7 ways to get your audience to participate in mobile mapping projects

News organizations are increasingly involving the community in their reporting and trying to figure out which approaches work well.

One way to get your audience involved is to combine the ease of mobile texting with the visual appeal of a map. Throughout the past few years, I’ve launched several successful mobile mapping crowdsourcing projects for public radio stations and have found that they engaged audiences and helped advance news stories.

Drawing on my experience with these projects, I’ve come up with some tips on how to involve your audience in a successful mobile mapping project in any medium.

Start with a simple question.

Last December, a huge snow storm hit the New York City area. It happened during the holidays when many of the city’s political leaders were away. After two feet accumulated in Central Park, the story quickly became about the cleanup effort — or lack thereof. At first, the mayor said the city was making good progress clearing snow. But listener calls to WNYC, where I was a producer and digital editor at the time, indicated otherwise.

To find out more, we opened up the story to our listeners around the city with a question: Has your block been plowed? All listeners had to do was text the word PLOW to a short number. Using a Google Fusion Table, we plotted all the submissions on a map.

It’s important not to bombard your respondents with questions they didn’t sign up to answer. We made the mistake of asking the same group of people the next week to tell us if their trash had been collected or not (the snow cleanup was affecting that process too). We noticed many people opted out after that question.

In hindsight, we probably should have just asked those texters if they would like to help us report on other issues related to the snow and have them opt in rather than sending them the question directly.

Integrate examples seamlessly with other content.

Once people answered the yes or no question in this case, we responded by asking them to describe how the snow was affecting them. Once we had the audio message, we could play excerpts of people’s stories on the air.

But we didn’t just use that tape to promote the project; we used the tape just like we would any other news soundbite. That way, listeners heard the latest news about the snow storm, the clip from someone affected by it and the prompt to text in your own situation. We ended with a mention of a listener map online that showed blocks that had or had not been plowed.

Be ready for breaking news.

With the snow storm map, we weren’t trying to get our audience to engage for the sake of engagement. There was a specific goal in mind that related to a newsworthy question. But we needed to be ready with the tools way before this. We already subscribed to a text message service (in this case with Mobile Commons) and we were very familiar with the interface.

Fifteen minutes after we made the decision to do it, the texting project was up and running and the question was on the air. The contributions started flooding in.

Showcase some version of the end result as soon as possible.

Even with the initial few dozen responses, it made sense to post the snow map online. That way, it was very clear what people were contributing to. And by playing excerpts of the audio stories on the air, it showed what would happen if you took part.

We applied the same principle at WNYC and PRI’s national show, The Takeaway when we asked people to tell us how high gas prices were forcing changes in their habits (and to tell us the last gas price they paid for). Once we had a few stories from around the country, we made the map prominent online so others could quickly see why they might participate.

Reward people for participating.

When you set out to ask a question of listeners, readers or web users, it’s important to think of why someone would bother to answer. In the spring, WNYC partnered with The New York Times to create a crowdsourced map of bird-watching spots throughout the metro area.

To go along with the Times’ “Bird Week” series, we asked radio listeners and newspaper readers to text in the location of their favorite spots for observing birds. We also asked people to tell us the last bird they’d seen in that spot. While the news value was not as great as the snow map, there was a clear reward for taking part.

Individually, readers and listeners got to share their urban wildlife story with the public. Collectively, they helped create a map that could be used by anyone interested in watching birds in the city.

Make the project fun when possible.

While the bird map was not quite breaking news, it was fun for people to share their wildlife observations from around the city. And while it didn’t necessarily advance a news story, it helped anyone who participated — or even just looked at the map — to think more about his or her surroundings.

Similarly, the snow storm was a serious story that involved some life-threatening situations. By participating, listeners related to the story in a different way, by listening to a report that they — or someone just like them — helped report.

Follow up with participants.

One of the most powerful parts of the snow map was something I think we could only do with a mobile texting project.

When people told us whether or not their block had been plowed, we could text everyone back with a single message. So on the second day of the cleanup effort, when it was becoming clear just how slow the city was removing the snow, we could ask for a status update from the people whose blocks had not been plowed. Some of those people told us the snow trucks had finally reached them, but many were still snowed in.

On the third day, we asked the same question again and discovered the situation was a lot better. Far from getting annoyed at our follow-up message (as we had feared), the people we texted back told us how much they appreciated our interest in their situation. This is something that rarely happens with the people journalists interview  — at least not on the scale made possible with a texting project.

Of course, it also help to write up stories about the project along the way, as we did with the snow map and the gas price project.

Not all audience-driven projects are going to be as successful as you’d like. The key is to make sure they’re driven by a legitimate need for information rather than for the sake of engagement.

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