Fast, Little Maps with Fusion Tables

Google Fusion Tables can handle huge amounts of data -- and seem designed for that. But a great little secret is that they're fantastic for making fast maps. Even little ones.

And it's surprisingly easy.

At WNYC, we used fusion tables for this quickie map of 63 taxi relief stands. My colleague Jim Colgan whipped together these plowed-streets maps (including the one below) from listeners' texted-in reports -- while he was sick in bed!

Some reasons we've been drawn to mapping with Google Fusion Tables:

Simple uploads. All you need is a comma-separated table (csv) or a spreadsheet made in Excel or Google Docs. Each "point" goes on a row. If you have even basic Excel skills, you're more than ready to go.

Embedded geocoding. Put addresses in one of your columns, and Google will geocode them for you -- doing the work of finding the latitude and longitude for your pin. If you already have the coordinates, that's fine, too. Here's the help page on this for more.

Customizable icons. You can designate one of your columns as the icon column, and use this map of available icons to pick names to put in that column for each point There are some really clear instructions for this

Custom popups. You can define what appears in a pin's pop-up bubble. Doing this is a little tricky, but just. In the "map" visualization, click on "Configure Info Window." I find the default templates confusing, so I choose "Custom" from the drop-down menu. You can then use text, html and the table info {in_curly_brackets} to craft a custom bubble.

Easy embeds. Zoom and position the map as you like it and then click the "Get Link" button for a link to what you see. Or click the blue "Get embeddable link" link to get the embed code. (Design note to Google folks: It's confusing that one of these is a button and one is an html link!)

Easy updates. You can add more data points easily, either with additional uploads or just typing your additions or fixes in your browser. 

Privacy controls. As with other Google products, you can click the "Share" button to control who can view and/or edit each table and map -- which is really nice for working in teams.

News maps on news time.  That's been working for us.

Update: Jim Colgan, who put together the snowplow map, talks about how he did it with the folks at Mobile Commons, who run the platform we use for texting projects.

Creatively Covering NY's New Ballot

New York switches to a new paper tomorrow -- Primary Day -- and ballot designers say voters likely will be confused.

At WNYC, we're covering this story in several ways that go beyond audio and written text.

Ballot Markup

For one, we had ballot designers help us annotate a ballot using DocumentCloud.

Sourcing Through Texting

For two, we're welcoming voters to share their experiences with the ballot via text. They (or you!) sign up by texting BALLOT to 30644.

Video Fun

The whole thing started when our host Brian Lehrer and reporter Azi Paybarah actually tried the sample ballot and made several mistakes. Which leads me to the third component: A video about using the new ballot:

Hacking Journalism with Sidewalk Chalk

My presentation before a room full of talented programmers next week Thursday will include hair salons, semi-trailer trucks and sidewalk chalk.

It's TimesOpen 2.0, where digital tinkerers gather to talk about online data from the New York Times and the latest trends in information technology.

Next Thursday is Mobile/Geolocation night (which is free). Presenters will include Mano Marks from Google, John Britton from Twilio, Matt Kelly from Facebook and me. I'll be talking about The Takeaway's Sourcing Through Texting project.

My preso will likely be the lowest-tech of the bunch. Our aim was, and is, to connect journalists and citizen-sources using basic text messages, and our method was brainstorming, learning and prototyping in two neighborhoods -- Southwest Detroit and Miami's Little Haiti. We absorbed a ton. (And we sparked an investigative series on illegal truck traffic.)

There are certainly opportunities here to mash up APIs and build on some nifty platforms. I'll talk about that, too.  But as we continue working toward connecting with sources via texting, some of our best insights have come from coffee shop conversations, church bulletin announcements and short-codes scrawled on sidewalks.

An Experimental Honor

What's so exceptional about the journalism innovation award The Takeaway won yesterday is that it's not for a broadcast, a series or a blog post.

It's for an experiment.

"Sourcing Through Texting" has been a process of immersion, exploration and rapid prototyping. Journalists and community leaders spend time in a neighborhood focusing on a simple question: How might reporters and citizen-sources make better connections through texting?

The answers are still emerging. We're still making prototypes. Yet, yesterday the concept won a Knight-Batten Special Distinction Award for innovation in journalism.

Since the award application went in, we've gone to Miami to run another experiment in Little Haiti, and Detroit's WDET aired a week-long series that evolved from the project.

That the award effectively predates those happenings is a huge jolt of support for experimentation, design thinking in journalism and everyone who contributed to this unique collaboration.

