Toledo mayor calls Blade ‘irresponsible’ for reporting information he won’t release

The Blade | The Journal News

Toledo’s mayor blasted The (Toledo, Ohio) Blade for publishing its own map of gang territories in the city, but he still refused to make public a police map of gang activity. The Blade made its map “after exhaustive interviews and research,” Ignazio Messina writes.

Mayor Mike Bell said the map, which is part of a series, threatened outside investment in the city. The series started Sunday.

“I would say it is probably one of the most irresponsible forms of journalism that I have read in the paper since I have been in this city, from the standpoint of the recoil it possibly will have on the economy in terms of being able to recruit people and bring people in,” Mr. Bell said. “To me it is almost like kicking someone when they are down. … Tell me what is the positive side of this?”

The Blade in July sued the city for allegedly violating the Ohio Public Records Act by restricting access to the police department’s map, which is used to monitor gang activities and shootings. Several members of the city council — as well as mayoral hopefuls — have said they believe the map should be released, even as Bell insists Toledo’s gang activity is “no different than any other metropolitan city.” Read more

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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. Read more

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Explainer maps locate, contextualize and localize news from Libya, Japan

In recent weeks, the media have reported on how events in Libya and Japan are affecting Misurata, Az Zintan, Tripoli and Rikuzentakata.

Is your geography good enough to know that Misurata and Az Zintan are in northwest Libya, that Tripoli is northeast of Kabaw, and that Rikuzentakata is a coastal town in northeast Japan?

If not, then look at some of the maps that journalists at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and CNN have published recently in print and online.

A chart showing the spike in searches for maps of Libya.

Stats from Google trends indicate that people want to know where the countries and cities in the news are located. Searches for maps of Libya and Japan, for instance, have spiked significantly this month.

Google’s Sean Carlson says he’s seen a steady flow of news organizations using Google Maps and Google Earth to help illustrate recent international stories. He looks at these tools as “helicopters in the hands of news organizations” — ways to provide readers with a perspective they might not otherwise get from text or photos.

So, what makes a map valuable? And why are they such an important form of explanatory journalism?

Location, location, location

At their most basic level, maps show people were a place is located. Creating locator maps for print is generally the first step in The New York Times’ map-making process, said Matthew Ericson, deputy graphics editor.

“We want to help readers understand the geographic components of a story,” Ericson said in a phone interview. “We develop the map from there and say, ‘How can we move it forward? What information is useful to a reader? What should we put on a map that would help readers better understand this?’ ”

The Times and other national papers have been regularly running maps of Libya and Japan in their print editions. Some readers may already be familiar with these cities and countries, but let’s be honest: Americans aren’t known for having the best sense of geography.

“Myriad polls and surveys leave no doubt that Americans are among the most geographically illiterate of all developed societies,” writes David Keeling, a professor of geography at Western Kentucky University. Furthermore, “the ranks of Americans who have ever taken a geography class in high school or university are small.”

News organizations can help fill this void — not just by letting people know where a place is, but by providing them with additional context that helps them make sense of the news and its geographical component.

Interactive maps do a good job of offering context. Take CNN’s map of Japan. Users can select different tabs to see how the earthquake has affected various parts of the country, and which cities have the highest number of casualties.

Users can click on various icons to see videos, iReports and text related to cities on this interactive CNN map. “I think especially with the Web format, a map has so much potential to be a story by itself,” CNN World Editor Amy Cox said in a phone interview. (c) Google

Another good example is The Wall Street Journal’s interactive map of Libya. Each day the map is updated to reflect the latest news about air strikes and explosions in cities such as Misrata and Sirte. By clicking on the cities, you can see what’s happened there that day and compare it to days past. The New York Times, which has four cartographers, has also been updating its map of Libya daily.

Providing users with updated maps can give them reason to return to your site.

“The data-driven interactives take a lot of time and teamwork to produce, but they have the greatest value and generate good traffic and time-spent on the site,” said Juan Thomassie, senior interactive developer at USA Today. “I think maps are most valuable when they tell more than just where a place is. The location can be important, but the context is really most interesting.”

