Ian Tomlinson, interactive maps and digital journalism

How interactive maps are being used in today’s journalism

Last week, Paul Lewis, a Guardian reporter, linked to a piece of collaborative journalism that he had been working on and had just been published. ‘There can be no better example of how digital technology can hold the state to account than this,’ he wrote on Twitter.

The link in question directed readers towards an interactive map, depicting the movements of the newspaper seller, Ian Tomlinson, who was unlawfully killed during the G-20 Summit protests in the City of London in 2009.

The interactive map is a clever, clear, accessible piece of journalism. The protestors and police are plotted, mostly huddled about Bank tube station; Ian Tomlinson’s path is shown, zigzagging along St Swithans Lane and on his ill-fated route to Cornhill. PC Harwood’s numerous scuffles with protestors are also documented, starting in Cornhill and extending out to Threadneedle Street and into a side road, where he met with Ian Tomlinson at 7.20 p.m.

Twenty different interactive boxes, beginning before and concluding after the incident between Tomlinson and Harwood, annotate the two men’s paths – all numbered in chronological order. The boxes contain captions, snippets of mobile video clips, CCTV outtakes and snatched photographs taken by protestors.

This is one of the most effective map mashups that I have seen. It portrays a clear yet raw account of what happened on 1 April 2009, using material from a range of non-traditional sources and stitching them all together with code and graphic design. The videos convey the brittle, hostile atmosphere of the day with an immediacy that is difficult to replicate with words. They also carry the additional benefit of being more faithful and incorruptible than human memory. When Paul Lewis claims that there is no better example of how digital technology can hold the state to account, I know what he means.

Interactive maps are a useful tool for journalists, for digital storytellers or for simply setting data out in a digestible way. It’s now more than six years since Google Maps launched and in that time they have been used for all manner of purposes with a steady stream of the latest creations featured on a site called Google Maps Mania.

Still, I wonder if journalists could make more use of these maps. Last week I saw Joseph Stashko give a great example of how a Google Map could be used to visualise the results of local elections in Preston. And there are other tools too, such as UMapper, which allows users to create maps with more flexibility – from basic embeddable maps, to maps of tweets, to specially-tailored weather forecasts and so on.

I’ll finish this post off with a nod to the British Library. Though not a journalistic outlet, they seem to have taken to digital with surprising comfort over the last few years. At the last count they had something like 16 blogs from experts that covered a range of topics. They have released a beautiful iPhone App, which includes material from their ‘treasures collection’, and, during the last of their exhibitions, they produced an interactive map of their own.

The Evolving English Voice Map is a patchwork of different Audioboo recordings, all geo-plotted, that demonstrate different accents from around the world. Is a clever mix of new technology and ancient habits (the pleasure of looking over a map), and it works well. All those who participated were asked to read an extract of a Mr. Tickle story – recording it on their iPhone or computer. The result was a mass of submissions from all around the world, including one listed as Abbots Bromley England 1983 Male – I’ll let you guess who that is.

Image credit: Chris JL on Flickr – Note, the photograph of the policemen above is not from footage of the G-20 riots in 2009.

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