clark, KQED

“I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and I find it hard to believe.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

Generally speaking, and with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson, I am not a fan of maps. I'm talking online maps here -- map-as-content-feature, not Rand McNally, stash-it-in-the-glove-compartment-maps. Those maps are fine, if difficult to fold. But online maps give me major fatigue. I think it's because I've seen so many that lack imagination, that were created by a rushed web producer because geography was an obvious organizing principle. Just because it's easy to categorize things by place, doesn't mean that sort-by-location is an interesting way into a story.

Despite my status as a map skeptic, I found myself recently inspired by an array of mapping projects underway in public media land. The first to capture my imagination was the "New Littles" project at WNYC, where The Brian Lehrer Show is working with Andrew Beveridge of Social Explorer and the community to map the city's ethnic enclaves ("If Italians have left Little Italy, where are the new Littles?"):

As WNYC's John Keefe writes on his blog, "When I saw the NYC ancestry data, I immediately thought, 'That screams MAP!'"

And right there, in John's moment of inspiration, lies the secret to why this map works for me: it was created with the user's needs in mind. What average citizen wants to read through spreadsheets of U.S. Census data? Maps to the rescue. As John's collaborator on the Littles project, WNYC producer Jody Avirgan, wrote to me in an email,

"In general, I think that that the 'let’s map this!' trend has gotten a little out of hand – you don’t necessarily need to see everything on a map - but this is an obvious fit. I know that people are finding surprises in the map – who knew there was a significant Panamanian population less than a mile from my house? It’s the online equivalent of walking down an unfamiliar block and discovering something unexpected."

And since no one tour guide can show you every city block, I love that WNYC is inviting local artists to share their own hand-drawn maps of the city's neighborhoods.

Great minds think alike, and over on the other coast, Juan Devis at KCET is running his own map-making contest, Map Your L.A., complete with creative map-making tips. The contest builds on the station's experience helping students create personal maps of the city -- maps that aren't concerned with geographical accuracy, so much as with capturing students' "mental landscape of where they live":

What happens when you take maps beyond the browser, and into the actual community? Enter KQED producer Krissy Clark, whose blog, Stories Everywhere, I highly recommend to anyone looking to track innovations in location-based storytelling. Her latest production: a KQED/StoryCorps collaboration located in New York City's Lower East Side neighborhood. As Clark describes it,

"As you pass by certain spots, you can hear the walls talk, with the voices of people who have lived or worked in that place at some point in time."

Clark culled the stories from StoryCorps archives. I wonder, what other stories could we unleash in this manner from the public media archives?

Over at This American Life, producer Seth Lind and his colleagues are pondering the mapping possibilities of the TAL archives. Maybe they should use the Public Radio Roadtrip app?

What kinds of maps are you working on? What dream map projects would you like to see take shape?

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This post just scratches the surface of cool mapping projects in public media. Stay tuned for a comprehensive, updatable list of public media maps on the iMA website (post a link to your project in the comments and we'll make sure it's included!).

In the meantime, here are some additional resources to help inspire your next mapping project:

Amanda Hirsch is a writer and online media consultant with deep ties to public media. The former editorial director of, she's written for MediaShift and P.O.V. and managed the EconomyStory project. Amanda also co-hosted the weekly #pubmedia chat on Twitter. You can follow Amanda on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.