Showing changes over time and place

Any context that helps show users changes over time and place are valuable, says Wall Street Journal News Editor Kate Ortega. Interactive maps work best, she noted, when they involve multiple places and events, such as the stories out of Japan and Libya.

“If it’s a one-place or one-time event, for example, a mosque bombing in Baghdad or a series of bombings at the same mosque over a series of weeks, a locator map or a timeline could be useful, but there’s not much complexity that would make an interactive map very interesting,” she told me. “But if you can introduce another dimension, for example, mosque bombings over the course of six months or in multiple cities, now you’re talking.”

The Times has found that interactive maps showing changes over time and place help people understand the bigger picture.

Users can turn to this New York Times map to see where buildings have been destroyed and how many people have died in each city.

“One of the maps we put up fairly soon after the tsunami hit in Japan showed damage from the earthquake and the tsunami. What people wanted to see was how widespread the damage was,” Ericson said. “There were lots of stories and photos, but to really get a sense of how far up and down the coast that damage spread, the interactive map gave you a good way to do that. It let people bring some geographic understanding to the photos. They could see the photos and where the towns were located and then see how the damage there compared.”

Interactive maps can also recreate a sense of time and place. Patrick Cain of Global News has created a couple of maps to explain historic events that “may have become invisible through the passage of time.”

A World War II map he created, for instance, shows a single day’s deaths in 1942.

“The map shows that a small neighborhood of a few streets near Queen and Spadina lost five people,” Cain told me. “The area has changed many times, and the people for whom that was a lived experience are mostly dead, but an interactive tool like this can reconstruct it, to an extent.”

Maps localize, personalize news

It’s not always easy to see how stories taking place in other parts of the country or world affect us. But maps can help us localize the news and relate to it.

“I think the power of being able to use maps is the chance for people to relate it to their own lives,” Rebecca Shapley told me by phone. Shapley is product manager of Google Fusion Tables, which some journalists are using to collect and organize data for maps.

“If you’re doing a story about earthquakes, you can say, ‘How many are near me?’ ” She noted that a lot of news organizations’ maps enable users to search information by ZIP code.

The Takeaway and CNN Money recently used Google maps to personalize the news about Japan’s nuclear reactors by showing readers how close they live to nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Maps “let people take a look and zoom in and see how where they live compares to other areas around the world,” the Times’ Ericson said. “There’s a sense that ‘I can explore and compare my neighborhood to the rest of the world,’ which I think is always a useful source for readers.”

Text and photos, of course, can also provide ways to relate to national and international news. But the power of maps is that they say so much in so few words.

“The visual display of information on a map can be such a rich experience,” said USA Today’s Thomassie. “Design and data come together with color and interactivity and they often tell a story that is so much more compelling than words can describe.” Read more


Boston transit opens up data for mobile apps

Andrea Bernstein reports from Boston that the city’s transit agency last year was struggling with the challenge of how to share real-time data with passengers about where city buses are. So the agency invited 200 developers to a meeting to talk about opening up the information for public use.

Bernstein spoke with Chris Dempsey, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority director of innovation, and his colleague Joshua Robin. Robin told her what happened after that meeting:

When we came back from lunch, someone had already built an application, a Google Earth application. And by the end of the weekend, before Chris and I got back to work on Monday, someone had already put it on a simple website.”

A month later, the result of this effort was available for purchase in the iTunes Store: an iPhone app called Catch the Bus that enables them to look up the actual arrival times for specific stops on a route. An Android app is also available. Bernstein indicates that an iPad version, which will show the live locations of each bus on a map, is due next week.

> How Geeks and their Transit Apps Get Us Around Town (Wall Street Journal) Read more


Brady: New D.C. Site to Rely on 3 Things for Delivering News on Every Block

People who visit Allbritton Communications’ still-unnamed metro D.C. news site when it launches in June will see elements that have been employed elsewhere — aggregation, geocoding, community engagement — but not quite in this formula.

