March 22, 2004

Smarter Maps, Smarter Journalism

Imagine a map on a computer screen. Click on a border and a box comes up explaining how that border was set, when was it established, what treaties led up to it and the conflicts that preceded the current border's establishment. All that information is available today in encyclopedias, history books, and other weighty tomes. But what you don't get is some sort of easy connection between an everyday act (like looking at a map) and all that deep knowledge that you could plunge into if you were just the least bit curious.

I had a colleague who was absolutely gaga over Edward Tufte and especially his book Visual Explanations. At first I didn't quite get what the fuss was all about but eventually he got it through to me that without access to information in an understandable way, information is virtually worthless. And you can have information right in front of you without ever really understanding what you're seeing. The classic example of that is the Challenger tragedy where the managers simply didn't understand that a powerpoint chart they were looking at wasn't just dots and lines and failure rate percentages but a death sentence for the astronauts if they persisted in launching.

But back to maps, they are a highly useful graphical presentation of the world around us. In fact, an entire field has grown up around the use of layered smart maps called GIS (Geographic Information Systems). But these maps are mostly used as specialty tools for planning where to put the sewers and other very practical but highly specialized tasks. What's missing is a GIS system that you can go to when current events bring up places that you've never heard of with histories that you never even imagined and have all the details in all its glorious layers laid out in front of you quickly and comprehensibly in a compact, comprehensible manner.

If we could develop a system like that, the light fluff and commentary driven focus of nightly news broadcasts would be much less pernicious. It wouldn't matter so much that the anchorman doesn't give all the basic facts before launching into speculation and interpretation. If you know them already, well and good. If you don't, you have a freely available tool that the news organization is tying into their report that lets you dig into the background sufficient that you no longer need to be brought up to speed in the actual body of the report.

Posted by TMLutas at March 22, 2004 01:57 PM