Digital mapping finally blossoms for parks and rec

CC-licensed, thanks to KM on Flickr.

CC-licensed, thanks to KM on Flickr

If you went by the maps available today your smartphone, you’d probably think the era of paper maps went out with the Rubik’s Cube.

But the next time you’re in a garden or park, you might come across a group of volunteers huddled around an 11×17 black-and-white printout, hopelessly trying to verify what should be where, clumsily marking it up with pencils and colored highlighters. Their work trails back indoors where it adds to a pile of similar maps that have to be verified (or interpreted?) before changes are put into the data base. They are often printed out and verified again for accuracy.

The hateful verification map, SFBG.

A hateful paper verification map, SFBG.

That’s why around 40 people from zoos, gardens and parks from around the world came to a recent talk to hear how Steve Gensler, GIS manager of the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, and Veronica Nixon of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix are using Collector for ArcGIS to maintaining botanical garden plant records at the ESRI User Conference.


The Associated Press Stylebook weighs in on data journalism

bye3nzmg6q355a3splxzCC-licensed, via hatalamas on Flickr.

If you write about tech, you’ll find the Associated Press Stylebook is a little bit like Dear Abby. By the time the bouffant-hair-and-matching-handbag set gets around to addressing an issue, it’s often already been answered by collective common sense.

Still, it’s nice to see the venerable news organization writing about data journalism in the same update where it finally relinquishes capitalizing the word internet.

The AP Stylebook entry on data journalism, added 2016-04-19, weighs in at just under 500 words.

It begins with six rules for evaluating a data set that range from the very basic (“What is the source?”) to the kind of deep dive that may prevent you from ever filing the story (“Is there a data dictionary or record layout document for the data set – which would describe the fields, types of data they contain and details and announcing detail as indicated?”) Side note: If you’re looking for an entire book of how to present data facts and figures for journalists, my favorite is still “The Wall Street journal guide to information graphics: the dos and don’ts of presenting data, facts, and figures” by Dona M Wong. [public library]


Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 1.47.30 PM

The next section launches into the math of doing data journalism, a reminder that word people are often not numbers people. Or a reminder to all that, yeah, elementary school math is good to know.

“Avoid percentage and percent change comparisons from a small base. Rankings should include raw numbers to provide a sense of relative importance.
When comparing dollar amounts across time, be sure to adjust for inflation. When using averages (that is, adding together a group of numbers and dividing the sum by the quantity of numbers in the group), be wary of extreme, outlier values that may unfairly skew the result. It may be better to use the median (the middle number among all the numbers being considered) if there is a large difference between the average (mean) and the median.”

It heads into more advanced territory with a paragraph on causality, rounding numbers and sample size before winding up with a solid reminder for data-happy hacks: “Try not to include too many numbers in a single sentence or paragraph.”

Now we only have to wait and see how the Stylebook passes judgement on the proper abbreviation for “internet of things.”

Armchair mappers: help prepare for the next humanitarian crisis

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 5.05.35 PMKathmandu before and after OpenStreetMap’s humanitarian team dived in.

In just 48 hours after Nepal’s devastating earthquake, thousands of volunteers from around the world helped create maps that guided emergency response teams.

Many of these “digital humanitarians” came from OpenStreetMap, an open source mapping effort. OpenStreet Map launched  Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, when the office safeguarding country’s maps pancaked in the 7.0 temblor.

_Schuyler Erle shows what happened to Haiti's mapping office post earthquake._

Schuyler Erle shows what happened to Haiti’s mapping office post earthquake.


Data points: visualization that means something [review]

Proving a point about data with the author's wedding photos.

Proving a point about data with the author’s wedding photos.

Nathan Yau is a self-appointed cicerone who shows the rest of us around the big, beautiful data visualization world.

A statistician by trade, the likeable, plain-speaking Yau runs And, like all good tour guides, his job is to get you to think about what he’s presenting, not just drop your jaw at the sights.

In “Data Points: Visualization That Means Something,” [public library] Yau wants you to think about sample size — even if he has to show you with a jar of gumballs. To bring home the point about data representing real life, he takes out his own wedding photos. Later in the book, he manages to transform an eye-crossingly dull table of U.S. education stats into 29 different graphics to show how it’s done.

Where in the world can you still send a telegram? [Map]

Telegrams may have gone the way of the steam engine, but there are number of places around the world, from Japan to Mexico, still sending them.

The news about India shuttering its 162-year-old telegram service sounded like the last, labored puff of a country making progress into a bold new era.

So I wondered where people are still using them as a swift, inexpensive means to send condolences and well wishes on important occasions. (An outfit called – what else? – iTelegram took over from Western Union for the U.S., though I can’t remember ever sending or receiving a telegram here.)

Painful lessons in data journalism: scraping with Python


Lost in the woods. CC-licensed, Chris-Håvard Berge on Flickr.

