In our interconnected world, nearly every local story has a global context. For a journalist covering the environment, data visualisation can be a handy assistant to help show the drivers of environmental change. But the challenges facing journalists in developing countries where so many important changes are happening often lack the resources or skills to make data journalism a part of their repertoire.
With this in mind, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (a project for which I serve as coordinator) and the Brazilian environmental news agency O Eco, worked together with support from CDKN to pioneer the concept of GeoJournalism by launching InfoAmazonia. Since its launch at Rio+20, InfoAmazonia has grown to become a trusted journalistic source of up-to-date visualizations and data focused on the nine countries of the Amazon basin. InfoAmazonia is an interactive mapping platform that hosts richly designed maps about environmental topics in the Amazon, can embed maps in partners’ websites and in social media, serve as an open repository of current data from a wide-range of stakeholders, and is a growing center for discussion about the status of the world’s largest rainforest.
As InfoAmazonia has matured, so has GeoJournalism, a story-telling technique that combines layers of geo-located stories with data as a form of evidence for journalistic narratives. Since InfoAmazonia’s debut in June 2012, the number of sibling GeoJournalism sites has grown to four plus the GeoJournalism Handbook–a set of online tutorials for journalists looking to adopt the practice.
The newest of the websites is Ekuatorial which is focused on providing timely news and visualisations about the oceans, forests, and natural disasters of Indonesia. Built as a collaboration between the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) and the Earth Journalism Network with technical assistance from the ((o))EcoLab, Ekuatorial takes the lessons learned from InfoAmazonia and adapts them to the Indonesian context.
Like InfoAmazonia, Ekuatorial provides easy to interpret, up-to-date, and sharable maps about Indonesia’s oceans, forests, and natural disasters overlaid with stories contributed by member journalists from the SIEJ and partner media houses. Among the new strategies Ekuatorial applies is integration with SIEJ’s nationwide network of environmental journalists. With Ekuatorial, priority has been given to stories from local media houses in areas closest to major environmental changes, enabling journalists to share breaking environmental news between media houses and providing local perspectives to international audiences.
The ability to amplify on-the-ground information has become a trademark of GeoJournalism projects since published stories are location specific and often come from remote areas that may be outside mainstream attention. For example, the Oxpeckers, a group of South African journalists, are tracking rhino poaching in the country’s national parks have applied GeoJournalism techniques to create stories around each reported instance of poaching in the country.
Similarly, Internews Kenya has recently launched Landquest to bolster the capacity of Kenyan journalists to report how both international development and private financing is being realized on the ground. Built by an international team of investigative reporters, Landquest focuses on two regions in Kenya. The first is Turkana, where newly discovered oil has changed (for better or worse) the landscape of the poorest people in Kenya and the humanitarian groups that serve them. The second region is Lake Naivasha where European agro-industrialists cultivate and export much of Europe’s annual flower supply and non-profit groups protect water quality, defend labor rights and resettle internally displaced people.
In these contexts, mapping journalistic narratives alongside data about development and private industry projects underscore the relationship between people, data and the politics of development in Kenya. Dealing with such complex data is a challenge for even the most savvy among us. The Landquest team devised a unique strategy for making highly granular data about water wells dug with assistance from humanitarian organizations more than an unintelligible cluster of dots. As a user clicks through each symbol, Landquest reveals the area the symbol covers to quickly guide the user to the specific location of a single well.
Each of these projects comes back to the spark of inspiration that comes from seeing a project like InfoAmazonia realized and imagining the potential for GeoJournalism to be applied to new and unexpected regions. The team behind InfoAmazonia (the ((o))EcoLab) has provided technical support on each of these projects, and with the further development of tools like the GeoJournalism Handbook and innovations from companies like MapBox and CartoDB, there is more to come.