“People think we’re biting off a pretty big chunk here, covering the whole region, hiring this many people,” said Jim Brady, president of digital strategy for Allbritton, which also owns Politico and two Washington TV stations.

“If you look at the past, there are some sites that just tried to do the community angle, there are sites that just tried to do the data angle, there are sites that just tried to do the original reporting. The truth is, I think that for a local site to be effective, it’s got to be a mix of all those things.”

Users will find a site that highlights major, area-wide news and micro, neighborhood-level information — and doesn’t clutter the page with content that doesn’t fit into either category.

The site will have a staff of 50, including 20 reporters and seven members of a community engagement team. Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry were brought on for key positions, and a few more hires were announced this week. The name of the site will be revealed shortly, Brady said — perhaps today.

Brady the gardener

Washington Post journalists who are nervously anticipating the launch of the site run by their former colleague may be consoled that he doesn’t believe Allbritton’s new site will become the single, dominant news source in Washington — because he doesn’t believe in such a thing.
The Web “has allowed so many flowers to bloom,” he said by phone this week. “We’re looking to be the one that not only acknowledges there’s a lot of flowers blooming in those pots, but we want to work with as many of those flowers as possible.”

Shoot high and low

With 5 million people in the Washington metro area, and multiple media outlets in every corner, Brady knows this site can’t compete on every story.

He described a two-pronged approach to presenting news: Give users the top 10 percent of news for Virginia, Maryland and the District — “the stuff everyone cares about” — and the bottom 10 percent that pertain to someone’s neighborhood — “the stuff that really matters to you because it happened a half-mile away.”

And don’t worry too much about everything in between, “all this stuff that we can make an educated guess that you’re probably not going to care about,” he said.

The top 10 slice of news will be originally reported and aggregated. The bottom will be a combination of original reporting, aggregation and data.

Stick to a few targeted beats

There will be a limited number of beat reporters with familiar-sounding specialties such as transportation, arts and entertainment, sports, local politics and public safety, as well as general-assignment reporters. (The beats haven’t been finalized.)

The site will coordinate some coverage with the news staffs at Allbritton’s two TV stations, WJLA, an ABC affiliate, and News Channel 8, an all-news cable channel. (Once launched, this site will replace both news sites, which appear to share a lot of content.)

Brady doesn’t anticipate covering schools, at least not at first, and he doesn’t envision a lot of business coverage. They’ll look for partnerships to fill such gaps.

Aggregate heavily

What the staff doesn’t report will be represented on the site through aggregation.

Brady doesn’t believe an aggregation-only site can survive, but he thinks it can work in partnership with original content. So the site will “happily point to the other sites that are producing good and original content,” he said. “There’s really not a great aggregation model in the city yet.”

Buttry’s team will be responsible for finding and surfacing relevant content produced by others around Washington, including niche bloggers and neighborhood sites. One of the new members of that team, for instance, blogs about vintage and thrift shops around Washington.

“There’s not a square block in this region, I’m relatively convinced, that there’s not somebody blogging about or someone writing about,” Brady said. “And certainly when you get into public databases of restaurant listings, and crime reports and home sales, those occur on every block in the entire region, and I think there’s going to be something there for everybody.”

In some cases, “aggregation” may simply mean geocoding and linking to content elsewhere. The site also will employ geocoded data sources similar to those used by EveryBlock, though Brady isn’t sure how much of that will be ready for the launch.

He doesn’t aim to create a central hub for bloggers, something like ChicagoNow. “What we want to do is point to the blogs that are in the network and the other sites that are in the network and try to drive traffic to them, and to sell advertising against those,” he said.

Geocoding as personalization

Geocoding will be key to delivering that bottom 10 percent of news — information relevant to the diverse audience within the large metro area. “We are going to pretty much geocode everything that’s on the site,” he said.

Users will be able to enter several ZIP codes to indicate areas of interest. Though Brady doesn’t think this will supplant topic-based navigation, it will be an essential way of finding relevant content.