Lost and found ads can be a good way to sniff out a story.

Take the ones on Craigslist about iPhones. There’s a woman who gained a husband in a quickie wedding at city hall but left her iPhone behind. Or a drunk college kid who dropped his phone on the passenger seat of a good samaritan who took him home.

Is there a bigger story about lost and stolen iPhones? To find out, I scraped all 50 states of Craigslist lost and found ads using Python and BeautifulSoup. If you want to check out or improve that code, it’s on GitHub. The full story (with charts and things!) is over at Cult of Mac.

The project required more fist clenching and eye straining than anticipated – even though writing a basic scraper for Craigslist is considered an easy-peasy programming project.

Let me just say it: as a novice Pythonista, I am challenged by nearly everything. I mean, command line interface, seriously? But I can get past that. I slogged through (and recommend) Learning Python the Hard Way, as well as finished some examples in Scraping for Journalists.

How to lie with numbers: taxpayer spending on former US presidents

*Source, AP. Figures rounded.

*Source: AP. Figures rounded.

There’s a story making the rounds of most major media outlets on how much US taxpayers shell out every year to maintain the four living former presidents (FPOTUSes?).

Bill Clinton billed John and Jane Doe $450,000 for his office space, George W. Bush, who spent the most overall topping $1.3 million, racked up $85,000 in phone calls.  Even Jimmy Carter (wasn’t he on duty during “Argo” or something?) had interns affixing $15,000 in postage stamps in 2012.

But the published numbers don’t tell much of a story – or at least a very accurate one. (more…)

Why journalists should bite the bullet and map with Quantum GIS

A view of Alameda census info over Stamen's terrain map.

A view of Alameda census info over Stamen’s terrain map in QGIS.

If you’re a novice mapper, tools like Google Fusion Tables (aka the WordPress of mapping) might make Quantum GIS look like rough terrain.

QGIS is an open source powerhouse for mapping that has a number of advantages. It’s free (as in free speech) runs on Mac or PC and you can import shapefiles, coverage data plus any personal geodatabases you may have on hand.

So get over yourself and try it, advised Len De Groot of Knight Digital Media Center in his recent online Intro to Data Mapping class.

“It’s not for the faint of heart. But there’s a lot of drag and drop, something most of us can do,” he said in the hour-long session to a group of around 60 global journalists. “You do have to build up some muscle memory on how this works, but it will make your data mapping much more robust.” (more…)

Lessons from John Snow for the novice data journalist

A modern, color take on Snow's original.

An interactive take on Snow’s original map with color by andreit on umapper.

Dr. John Snow put cholera on the map. Well, to be more precise, he mapped the cholera outbreak of the 1854 in London’s Soho, stacking up the deaths against a contaminated water pump and saving an untold number of lives.

Snow’s bicentennial birthday happens this month, on March 15. They’ll be raising a glass to him at the Soho pub bearing his name as well as holding a free symposium in his birthplace of York.

His map is the stuff of textbooks, from design guru Edward Tufte – who even made a pilgrimage to the water pump – and was set before us in the MOOC Infographics and Data Visualization course and KDMC’s two-day seminar on data as a paragon of good information design.

In both classes, the clean, simple map elicited a whoosh of “ahh!” from the students – you look and immediately get it. (The back story of Snow’s map makes it even more powerful – the good doc was laboring against local authorities who still believed the miasma theory.)

A detail of a 1940s malaria map of Italy. LSHTM Library & Archives

A detail of a 1940s malaria map of Italy. LSHTM Library & Archives.

His legacy lives on in health maps everywhere. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is hosting an art exhibit in Snow’s honor – you can check out some of the items, including the above gem of malaria outbreaks in fascist troops in Italy, here.

One of the big takeaways for me, as a novice, is how working with data is often a group effort. (Journalism, though it does require getting people to talk to you, is largely a solitary pursuit. Scribbling away in a garret or blogging with your laptop at a cafe doesn’t take a village.)

In his excellent The Ghost Map  (public library), Steven Johnson recounts how Snow was helped out by local curate Reverend Henry Whitehead, one of the few people who kept knocking on doors and talking to people during the outbreak. Whitehead’s knowledge of those particular dark, odorous London streets proved invaluable, even though he first believed Snow was wrong.

It can be tempting to hover over your spreadsheets and tinker with your scripts, much like you might worry over the structure of an article, but involving the community makes a difference.

Mayor busts out infographic to summarize San Francisco’s state of the city

Infographic of the state of San FranciscoSan Francisco Ed Lee busted out an infographic to summarize his three-hour “State of the City” address for the nerds assembled at the TechCrunch Crunchies. Lee always reminds me of that affable uncle about to tell you a pun at some ghastly family function, so I don’t think he did it entirely seriously – see the Super Bowl wins at the center. It’s an interesting idea, though, releasing a snapshot of a long presentation that most locals didn’t see in a digestible format.