If you’re going to embed a map in a news site, ask yourself: “Just because I can, should I?”
Some time ago I was mildly berated by a colleague for posting a blog suggesting a map may not always be suitable for expressing data.
“We make mapping software”, my colleague exasperated, “We sell a product that maps data. You can’t be writing that!”
I stood by my act of sacrilege and the article can still be found on our blog (I’m not going to say where – maybe my boss hasn’t read it yet).
I believe in the value of mapping because I believe maps tell stories in a simple, direct and visually engaging way. But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
If the data isn’t interesting enough to put on a map then don’t put it on a map.
I think this advice in particular should apply to journalists who, in essence, are storytellers.
Yesterday on my local newspaper’s website, I read an interesting story about the funding of an Irish political party.
The story was about US benefactors who were making secret donations to this party. As written, this was about the donors and the amount they donated. Bang in the middle of the article was this interactive map, revealing donations on a state-by-state basis:
I didn’t like this map.
Initially, I thought the problem lay in the design. So I manually copied the data from each state, put it in an Excel spreadsheet, uploaded it to eSpatial, and then consulted with one of eSpatial’s technical mapping experts – otherwise known as “Kevin”.
After a little consideration, Kevin suggested that if we were to express the same data, then our map would also be a heat map. The only advantage would be that ours would include a search bar and a legend.
An advance – but not one that added a great deal more to the story.
Then I realized the underlying problem: the map was completely unnecessary. It added nothing to what was being reported. The main interest for the reader was knowing who the benefactors were, not where they made donations.
If the map was removed, it would have no impact. What extra information it supplied was largely irrelevant (at no point did the article refer to donations by state).
Now let me refer to another story in the same news website some weeks back. It was about a new cycling route – one that cyclists like myself would be delighted to know about. While the new route was in a part of the city that I knew, from the locations mentioned in the report, I couldn’t actually discern where the route would be until I looked it up on a map.
Bing! (Or in other words: I had an idea.)
I took the initiative and made a simple eSpatial route map (with just two points – the start and finish points of the new cycling route). I then forwarded it to the website’s newsdesk.
Without any further prompting from me, it was embedded in the relevant article within the hour.
Why did the (obviously very smart) editor include an interactive map with the story? Because it revealed something that readers would not have grasped by just reading the words. It not only showed the route, it visually contextualized it. It also summarized the story – New cycling path in north of city – so that the headline and the map were all you needed to get the jist of what was being reported.
This was a good example of “we can, therefore we should” – a point proven by the number of readers who clicked on the map.
So, my advice to any journalist or editor thinking of using a map – or any data visualization device – please, please, for the sake of your loyal readers, make sure you have data that is closely connected to the news or feature story you are presenting.
Apply the Jeff Goldblum principle.
Patrick Butler is a Content Writer with eSpatial. He has a masters degree in journalism and has published articles in a range of Irish national newspapers, including The Irish Times and The Irish Independent. He creates good maps but his salads are better, and often more colorful…