“Localization helps to surface things they wouldn’t know had occurred,” he said. “There’s an amazing lack of knowledge, even in neighborhoods, about blogs that write exclusively about those neighborhoods.

Geocoding will be central to the site’s mobile presence. Brady wouldn’t describe it other than to say it will be comprised of both a mobile site and an app and that it will be free. (He recently said there’s a lot of potential for paid mobile services that would tell someone, for instance, about problems on the interstate.)

Applying the Politico mentality to local news

Remember the Politico memo that surfaced last year, the one that outlined the characteristics of a “Politico story” and emphasized the importance of driving the day’s conversation? Brady said his site will adapt those principles for a local news site.

Politico, with its urgency and its willingness to publish incrementally, sometimes just a paragraph of news, “really seized … on the DNA of the Web,” Brady said.

“Things don’t have to be fully formed, 18-inch stories before they can go up on the Web,” he continued. “I think they were able to use their knowledge of how places like the Post and other big places operate.

“We’ll absolutely do the same thing … There are certain limitations that I think we’ll be able to exploit.”
Prioritize utility

Brady described a strong utility element of the site, saying it will aim to provide information that time-pressed people can use to make decisions immediately — anything from deciding how to get to work or how they’ll spend their evening.

So don’t look for feature stories here. Around the country, Brady said, “a lot of what is in the metro section still falls in the category of ‘human interest story’ — things that are really strong pieces or good reads, but less and less of it is what really matters like how you live your lives on a daily basis in the city.”

Included in this approach is a “light and targeted” home page without hundreds of links. “Efficiency is an underrated thing on the Web,” he said.

Get people to come when there’s nothing going on

Brady noted that he used to get congratulated for high traffic to on Election Day, even though he knew it had little to do with his management of the site and a lot to do with the Post’s reputation for political coverage.

The real challenge was getting people to come on days when there wasn’t an obvious reason. “We had built enough hooks into the site that people felt the need to come to us regardless of whether there was news or not, and I think that’s the secret sauce on the Web,” Brady said.

That, too, will fall to Buttry’s team. 

Serve local businesses with targeted advertising

Though he acknowledged that basic display advertising is an important way to bring in money, Brady said it doesn’t have much of a future. He sees more potential in GPS-based advertising and in acting as an online services agent for local businesses.

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Most local businesses, Brady said, don’t have an online presence and don’t really know how to get ads online.

It’s not that valuable, he said, to tell an advertiser, “I can get you online and then I can deliver the ad for your one store to the entire Washington region … [But if] I can get you online and I can get you the right audience — then maybe there’s something there.”

CORRECTION: This post originally misspelled Allbritton.
Read more


Google & YouTube 3-D Features Have Potential to Advance Multimedia Storytelling

Chris Crum at Web Pro News recently pointed out an interesting YouTube experiment: creating stereoscopic video, or what’s traditionally known as “3-D video,” using the popular video provider.
Crum wrote:
“Today the CitizenTube Blog points to what it says may be the first news report shot in 3-D. … The idea of 3D videos of course opens up the possibility of a very interesting future for the world’s most popular video site. In fact, it hasn’t taken long for that future to begin to materialize. While YouTube is likely still very far from meeting the potential it could reach within the 3D realm, the company is already highlighting one interesting utilization of it.”
Crum made note of a tutorial from CTVSWO that explains how the 3-D news report was created. It basically entailed mounting two of the same video cameras right next to each other, editing the footage from both pieces exactly the same, then letting YouTube work its magic.
Crum also recently wrote about Google’s new 3-D project — the result of a Google employee’s “20 percent time.” Google has also released another less traditional, but still 3D-like, interactive photographic experience for exploring multimedia content. Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land pointed out that Google has begun integrating Panoramio photographic panoramas into Google Maps so users can explore different photographic layers of locations. Here’s a working example of Big Ben in London. (Click around to see all the different views.)
The integration is very similar to a Microsoft-created technology called Photosynth. Google’s new experience doesn’t require users to download any new software, though, as it’s integrated straight into Google Maps.
The 3-D features offer exciting new opportunities for future multimedia storytelling, as well as potential new mediums for delivering immersive advertising experiences. Read more

EveryBlock Launches Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Detroit ‘Beta’ Editions

EveryBlock, the innovative microlocal news and information site, expanded its network of locations to 15 this week, by offering four new “beta” cities: Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Detroit.

