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Google Mapping for Journalists 101

Google Mapping for Journalists 101

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Using Google Maps to tell stories can be a tricky business at first, but it gets easier with practice and is a great tool for journalists covering everything from fires to public health.

That was the message from three Los Angeles Times online journalist/techies: database producer Ben Welsh, Flash producer Sean Connelley, and editorial artist Thomas Suh Lauder at a Wednesday panel for the National Health Journalism Fellowships.

It isn't easy to make a Google Map if you are using a laptop touchpad rather than a mouse - as many Fellows soon realized - but "like any artistic thing, the more you do it, the more finely tuned your fingers are going to be," Welsh told the Fellows as they created their own Google Maps.

Welsh, Connelley and Lauder created a blog with Google Map training exercises, including how to create a KML file that allows you to upload a bunch of placemarkers in Google Maps rather than one at a time. The exercises also included learning how to geocode addresses into longitude and latitude and plug those into a Google Map. It's also worth checking out Connelley's 41-page Google mapping guide (it's a PDF; here's the link: http://www.forty-ninth.com/misc/googleGuide.pdf).

Other resources from Center for Health Journalism Digital include a great overview of GIS mapping with some cool health data examples, and a recent blog post on using GIS mapping to learn more about local access to healthy food.

One caveat to consider as you mull what to map and what not to map: by juxtaposing various types of data (like Superfund sites and cancer rates) in a single map, you run the risk of readers confusing correlation with causation, Welsh said.

By placing two types of data on the same map, "you are suggesting that the two things existing together are newsworthy. So there's a responsibility there," Welsh said. "Even when you start picking up these skills and start doing geekier stuff, all that skepticism and the journalistic eye you bring to mapping is really important."

Comments

Picture of Michelle Levander

The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center has some valuable mapping resources on nutrition. Here is a link. And those interested in mapping availability of junk food may want to look at this database too.

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