Last Sunday, Spokane, Wash., received a record 12 inches of snowfall. It paralyzed the city. What’s an online developer to do when faced with a breaking news event that’s spread out over a large region? If you’re Ryan Pitts, online director with my newspaper’s website Spokesmanreview.com, you whip up a Google Map and solicit viewers to send in their snow stories and photos.
Using addresses from the submissions, the Google Map’s geo code (latitude and longitude settings) plots out where the photo or story originated. On day two, Pitts added functionality to the map by adding better navigation and embedded links to staff produced video. Google maps are not new, but using them for a breaking news event is not as common. This is a great way to allow viewers to contribute and interact with your website. We promoted the map from the front page of the morning newspaper. Though the flood of submissions has yet to come (49 so far), I think an interactive map like this will take off as more viewers begin to discover it.
I’m the Web writer-editor at my newspaper, and I love this idea.
The technical people here tell me this is something we couldn’t even attempt to do on deadline.
How would a person learn how to do this? — Anne Gregory (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We did a similar thing when we got just a few inches of snow in North Carolina (that’s a huge deal here). People were sending photos, as well as short e-mails with reports of snowfall totals, etc., and even though I was live-blogging, I was looking for a way to make all that information make sense. Here’s how my first effort turned out.
I remember being impressed with how the maps were used in the coverage of the Southern California wildfires, and I knew it would be perfect for a breaking weather event.
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Anne Gregory: Go to maps.google.com, click on the “my maps” tab, click the “create new map” link and you’ll find that is surprisingly quick and easy to learn.
This is not a news item, but a human interest item. There’s no useful news involved, let alone “breaking” news.
I hate to be a wet blanket, but I think this is a lot of effort for very little return, and more pretty than useful. 46 responses? What percentage of your readership is that? How many hours went into setting this up and updating it? How long will someone have to keep checking on it, particularly since it’s open to reader collaboration, and potential mischief?
A lot of editors hear the word “interactive” and get all excited, without thinking through whether it’s necessary, useful or worth the investment of time in a shrinking newsroom. Most don’t understand the actual process involved (and don’t care to learn) so they remain unable to render an accurate effort vs. result analysis.
Our newspaper attempted to do an interactive Google map as “news” during a 24-hour snowstorm over the entire state. The editors wanted up-to-the-minute snowfall totals for a lengthy list of specific towns. It proved impossible to stay current, and our website constantly showed data several hours old. And since nobody was going to stay up all night to keep it updated, it would have been ancient history by the next morning. So we pulled it, and referred readers to the most current weather site that they could get the relevant info for themselves.
A map of photos and stories is something else again. Just don’t call it “breaking news.”
Also: put the date or time period on the web page, so readers can tell at a glance when it happened.
The map is not labeled “breaking news” — it’s just one component of our coverage of a breaking news event. Naturally we have straight news, multimedia, and so on as part of our storm coverage — but as you said, this adds a human interest angle to our coverage. And that’s a good thing.
Would I be thrilled if we had several hundred submissions in there? Sure, but regardless, I think features like this are worth the investment. It takes time, as a newspaper, to position ourselves as a place for readers to talk with each other, rather than as an institution that talks at them. Each feature like this that we do builds toward that goal. And it’s not just about how many readers *post* items, naturally — only a small percentage are going to submit comments, but a much larger group will see the results.
But speaking of investment, you’re absolutely right that you have to consider effort vs. results. I feel for you, trying to manually track up-to-the-minute snowfall for that many cities, overnight. Did you look into automating the process of pulling in the data? A lot of weather sites provide XML feeds that you can use, or depending on the way they format pages, even scraping might be an option.
Anyway, that’s the kind of project I probably would have nixed had we not been able to automate the data. We just don’t have the staff to pull off something that requires so much constant manual intervention. Not with all the other stories and multimedia that we’re also handling.
The map feature we have up right now, however, requires very little intervention. You asked how much effort went into it … well:
— I spent 2-3 hours Sunday night setting up the database, the basic UI for submitting posts, and the admin for approving them.
— I spent a good chunk of Monday adding functionality and features, and tweaking the design to where I was happier with it.
All in all, probably about as much as a reporter turning a story or two, or a multimedia producer doing a couple videos.
As for workflow and managing the data, when a user submits a post to the map, it automatically populates into the “new submissions” page of the backend admin. Between a couple of producers and I, we check that page in the background a few times an hour. When a new item comes in, we have to:
— Check the submission to make sure it’s not inappropriate (haven’t hit one that is, yet)
— Write a short, descriptive hed and publish
That’s it. I’d say 95% of the time, it takes less than a minute to approve a new item. I’ve done it from my phone, many times. Very, VERY little effort involved in maintaining. I’m sure we’ll keep checking until people stop submitting — if I was seriously concerned about how much time that takes, I’d spend a few minutes adding a bit of code to shoot an email to one of us after each submission. But really it’s not much of a pain to check the admin now and again.
Just curious, how/with what are your doing your database back-end?
We’ve been doing some staff-generated Google maps with good success but outside of Caspio Bridge haven’t found a good database-to-Google-Map interface, at least not one that our non-Web-savvy staffers can use.
Ryan: wonderful response, and very informative. And you’re right, of course, these are incremental steps in the evolution of our relationship with our readers. Thanks very much. Didn’t mean to sound so harsh in my original post.
@jeff — No problem. I’ve learned a lot by reading other developers’ thoughts on how they tackled a particular project, so I’m glad to return the favor when I can.
Since the admin is all web forms, there’s no technical expertise required for managing the incoming posts. (Another one of those musts, I think, when doing a project like this. If you keep creating things that only *you* can maintain, you’re going to run out of time awfully quick.)
The nice thing is that once you’ve taken the time to develop a generalized setup for a mapping app like that, you end up using it over and over again. The back end for this particular project started life in a Holiday Lights tour that we did a couple Christmases ago. Having that basic framework built for a similar project meant that I could save a LOT of time on the admin — just create a new table, tweak the forms, tweak the database updates and inserts — and spend more time getting things working right for the users.
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I think Google map is a common story to make us breaking news, but still an interesting topic for me…
Great site and love the use of Google maps and submission form. Have you consider releasing this as a WordPress plugin? I am trying to implement the same concept of my site. Thanks.
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