HOME
          
LATEST STORY
A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 24, 2010, 10 a.m.

Knight News Challenge: TileMapping wants to bring the mashup mentality to local maps

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.”

POSTED     June 24, 2010, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2010
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
The newsonomics of new cutbacks at The New York Times
The Times found success with its first round of paywalls, disappointment with its second. Is it hitting a paid-content ceiling?
With limited time to revamp WNYC’s Schoolbook, John Keefe decided to take his team on the road
The new Schoolbook will have targeted emails, major content partnerships, three languages, and more — and building it took just seven days.
What to read next
751
tweets
Wearables could make the “glance” a new subatomic unit of news
“The audience wants to go faster. This can’t be solved with responsive design; it demands an original approach, certainly at the start.”
677Designer or journalist: Who shapes the news you read in your favorite apps?
A new study looks at how engineers and designers from companies like Storify, Zite, and Google News see their work as similar — and different — from traditional journalism.
596Ken Doctor: Guardian Space & Guardian Membership, playing the physical/digital continuum
The Guardian is making its biggest bet on memberships and events by renovating a 30,000 square foot space to host live activities in the heart of London.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Tucson Citizen
Wired
American Independent News Network
Storify
Foursquare
Chicago Tribune
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Frontline
Chi-Town Daily News
Placeblogger
Tumblr
Wikipedia