How Maps Shape Information and News

    by Leslie Rule
    August 9, 2008

    This video was one of the amazing public mapping projects featured at this year’s Center for Social Media’s Beyond Broadcast 2008. Public Radio International President and CEO Aliza Miller created this video. She begins with the what’s known in digital storytelling as the “dramatic” question: How does the news shape the way we see the world.

    How can maps shape the way we see the world? When I look at the mapping being done these days, I love hyperlocal, community mapping. But as has been debated here, some community mapping projects are devoid of adequate context, and therefore it’s difficult to assess the meaning of the data. We can map in real time, we may let any one with a connection add their content, but in the end, we have to do it with intent and be clear about what we want to communicate. It has to be more than just, “I now know where and when particular crimes happen in my neighborhood,” or “this address pulled a building permit for a bathroom remodel.”


    So I went looking for great maps, which I defined as those that take information, and by virtue of the mash-up, make it knowledge. This map below was created in 1861 by Charles Joseph Minard, a French engineer. It plots Napoleon’s disastrous march to Moscow in 1812. It is not only one of the earliest uses of “mapping,” but Edward Tufte, the guru of graphical information design and professor of statistics at Yale call calls it “the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”


    Source: Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantative Information, Cheshire, Conn., 1983, reprint 1995, p. 40)


    Beginning at the left on the Polish-Russian border near the Niemen River, the thick band shows the size of the army (422,000 men) as it invaded Russian in June 1812. The width of the band indicates the size of the army at each place on the map. In September, the army reached Moscow, which was by then sacked and deserted, with 100,000 men. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow is depicted by the darker, lower band, which is linked to a temperature scale and dates at the bottom of the chart. It was a bitterly cold winter, and many froze on the march out of Russia. As the graphic shows, the crossing of the Berezina River was a disaster, and the army finally struggled back into Poland with only 10,000 men remaining. Also shown are the movements of auxiliary troops, as they sought to protect the rear and the flank of the advancing army. Minard’s graphic tells a rich, coherent story with its multivariate data, far more enlightening than just a single number bouncing along over time. Six variables are plotted: the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the retreat from Moscow.

    In the end, we might wonder what these two examples of mapping have in common. M. Minard created this map because he was a pacifist, and wanted to illustrate the catastrophe that is war. Creating graphical information to teach and to affect social change had not been done before. Not surprisingly, traditional statisticians were not comfortable with M. Minard new way. That’s a bit of the similarity.

    When I watch the video Ms. Miller made, a large part of my understanding of the story is a result of the multi media used. Media is not digital because it’s delivered via an electronic device; it’s digital when it uses multiple medias. Not just the written word, not just the spoken word, not just taped talking heads, not just video or images, or informational graphics. It’s the right combination of these. And that takes training. This example by Ms. Miller serves as a model for how to create news using 21st century literacies.

    Tagged: American Public Radio Beyond Broadcast graphical information design locative media mapping

    One response to “How Maps Shape Information and News”

    1. Paul Lamb says:

      Would be interesting to do a comparison of how much other countries focus on international versus domestic news, and the difference in the types of stories receiving the lion’s share of coverage by other countries domestically?

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media