Journalism and GIS – What They Can Teach Each Other with James Fallows

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, explores how mapping technologies can add a powerful visual and explanatory element to journalists’ storytelling efforts.

Jun 28th, 2014

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00:01I'm going to change the subject radically this afternoon now and invite my favorite American journalist here.

00:10Why is he my favorite?

00:11Well, he's the chief correspondent for Atlantic magazine.

00:16Many of you listen to him on NPR, but that's not exactly why I like him the best.

00:24He's an author - 10 books - something like that.

00:28That's not exactly why I like you the best.

00:31I like him the best because he's from Redlands, California. James Fallows, ladies and gentleman.

00:37Thank you, Jack. Thank you, Jim.

00:44Thank you very much, Jack. Good afternoon everyone.

00:46I think I share everybody's sense of inspiration of the presentation we just heard from Mr. Pitroda.

00:52I perhaps feel it in a different way.

00:53My wife and I have spent a long time living in China.

00:56And often people look at China for the secrets of its success.

01:01To hear this formula for Indian development is really inspiring to us.

01:05But back to my topic.

01:06My name is James Fallows.

01:08I'm a writer for The Atlantic magazine, and, as Jack graciously pointed out, like him..

01:13...I had the good fortune of growing up in his and my and Esri's hometown of Redlands, California.

01:19I have 10 minutes right now with you to preview and, in fact, to make the very first public mention...

01:26...of what we at The Atlantic consider a very exciting new project, which we'll be carrying out in partnership with Esri...

01:33...and with a major radio program, and which is designed both to reveal something interesting about our world...

01:39...and to explore some important and very promising new possibilities for journalism.

01:45Here's the background.

01:47In the beginning, journalism was about only words.

01:51Because for a very long time, plain, unadorned words were the only thing our technologies of communication could carry.

01:59In the days of Homer and before, this meant words via the sound of the human voice...

02:04...which, as our best narrators, interviewers, and storytellers remind us, still has tremendous power.

02:10Then, the written word, first in hand-drafted manuscripts, letters, or dispatches, and for the past five centuries...

02:18...pos-tGutenberg, through the revolutionary medium of print.

02:22As time and technology went on, reporters, writers, and teachers recognized that more channels of communication...

02:30...could convey a richer range of meeting.

02:33Early on, this meant hand drawings and illustrations.

02:38Then, around the time of the US Civil War, the possibility of displaying photographs.

02:42Later we had numerical charts and graphics, and through the past decades, the onrush of audio clips, video recordings... streaming, sensor readings, and all the other facets, good and bad of modern distributed communications.

02:58Now consider the special role of maps.

03:02You here understand professionally what most people recognize instinctively...

03:07...that map-based information has the power to convey at a glance relationships that are slow and murky to describe in words... the power to reveal patterns that would otherwise lay concealed.

03:20The images you'll be seeing for next few seconds show some of the saga of the use of maps to convey...

03:25...political, economic, and journalistic information.

03:29They range from sketches in the era of exploration to battle maps from the Revolutionary War... re-creations of Civil War battle lines to plots of homesteading stakes to an amazingly ambitious attempt to explain...

03:42...the importance of the Panama Canal to renderings of explorations, including the Spirit of St. Louis Lindbergh flight.

03:50Some of these maps, as you see, are better than others.

03:53But here is the important point about all of them.

03:56They were highly specialized undertakings.

03:59Cartographers, draftsmen, newspaper art departments, and others had to labor long and hard... produce even a single map to demonstrate a single point a reporter/writer wanted to make.

04:11Even as print, telegraph, radio, and television produced an age of plenty in words, chronicles, and increasingly, images... was still in the age of scarcity when it came to maps.

04:24They were too hard, slow, and expensive to make by too elite a cadre of specialists... be part of the normal repertoire of explanatory tools.

04:34We believe that the age of distributed GIS software plus ubiquitous big data is about to change that circumstance.

04:42And our project to design to illustrate, among other things, what an age of plenty in explanatory maps can mean.

04:49We call this effort the American Futures Project and draws directly from one strand of the American past.

04:56For at least two centuries, since the journeys of Alexis de Tocqueville and Lewis and Clark...

05:01...Americans and others have tried to gauge the reality of this vast new North American nation by traveling its width and breadth.

05:10This has led to the range of reports you see memorialized on this delightful slide, including Dickens, Jack Kerouac...

05:18...John Steinbeck of Travels with Charley, that's the dog, Charley, and William Least Heat-Moon with his book Blue Highways.

05:25Through the past 15 years, as my wife and I have frequently crisscrossed the country in our small Cirrus SR22 airplane...

05:34...a plane that is now the most popular small plane in the entire world because of its unique parachute...

05:40...that lowers the entire plane safely to the ground in event of trouble...

05:44...we've kept all these models in mind for a kind of reporting we're about to undertake.

05:50In our long years of living and traveling through China, Malaysia, Japan, and many other countries...

05:55...we've predictably been surprised by the unpredictable discoveries we have made at the end of the journey...

06:01...which we had had no idea of at the start.

06:05This includes the many times we've flown coast to coast through the middle of America and spent time in small places...

06:11...Red Oak, Iowa; Rock Springs, Wyoming; Berea, Kentucky; Grand Island, Nebraska, we would not have visited otherwise.

06:18This is what we were about to begin on a systematic basis.

06:22One of our premises is that American life is increasingly balkanized.

06:27People work with, live by, and know about people increasingly similar to themselves...

