Geojournalism opens new paths for journalists


Speed read

  • New tools include satellite maps, GPS smartphones, Field Papers, shapefiles, etc.
  • Journalists will need to do a data dance with an expert to articulate issues well
  • But resourcefulness and imagination remain essential while avoiding ‘data porn’

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[SEOUL] Journalists today have access to powerful yet low-cost tools as well as open data to practise geojournalism which could offset the challenges of ever tighter budgets and deadlines.

“Satellite maps, for example, provide another way of looking at information for journalists asking who owns a large concession of palm oil in a protected region,” says Gustavo Faleiros, manager of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and founder of InfoAmazonia that has been tracking the rate and extent of forest fires in protected areas of the Amazon since 2008.

Geojournalism paves the way for collaboration between a journalist and three key persons: the editor, a designer, and technical experts or scientists, Faleiros says during a session of the 9th World Congress of Science Journalists 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

The key to geojournalism isn’t on expensive tools but the resourcefulness and imagination of a journalist and the team involved, he notes.

“Do not use data just for the sake of it. But use it to guide your audience to find meaning in a story.”

By Gustavo Faleiros

A journalist can use a GPS-enabled smartphone to take geo-located photos to produce a map of an area to reflect data on-ground such as forest fire or glacial retreat.

If organisations cannot afford a GPS unit, they can use a free tool called Field Papers, which allows a journalist to print an atlas of an area for field coverage, writing directly their notes and uploading the data via Quick Response code.

“It is essential that a journalist can do a data dance with an expert and be able to articulate the project well,” adds Willie Shubert, senior program coordinator at EJN.

Experts and scientists are good sources of raw data for making interactive and rich maps and it is crucial for a journalist to tell immediately the type of data files they need, explains Shubert.

A journalist can tell an expert the need for vector format files such as shapefile that include data on points of interest such as roads or boundaries.

In the absence of this, a journalist can inquire for data points in a spreadsheet in CSV or EXL format that include the coordinates, or just a specific address or city name to enable geocoding, explains Shubert.

Other alternative data files or formats include GeoTIFF raster data, the Web Map Service and GEoJSON.

After data dancing with an expert, the journalist will need to talk to a designer who will review and implement the datasets for the maps. A designer is crucial for data cleaning for a better format that can be run on the design software, says Faleiros.

A designer will also help determine the visual hierarchy on how information collected via Field Papers or the raster files can be presented so that the maps are easier to read using tools available such as storymap.js.

After producing the maps, tools usually have an embed tool so that a journalist can integrate the maps in the online story.

Drones and remote sensing can further help journalists collect maps and data independently. To ensure that government surveillance rules are not violated, it is essential to involve a team of scientists who are working on a similar project.

Today’s devices allow for medium-scale resolution for city-level maps, notes Shubert.

On sourcing maps, Faleiros notes infinite sources, including standard and commercial ones. But he says the preference on which is the best to use relies on the project team.

While Google Maps is a good starting point, it mainly functions for navigation on how a person can get from one point to another.

But Faleiros has a word of caution for journalists: “Just because data is abundant on your topic, it does not mean you will do maps and visualisations for everything. There is one thing I advocate – avoid data porn.”

Data porn he says refers to the use of impressive data visuals but which are not relevant to the story or to compensate for the lack of substance.

“Do not use data just for the sake of it. But use it to guide your audience to find meaning in a story,” he reminds.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.