Mapping technology provides journalists a new medium for storytelling online

Cartography is undergoing a renaissance that is opening new opportunities for journalists. For example, the Los Angeles Times’ successfully updates and moves the police blotter onto the Web by using Google maps to pinpoint homicides. However, mapping technologies offer even more robust data mining possibilities.

Hypercities, a mapping project out of UCLA, connects time and geographical spaces. The site allows users to put historical layers on to maps, such as overlaying John Snow’s nineteenth century work tracing the cholera epidemic on to a map of present-day London. A much more impressive undertaking on Hypercities was created by Xarene Eskandar, a graduate student at UCLA. She consolidated content on the Iranian election to create a geo-located reportage of more than 800 YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, Flickr photographs, and other forms of documentation. Hypercities says that, “The result is the largest, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and sometimes even minute-by-minute web documentation of the election protests in Iran.”, a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and Oxford University, uses comparative maps to show places in the U.S. where bars outnumber grocery stores, which country creates the most web-based references to god around the globe, the geographical face of the abortion battle and, more recently, a map of Wikipedia that takes time into account. Using this time feature, Floating Sheep was able to point out the many biases in Wikipedia including the “lack of pre-16th century biographies in locations (Fertile Crescent, China, Indian subcontinent, etc.) with the longest histories of civilization.” The time element was key in teasing out Wikipedia’s focus on western cultures.

Interestingly, the connection between time and geography does not need to be confined to the physical space, says Kevin Leander, associate professor of language and literacy at Vanderbilt University. His studies on childhood learning take into account not only where children spend their day but also how they move through virtual locations. “Kids have become constrained in their physical mobility,” he says, pointing out the possible role of increased fear over children’s safety as helping create the issue. “But a digital mobility has arisen in concurrence with this back seat child who is not outside of adult supervision.” Simply put, he is finding that activity in the virtual space is increasingly significant for children and needs to be considered when looking at temporal mapping of their lives and interests.

Leander’s work on the relevance of our digital existence to the physical world is part of a larger question just beginning to be asked. Should stories that occur in those spaces, such as virtual worlds, be covered by reporters? How often will they resonate in the physical world? Time will tell — and mapping techniques may help be a guide.

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