06:32...and that its new systems are understandably but unfortunately biased toward big city events and the coasts.

06:40When smaller city America appears in the news, too often it's because of natural disaster, a tornado, or flood...

06:47...some bit of quaint color like the world's largest ball of twine; or to provide color for some preselected theory.

06:54An oddity of transportation affects the unknown quality of smaller town American life.

06:59Here is where Americans live.

07:01Here is what the interstate system covers, which is a lot but not everything.

07:05And, yet, here is the map of smaller airports, which reach nearly every bit of populated US territory.

07:13It is with some of these missing parts that we plan to explore America in a long-term project that will involve...

07:19...the combined resources of Esri, The Atlantic's print and online outlets, and a radio program that you all know about...

07:26...but will make its own announcement when the project begins next month.

07:30In association with Esri's spatial analysis software, we found very intriguing ways to identify types of cities to explore...

07:38...beyond those we already know about and will continue to discover through serendipity.

07:42Cities, for example, with unusually diverse economic or social bases.

07:47Cities with high levels of social capital, civic groups, parks, robust school systems.

07:53Cities with unusual records in absorbing immigrants or coping with economic shock or preserving and improving their environments.

08:01Cities that in these ways and others augment and ground America's awareness of itself.

08:07This is just, you see on the screen, just a handful of the places we've initially identified. There are literally hundreds more.

08:14I hope we'll get a chance to see a lot of them.

08:16When we do, we'll be writing articles for The Atlantic magazine, doing regular updates on a special Atlantic site...

08:23...doing radio broadcasts, holding events and meetings, and crucially using maps along the way.

08:30Let me give you a brief illustration of the new geoblogging tools that Esri's story map team in Washington, DC...

08:36...has just now put together, and by just now I mean even last night.

08:41I'm going to give you a glimpse of what we'll be doing based on a trial run trip just 10 days ago... wife and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

08:48Most people here know of Sioux Falls because of EROS, the treasure house of the world's aerial imagery...

08:54...which is in a cornfield a dozen miles north of town.

08:58Sioux Falls is bigger than most of the cities we'll visit, but it has a surprisingly diverse and dramatic economic...

09:04...commercial, technological, and sociological base, which we'll begin exploring in detail...

09:08...when our project goes live next month.

09:11I'm not going to go into the substance of any of the posts I'm going to show you here...

09:15...which have to do with the role of EROS in the city's life...

09:17...why so many of America's credit card companies have ended up in Sioux Falls...

09:21...why so many of the Midwest pigs are raised in Iowa and then trucked to a slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls...

09:27...on their last day on earth, why the ethnic makeup of the city has changed so dramatically and all the rest.

09:32Instead, I'm going to show you the maps themselves.

09:36You'll notice as I scroll through this presentation, the way that some of the - that as we go from post to post...

09:44...the maps automatically scroll to match what we're seeing.

09:48This way, a new blogging tool allows people to have posts and pictures in the one hand...

09:52...and accompanying maps they create on the other.

09:54There are ways we can do comparative analysis.

09:58For example, this is the part of Sioux Falls that has been a cultural preservation effort.

10:03What you see on yellow is a bike path around the city.

10:05The red is some other bike paths.

10:07And this illustrates the city's role as retailer to the region.

10:11The red areas are big box retail areas where people come in from the countryside.

10:17This, for any of you who are bow fisherman, you'll be able to find a river to fish in in Sioux Falls.

10:23We're able to see things like the - to compare aerial and pictorial views, this is the slaughterhouse.

10:29It's how it looks on its day off, on a Sunday.

10:31We're able to talk about comparative social analysis.

10:34This was the ethnic makeup of downtown Sioux Falls before recent changes in immigration patterns...

10:39...and changes in the unionization of the packing house.

10:43Here is the way things look now, and you can return, do a comparative contrast.

10:48All of you have heard about the shale oil revolution that's made such a difference for North Dakota.

10:54We're able to explain with a map like this why South Dakota has to look for different source of its economic welfare...

11:00...because of the shale oil deposits reaching into the north and only in this small corner of South Dakota...

11:06...and interesting geological contrasts.

11:08We learned from everyone we spoke with in South Dakota that really the way the state should be divided is...

11:14...East Dakota and West Dakota, because the Missouri River is a geological and sociological and agricultural...

11:20...and every other sort of difference in the state.

11:22There are ways you can show this with maps.

11:24Those are croplands, and here's the geological difference and also illustrate them with pictures.

11:31You see, this is looking south along the Missouri.

11:33You see the rough prairie on the right, or the west, and the flatland, the midwest on the...

11:40...sorry, on the right and midwest on the left.

11:42There is a lot more I could show you, but that is what our project is going to be about in the months ahead.

11:49And I think that the most important thing to remind you here is that while you've seen some of the things the maps can show... haven't seen how relatively easy they were to create.

11:59That's the most important point about them.

12:02In addition to showing you this project, showing the people worldwide something different about America...

12:07...from what they usually encounter, we mean to journalists, professional and amateur...

12:13...the difference these new geographical tools can make.

12:17Democratizing and distributing the ability to use images, recordings, graphs, and videos...

12:23...has already altered and overall improved our ability to explain the world.

12:29Applying that same revolution to map making will have a profound and, we believe, a very positive effect.

12:36So we'll look forward to seeing you in your hometowns and to hearing from you about other places we should visit.

12:42Thank you very much.

Copyright 2016 Esri
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