Two primary concerns when it comes to news innovation have to do with information itself: harnessing it and investing communities in it. One of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners wants to tackle both of those concerns — at the same time, through the same platform.
Tilemapping aims to empower residents of local communities to explore those communities through mapping. “A lot of great stories can be told using maps and some of the new data that’s become available,” says Eric Gunderson, the project’s coordinator. And the Tilemapping project wants to leverage the narrative power of new technologies to help media — community media, in particular — create hyper-local, data-filled maps that can be easily embedded and shared. The tool is aimed at both journalists and community members more broadly; the idea is to help anyone with investment in a given location “tell more textured stories” about that location — and to help visualize (and discover) connections that might not otherwise be clear.
Tilemapping does what its name suggests: It provides “a tool that basically glues together a bunch of tiles,” Gunderson says, to create a layered map. (Map tiles are the small, square images that comprise maps — think of the squares you see when zooming in on a Google Map.) The project works through TileMill, a MapBox tool that, in turn, “glues together a bunch of other open-source tools to make it easier to generate map tiles.” Users customize both their data and the particular style of their map — and TileMill generates a custom, composite rendering, hosted on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Essentially, the platform is a modular system that allows users to customize the data they want to represent — and to layer them upon other representations to create targeted, contextual maps.
If that framework sounds familiar, there’s good reason: the Tilemapping tools previously helped to create the eminently useful Afghanistan election maps, which helped to visualize complex election data from last August’s controversial presidential election. They also helped to generate information renderings for the World Bank’s new Data.WorldBank.org initiative. And perhaps even more notably, for the Lab’s purposes, the tools combined SRTM (elevation and topography) information and Open Street Map data to create overlays of the devastation in Haiti after the country’s earthquake in December. (Fellow News Challenge winner, the 2009 cycle’s Ushahidi, used a TileMill prototype to create maps that the project then used to crowdsource information on the locations most in need of aid.)
That the textured maps’ usage has thus far had an international focus is no accident. TileMapping is a project of Development Seed, a 15-member outfit in Washington with a special focus on building communications tools for NGOs and similarly focused organizations using open-source tools. “Our client base is predominantly international development orgs — and you can imagine how that’s really gotten us into mapping,” Gunderson, the group’s founder and president, says. And while “there’s a TileMill now — we’ve been using it for a while — it could be better,” he admits. “Which is why we asked for funding.” The $74,000 Knight grant will go toward creating the second, improved version of TileMill (officially, TileMill 2.0), which will broadly focus on making TileMill more user-friendly.
Rolling out that version will involve localizing Development Seed’s mapping effort — and then expanding it. Gunderson and his team will test the TileMill tools in Washington, D.C. (home not only of the Development Seed headquarters, but also of a mix of vibrant but often disconnected hyperlocal communities). That will allow the tool and its users to take advantage of the open-data streams (from crime data to bike lane information) the city made public, via its Data Catalog, in November 2008. “There are a lot of blogs and newspapers here that could tell better stories by having more custom maps,” Gunderson points out — and by using focused data to tease out connections and context. Say you’re a local journalist writing about education. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if you had a base-layer map, not just Google, that’s actually showing school districts?” Or say you’re analyzing local crime stats — wouldn’t it be helpful to merge crime-incident maps with historical overlays of unemployment statistics?
The textured-maps idea isn’t just about representing information; it’s about finding information — discovering new trends, finding new connections. “This ability to make very custom maps on the local level, I think,” Gunderson says, “is going to be an interesting comparative advantage for local media.”
As in most Knight projects, though, the idea — and the ideal — is scalability. So, in addition to its hyperlocal focus, “the tool is going to have fantastic use outside of D.C.,” Gunderson says. (In fact: “we’re very interested to see what other international development organizations are going to do with this.”) But, for the moment, in terms of getting people to use the tool — and of tracking how they use it — “we’re totally focused on the local community here in D.C.”