SkyMapping by Puffbox: map mashup mechanism for journalists

early concept
It’s a big day for Puffbox, my own little web consultancy. Today we officially delivered our first ‘built from scratch’ product: SkyMapping, a map-based mashup mechanism we designed and developed for my old mates at Sky News.
The idea came to me in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. It was a major news story confined within a very small geographic area, with lots of eyewitness accounts, some accompanied by photos and even video. But you didn’t really get a sense of how it all pieced together. What happened where, and who saw what? And where exactly is Virginia Tech anyway? The BBC has quite a nice visual treatment of the events, but it’s basically just a static aerial photo with embedded links to content lower down the page – very ‘web 1.0’. I had an idea that we could do more.
Having lashed together a few things with Google Maps (like a map-based view of MPs’ activity driven by TheyWorkForYou, or this one using BBC football headlines), I knew there were ways we could use the Google Maps API to identify a particular aerial view, mark points on it, and add rich HTML content into the pop-up ‘speech bubbles’. With a bit of extra coding, you could create a notional ‘sequence’ of points, with each one linking to the next, letting you tell a proper flowing narrative. Plus of course, inherent in the Google application, you can click around a bit to ‘get your bearings’, or switch from ‘map’ view to ‘satellite’.
Any geek could have told you this; many geeks could have built it too. But the really clever bit has been the usability on the ‘back-end’. We’ve made it a doddle for a non-geek journalist to throw a ‘flowing narrative’ mashup together in a matter of minutes. To position a point, there’s a draggable map with a crosshair over the centre: place the crosshair exactly where you want the point (with all the usual Google zoom controls), and press ‘save’. To create the ‘sequence’ of points, it’s a couldn’t-be-simpler drag-and-drop interface.
The first use of the application will be next week, as part of Sky’s Crime Uncovered week. Viewers are being invited to make their own video clips, and upload them to Sky’s YouTube-style site, SkyCast; the newsroom team will pick them up from there, and plonk them on the map. From the front-end, it won’t look a lot different to Sky’s last foray into Google Maps, for its Green Britain week. The concept doesn’t really lend itself to the ‘flowing narrative’ model, so the more advanced functions probably won’t be used. But this is only the start.
Since I started on the project, there’s been something nearly every day which lent itself to map-based presentation. Today for example: the trail of Polonium traces round London in the wake of Alexander Litvinenko’s death; the continuing search for Madeleine; Blair’s farewell tour; the daily review of the local evening papers; I could go on. But it’ll really prove its worth next time we have something like the 7/7 bombings. Lots of media which can be plotted to a particular place; and put together ‘live’ by journalists, not designers or developers.
Dan Gillmor blogged earlier this week: ‘It’s mind-boggling to me that more news organizations aren’t taking advantage of (maps’) possibilities, or, in most cases, even bothering to learn what’s possible.’ I like to think that our SkyMapping app may open some eyes in Osterley. Particular thanks to Hugh and Simon over at Sky; and my boy Gareth, who did most of the hard work. We’re great.

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