Story maps: Putting info into geographic context

John Snow’s map of London

Can maps change the world?

John Snow’s certainly did. In 1854, the London-based anesthesiologist used mapping techniques to solve London’s most devastating cholera outbreak.

Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, recounts Dr. Snow’s investigation in dramatic, Shelock-Holmes-like detail. Check out Johnson’s TED talk for a short and sweet summary of the London cholera saga.

Data mapping and visualization have come a long way since Dr. Snow. Architects, engineers, and urban planners regularly use geographical information systems (GIS) technology to map out complex transit, housing, infrastructure, and health-care delivery plans. On the political front, we know that the Obama campaign’s staffers meticulously mapped big, complex voter data to help them trounce Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Of course, it’s not maps alone that change the world. People have to know how to use them, and hopefully for good causes. Dr. Snow’s years of scientific training and refined research methods allowed him to use maps to crack the cholera mystery.

Progressives’ big-data advantage comes from more than access to the best technology: As Nancy Scola writes for the Atlantic”

The right just doesn’t have the depth of professional experience in hands-on organizing that the left does, leaving Republicans without a critical framework to map their data onto…Taking data more seriously is decent advice for any campaign — but it becomes particularly powerful when you match it to a capacity to know people as people, not numbers.

The New Organizing Institute’s Roots Camp is the top “unconference” for training progressive organizers in big-data campaign tactics.

So what about the rest of us? How can we harness the power of people and maps to solve problems in our cities, communities, and daily lives?

Luckily, you don’t have to be an epidemiologist, political strategist, or nonprofit social media intern to use mapping technology in progressive ways. Esri, a California-based GIS software company, believes that geography is at the heart of a more resilient and sustainable future. Their Story Maps app makes digital map making accessible to a wide range of users. According to the website:

[Story Maps] tell the story of a place, event, issue, trend, or pattern in a geographic context. They combine interactive maps with other rich content—text, photos, video, and audio—within user experiences that are basic and intuitive…For the most part, story maps are designed for general, non-technical audiences

Here are a few great examples of Story Maps. You can check out others in the Esri gallery)


Students in Stanford’s Sustainable Cities collaborated with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. The Project is a “data-visualization, data analysis, and digital collective documenting the dispossession of San Francisco Bay Area residents.” By bringing these stories center stage, the project seeks to use the stories “as a tool for collective resistance.”

The Sustainable Cities class itself is pretty cool. Students partner with Bay Area nonprofits and government agencies to complete projects. According to the class website, students have completed 23 projects over the past five years.

B’more Farm and Food Map

The B’More Farm and Food Map comes out of the Maryland Food System Map project. According to the About page:

B’More Farm and Food Map shows locations of urban farms in Baltimore City, and the restaurants and markets where their food is available. The map was created to help local residents find food grown on these farms…As more people seek out and request food grown on urban farms, more demand will be created. So far, these urban farms have responded to such demand quickly and efficiently, expanding their production and sales. By using this map you may be able to help create demand and bolster the urban agriculture movement.



Sen. Ron Wyden’s town hall story-map

Thinking of running for office? Story Maps could help you stay in contact with constituents. Oregonian Senator Ron Wyden story-mapped 11 town hall meetings he held across the state.



Tracking down the uninsured

With the Obamacare roll out, we’ve heard a lot of talk about trying to get the uninsured covered /”>Where are the uninsured helps pinpoint this population, which could help health equity workers target their outreach efforts.

map_ uninsured-map


Education innovation centers

Our school districts have a lot of challenges, especially in poorer districts. But educators and administrators all around the country are coming up with novel ways to fix our broken system. Where are the centers of education innovation? pulls together many of the most enterprising schools in the country.



Inspired yet?

You can make your own Story Map here.

Do you know of any other data visualizations or mapping tools? Any ideas for innovative progressive mapping projects? Let us know/