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.

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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...

02:50...live 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...

03:15...plus 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...

03:35...to 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...

04:05...to 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...

04:20...it 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...

04:29...to 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...

08:45...my 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...

11:55...you 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 2014 Esri
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