That includes folks from The Takeaway, Public Radio International, WNYC Radio, WDET Detroit, WLRN Miami, The Miami Herald, American Public Media's Public Insight Network, Mobile Commons, the Institute of Design at Stanford and the residents of Southwest Detroit and Miami's Little Haiti.


Sourcing Through Texting is a project of The Takeaway, which is produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International. It was made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

Disclosure and disclaimer: I helped develop and produce this project. As always, the words here are my own and not those of my employer or any of the entities mentioned.

Super Simple Mapping Tool

Making collaborative maps is easier than ever. But maybe not quite easy enough.

One of the projects I'm working on at the moment is a super-duper-simple tool to help public radio and television stations (and pretty much anyone else) collect and map local information from their audience.

We're in the design phase right now, and we've mocked it up for feedback. The video is below.

Whaddya think? Let us know!

Presenter's Notes

The person crafting the overall sound and content of your local public radio station usually is the program director, and I have the honor of speaking at an annual gathering of PD's from across the nation this week.

Uncommon Indicators

My first talk is about a WNYC community crowdsourcing project called Your Uncommon Economic Indicators, which began just about a year ago when the economy collapsed. It focuses on getting people to contribute insights about the economy from their neighborhoods.

It has grown to include some special side projects. One is Halted Development, a look at unfinished or vacant housing in New York City (link to big map is here). Another is a video contest, in which this video took first place.

The slides I used in my presentation are available as zipped PowerPoint and Keynote files (both about 30MB) and as a pdf (3.5MB).

Collaboration as Dating

The second presentation is with Tom Detzel of ProPublica about the great partnership WNYC has had with ProPublica, including how it came to be and how we've make some great journalism together.

Part of my discussion is stolen from my earlier blog post using dating as a guide to successful collaborations. The handout I'm giving to people in the room is here as a pdf.

I'll update this post if/when audio or video of the talks are made available.

Passive, Aggressive Crowdsourcing

I've been awed by the power of passive crowdsourcing -- harnessing the power of crowds without the crowd realizing it.

Here are three examples, all by Google (natch):

Free 411. Dial 1-800-GOOG-411 and you get directory assistance from Google for free. No ads, no charges. Why would that be? As Wired pointed out, when you request the number for your favorite pizza place, Google captures your voice and actions to build and refine a voice-recognition system. You provide the error correction by picking from a list of its guesses, or even spelling out the request. Once a match is made, you get the phone number and Google's software gets a tiny bit smarter. The result? Today, Google added voice-recognition to its popular iPhone application.

Flu Tracker. Google has been able to track the severity and geography of the flu by watching the frequency and location of people searching for "flu symptoms" and other telltale keywords. Google's results closely match the CDC's national tracking data, which are based on reports from health care providers nationwide.

Location, location, location. When I got my new GPS-enabled phone home, I did what any self-respecting geek would do: use Google Maps to pinpoint my apartment to a silly degree of accuracy. For comparison, I then did the same thing on my wife's phone -- which also has Google Maps, but no GPS. To my surprise, it pinpointed exactly where I was! After a while, I figured out what had happened: With the search on the first phone, I had "taught" Google's systems the exact location of our particular combination of nearby cell phone towers, wireless networks, maybe even a bluetooth signal from the guy next door. When it saw the combination again, even without the GPS signal, it knew where it was.

So is there a role for passive crowdsourcing in journalism? I think so, but still thinking.

The driving force in each of these examples is that participation by the crowd is driven by utility: getting a phone number, searching for flu information, finding one's location. Hard to imagine a utility that a newspaper or radio station might provide to attract a large enough data set for a particular purpose.

However, I do know that people respond to direct requests by radio personalities and newspaper columnists to participate in crowdsourcing projects. Might such a request lead people to actively participate in a passive collection of data?

My friend Daniel Liss and I have brainstormed some nifty ideas we hope to try out.

Do you have any?

Crowdsourcing Hillary's Schedules

How do you read 11,000+ pages of a First Lady's schedules? Ask 11,000 friends to help! Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, that's exactly what we're going to do.

Hillary Clinton just released her schedules from her First Lady days, and we're going to ask listeners to pick the week of their birthday in any year of the schedules and look for things that are interesting or surprising ... and post the findings on a Brian Lehrer web page.

As WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein pores through the pages, she'll also keep an eye on the web postings for gems listeners find. Let's see what this "professional-public" collaborative journalism project (or "pro-am" in journo jargon) can discover.