In the EveryBlock blog announcement, founder Adrian Holovaty explains, “Why the ‘beta’ designation? We got so much demand for these cities in our city expansion poll that we wanted to get something out there for people to start using – but we know we have more work to do in finding new data sets, news sources and neighborhood boundaries. Each city has a smaller amount of news available than in our other cities, but we plan to expand over time.
Some of the new cities have less information than the early EveryBlock launch locations, like Chicago. For instance, Detroit, which just beat out Baltimore for the highest homicide rate per capita, has no crime data currently.
Gathering this public data — especially in a dynamically updated format — can take significant resources to overcome government bureaucracy and make it happen. Those challenges should slowly erode though, as President Obama’s administration continues to move toward creating more open and transparent government information for public consumption. It will still take time for these initiatives to trickle down to state and city governments, but sites like EveryBlock show how this information can become a powerful and useful resource for local communities.
Read more


Citizen Intelligence Analysts Unveil North Korea Via Google Earth

North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities are making headlines again — and making people curious about what that closed nation is like. An independent collaborative project called North Korea Uncovered uses Google Earth to compile the efforts of many volunteer analysts from around the world, presenting a rich view of North Korea.

This project is a great example of how interactive online mapping tools can not only enrich the context of news, but also focus the efforts of a community to dig into an issue.

North Korea Uncovered began in April 2007. The “package” is a KMZ data file that can be opened in the popular Google Earth program. Since 2007 it has gone through several iterations and was most recently released on May 14. The project is headed by Curtis Melvin, an economics doctoral student at George Mason University who blogs at North Korean Economy Watch. So far, the file has been downloaded about 47,000 times.

In addition to placemarks, data and media, it also contains links to related sites and sources that open in your Web browser. One example of this is The Hidden Gulag, a catalog of North Korea’s prison camps based on prisoner testimony and satellite photos published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The Wall Street Journal reported on what happened after Melvin published the initial file with data and photos he’d gathered on his two group tours of North Korea:

“People soon started sending him locations they knew, from tourist sites to airfields tucked into valleys near South Korea. Mr. Melvin says that sadness for North Koreans’ plight, and the fascination of discovery, motivated him to continue. Many updates later, Mr. Melvin and his correspondents have plotted out what they say is much of the country’s transportation network and electrical grid, and many of its military bases. They’ve spotted what they believe are mass graves created in the 1995-98 famine that killed an estimated two million people. The vast complexes of Mr. Kim and other North Korean leaders are visible, with palatial homes, pools, even a water slide.”

How accurate is this information, and who are the sources? According to the Journal, “Mr. Melvin says he cross-checks what information he can and adjusts other facts with the help of collaborators. He says he has met only a few of the contributors. Some have identified themselves as former members of the U.S. military who once studied the country professionally. Some have been anonymous.”

That sounds like the kind of sources professional news organizations rely on for similar information about secretive countries. The Journal story refers to the contributors as “citizen spies,” but really what they’re doing is analyzing information that Google has made public and augmenting it with their own research and experience. This isn’t exactly spying, but it can be valuable.

If your news organization is covering the unfolding North Korean nuclear/missile saga, take a minute to download this file (and install Google Earth if you haven’t already). Then view the places and information on the map related to your coverage. Explore other nearby locations to get a sense of local or historic context. Zoom in, shift your angle of view and take screenshots. Try creating your own video/audio tour of places within this dataset by using the “tour” feature under the “add menu” and posting it on your site or to video-sharing services such as YouTube.

A tool like this can help your North Korea coverage go far beyond parroting whatever is running on the wire services, major papers and broadcast networks.

As you explore North Korea Uncovered, consider how your news organization might use Google Earth to present your news in a geographic context and to engage your community in sharing its information, experience and context to enrich coverage.

