By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Mapping a class project

I love this. My Reinventing the News class has put together a Google map of their favorite places within a mile of Northeastern. Each student wrote a blog post, took some pictures and then plotted it on a map, with a link.

The result — a “Newcomer’s guide to NU” — is a modest but useful example of how to use mapping as a journalism tool. The idea is to provide multiple points of entry for readers, which encourages them to explore and to come back.

The project was a bit of a high-wire act. I was having a hard time creating the map during the weekend, which may have been due to problems Google was having. Then, when everyone began adding to the map during class on Monday, we had barely controlled chaos, as random addresses began weirdly showing up and disappearing. Yet I think the end result turned out rather well.

Google Maps may not be the most sophisticated mapping tool available, but it’s free and ubiquitous. Understanding how to use it is just one of the skills today’s young journalists need to know.

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  1. Excellent! As a newcomer to Boston myself, I’m grateful for the recommendations–esp. the dessert spot near the Public Gardens!

    When I was just out of J-school in Dec. 2008, my first job was a crowdsourcing project for WNYC Radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show. The assignment–engaging our audience in locating telltale signs of the recession in their neighborhoods. Mapping their stories was a natural fit with our aims.

    Lucky for me, I was able to work with a digital team that knew their way around Google’s mapping API. By combining the mapping tool with a submission form and database, the customized map gave us a way to reward contributors for participation. Their submissions showed up right away on our map and in our story archive.

    I feel your frustration about working with the mapping tool. It’s powerful, but can be daunting to someone with limited digital skills. I hit that bump myself when it became clear that our listeners were hot under the collar about half-built developments and abandoned construction all over the region. Of course we needed to map it, but this time the digital team was tied up and I was on my own. We managed with a completely public version of Google My Maps, but the rate of submissions was so fast, it was a full time job to edit and fact check. Eventually we closed the map and created a form for more entries, but unlike the earlier map, this wasn’t automated.

    You are absolutely right that today a journalist should have as much working knowledge about mapping a story as possible. There are so many stories right under our noses that can act as local versions of national trends or expose clusters of information we didn’t even know we had. As a working new media journalist, I try to keep adding skills to my toolbox, but I sure wish for a crash course in more power-mapping abilities. You and your class are certainly on the right track.

    Here is a link to the WNYC mapping project:

    And the construction project:

    Annie Shreffler

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Annie: I feel so stupid anytime someone says “API.”

  2. I have hosted a Google map of utility scale alternative-energy projects on my GraniteGeek blog for a couple of years. It gets a reasonable number of views, but I’ve noted a secondary result for me as a reporter – I use it to remind myself of sites/sizes/owners when writing stories; it’s like a clip file.,-71.864319&spn=9.610417,10.69519&source=embed

  3. Steve Stein


    There was a book (and apparently still is) called “HowToGAMIT” (How to Get Around MIT), parts of which would work so much better as a website, but I don’t think they’ve put it on the web yet!

    This is a very promising start to a potentially useful tool for NU students. Are you planning on future development?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: Well, it’s a class project, and the semester is almost over. This fall, we do it all over again. I am thinking about ways to do more with mapping, and possibly in other classes as well. But this one is now for the ages.

  4. Aaron Read

    What? No love for Anna’s Taqueria from your students?!!? 🙂

  5. Doug Shugarts

    What?! Nobody blogged Woody’s on Hemenway St.?!?!?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Doug: Believe it or not, I’ve never been in there, even though it looks good and, from the outside, smells even better.

  6. Steve Stein

    The way to go would be to open it up, sort of a wiki- and map- related thing. I bet there’s technology for that somewhere.

    I see that it’s just a tools-of-the-trade teaching thing instead of something that could be a real resource, but someone could run with the idea.

  7. Val Forman

    Awesome, Dan! Val.

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