(Thanks to the SDR News podcast for the tip.) Read more


Everyblock’s New Geocoding Fixes

Last week I wrote about how a Los Angeles Police Dept. geocoding data glitch yielded inaccurate crime maps at and the database-powered network of hyperlocal sites, Everyblock.

On Apr. 8, Everyblock founder Adrian Holovaty blogged about the two ways his company is addressing the problem of inaccurate geodata.

  1. Latitude/longitude crosschecking. “From now on, rather than relying blindly on our data sources’ longitude/latitude points, we cross-check those points with our own geocoding of the address provided. If the LAPD’s geocoding for a particular crime is significantly off from our own geocoder’s results, then we won’t geocode that crime at all, and we publish a note on the crime page that explains why a map isn’t available. (If you’re curious, we’re using 375 meters as our threshold. That is, if our own geocoder comes up with a point more than 375 meters away from the point that LAPD provides, then we won’t place the crime on a map, or on block/neighborhood pages.”
  2. Surfacing ungeocoded data. “Starting today, wherever we have aggregate charts by neighborhood, ZIP or other boundary, we include the number, and percentage, of records that couldn’t be geocoded. Each location chart has a new “Unknown” row that provides these figures. Note that technically this figure includes more than nongeocodable records — it also includes any records that were successfully geocoded but don’t lie in any neighborhood. For example, in our Philadelphia crime section, you can see that one percent of crime reports in the last 30 days are in an ‘unknown’ neighborhood; this means those 35 records either couldn’t be geocoded or lie outside any of the Philadelphia neighborhood boundaries that we’ve compiled.”

These strategies could — and probably should — be employed by any organization publishing online maps that rely on government or third-party geodata.

Holovaty’s post also includes a great plain-language explanation of what geodata really is and how it works in practical terms. This is the kind of information that constitutes journalism 101 in the online age. Read more


Los Angeles Times Spots Police Geocoding Error

Crime maps are one of the most popular and (in urban areas) ubiquitous types of geo-enabled local news. The data from these maps comes from local police departments, but how reliable is it?

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported a problem with the Los Angeles Police Department’s online crime map, launched three years ago: is offered to the public as a way to track crimes near specific addresses in the city of Los Angeles. Most of the time that process worked fine. But when it failed, crimes were often shown miles from where they actually occurred.

“Unable to parse the intersection of Paloma Street and Adams Boulevard, for instance, the computer used a default point for Los Angeles, roughly 1st and Spring streets.

“Mistakes could have the effect of masking real crime spikes as well as creating false ones.”

According to the story, the LAPD was not aware of the error until alerted by the Times. LAPD spokeswoman Mary Grady told the Times that “the department will work with its contractor to make the map as accurate as current technology allows.”

The Times reported:

“Alerted to the findings, Lightray Productions, the contractor that designed the LAPD site at a cost of at least $362,000, has promised to fix the problems. …

“One reason the errors were not caught earlier may be that the LAPD site retains crimes for only six months and allows viewers to see only a seven-day period at a time. The presentation makes some trends, such as the large accumulation of crimes mapped at Civic Center, more difficult to spot.”

Distorted or erroneous geodata, especially from official sources like police departments, can have ripple effects. In this case, the LAPD crime data was automatically pulled into, and displayed by, — an experimental project funded by the Knight News Challenge. (UPDATE: Everyblock has announced some strategies to compensate for inaccurate or incomplete geodata.)

In the All Points Blog from Directions Magazine, Adena Schutzberg noted some additional points not mentioned in the Times story:

  • “Different applications use different geocoding algorithms.”
  • “Different applications use different data against which to geocode.”
  • “Sharing raw data (vs. maps) can help identify such errors.”

Consequently, Schutzberg observes that diagnosing geodata-related problems can be tricky. If your news organization is using geodata to create interactive online features, you might want to consider ways to double-check for possible accuracy issues, perhaps by checking the results yielded by a different tool set to see if and how it handled the data differently. Read more


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