Using Mapping for News Gathering

In Focus with Claire Wardle – User Generated Content Journalist.

The London Underground map, instantly recognisable across the globe, really is a thing of beauty, so simple but yet so efficient.

The first track opened in 1863 as the Metropolitan Line and since then has evolved into a complicated network consisting of 11 lines connected by 250 miles of track linked to 270 stations and transports 3.23 million passengers daily.

If one was to map it geographically it would look like a bowl of spaghetti, unintelligible and useless, certainly of no use to the busy commuter negotiating morning and afternoon rush hour.

Harry Beck

It was a London Underground employee back in 1931 that came up with the concept of the map we now know and love.

Drawing on his job as an electrical draughtsman Harry Beck realised that instead of using maps that plotted features geographically it was better to do it topologically, as he did when drawing up circuit diagrams.

The map he devised was a simple diagrammatic map of the network with stations connected by straight lines at vertical, horizontal or 45 degree angles.

Immediately this experimental map became popular and the London Underground has used topological maps based on Beck’s design ever since, save for modifications such as when changes are made to the network or the introduction of colour to represent different lines.

Becks underground map has become the template for transport systems the world over.

Nearly 80 years on  Claire Wardle, working for BBC London would also produce her own experimental map of the London Underground that was also intended to help commuters on their travels.

Claire Wardle is a  journalist who specialises in user generated content.

In 2010 Claire created a crowd map of the London Tube strikes which encouraged users to upload their experiences of the event which was then inputted onto an online map.

Besides being generative in that it provided the journalist with primary and current sources of information, it also allowed the readers themselves to contribute to the news.

Claire Wardle
London Tube Strike Crowd Map
Source: Claire Wardle
Click on image

Travellers were expected to update the map as they went along so that other commuters could see what effect the strikes were having on the London transport system and to then be able to make an informed decision on how best to conduct their travel across London.

Claire is now the Director of News Management at Storyful:

“The first news agency of the social media age. We help our clients discover, verify and distribute the most valuable content on social media platforms [it is] Used by Reuters, the New York Times, BBC, ABC, ITN, France 24 and many other leading organisations, Storyful’s dashboard is an intelligence centre for newsrooms.” (

What Claire doesn’t know about user generated content in journalism would fit on the back of a London Underground Oyster Card having specialised in it for most of her journalist career and also in teaching academically on the subject for a number of years:

“I come to Storyful after three years of training, consultancy and public speaking in newsrooms and at conferences around the globe, preaching and teaching the secrets of social journalism to anyone who would listen to me.”

Claire believes that; “for news gathering maps have got an incredible opportunity”.

Explaining how she created the London Crowd Map Claire says:

“It was a month before the London Tube strikes and at that time we said there must be a way that we can cover this story a little bit differently so I suggested a thing called map using the Ushahidi platform I had been following for a long time and was very impressed by it.

“Ushahidi is a not for profit; open source project which allows users to crowd source crisis information to be sent via mobile.”

crowd map
Crowd Map of Syria Human Rights Abuses
Click on image to open

Up until then such technology was mainly being used in disaster and breaches of human rights instances around the world. People on the ground could upload reports that were then inserted into the map.

Claire says: “There are so many incredible examples of disaster mapping done by the community and by the Emergency Task Force, all these volunteers when something happens get up in the middle of the night and that’s the sort of stuff that I find really authentic.”

“I had seen someone called Mandy Jenkins do one for Washington DC which was basically mapping showing where the escalators were broken on the DC subway and I thought that was interesting because where before Ushahidi had been about big cases, tragedy and disaster I thought we can also do this with the tube strikes”

Mandy Jenkins esculator crowd map Source: Click on image
Mandy Jenkins esculator crowd map
Click on image

Mandy Jenkins was social media editor for Washington, D.C. local news startup TBD, and has had a very successful career in social and local media, now being Interactive Editor with Digital First Media’s Project:

On she says: “We invited and gathered Twitter reports from dozens of riders who shared humor, anger and frustration in their tweets. Some told of escalators stopping as they were riding.”

Using this example as inspiration Claire decided to have a go herself:

“So I said let’s just try it. It really was a just a practice, even if it doesn’t work we will have used the platform and if there is a major terrorist incident in London or something else that would be much more a Ushahidi type deployment at least we would have practiced using it.

“The concept was brilliant, not totally original, but certainly the first serious attempt in the UK by journalists to map what was happening by using content directly uploaded by the users themselves on the ground.

Claire wrote that: “The bottom line was that lots of people saw it: 18,860 unique visitors, and 39,306 page views from 55 countries. 13,808 were from the UK, 3,863 from the US, and I can’t get over the fact that we had 2 people form Bermuda, 1 person from Uruguay, and 9 from Kenya”. (Claire’s blog)

“With Ushahidi you could choose which map to underlay, Google OSM etc. Google Maps allow you to post content”.

In 2010 UCLoccupy created a crowd map of the UCL Student Protests around Parliament Square London.

“There was a really interesting Google Map around the Student Protests at UCL, some students did a map of the protests showing where the police are, here’s where the hospitals are, it was a kind of live moving format, that’s a great example, it got something like 88,000 hits, it got much more than any news organisations on the day.”

Many journalists and readers would believe a  crowd map is a self-generating organism with parallels  of a bright camp fire with a large pot of stew boiling on it, drawing inquisitive people in so that they too can add their own ingredients to the pot, making the stew a lot more tasty and dished up neatly as a wholesome meal.

However the process is not quite as simple as that says Claire:

“I think the biggest lesson was about ‘how do we get people to know about it?’. Even though Ushahidi is always going to be a third party platform you need a big distributor to talk about it.”

Anyone can set up a crowd map but it is getting people to be aware of it and to contribute that’s the big issue.

Claire believes that there must be collaboration from the people on the ground witnessing and uploading the reports and with media organisations who bring these events to people’s consciousnesses:

“For a crowd map to be authentic information needs to come from volunteers on the ground but you also need mainstream news organisations to talk about them.”

“UGC only works when it is supporting journalism so when it’s about audience interactivity there was a huge scale of footage from the Woolwich attack, all of it has value in different ways because they are a collaboration between an audience and a news organisations.”

Another issue Claire raises about crowd maps is the impact of social media which has seen the amount of content sent to news organisations decreasing.

“The biggest trend over the last 5 years has been that the amount of people who send content to a news organization is decreasing and instead they will just post on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and expect journalists to find it, even in 2010 that was happening with the crowd map, there were not very many people submitting directly to the crowd map.”

Claire believes that there is a gap in the market, these crowd maps are not just created automatically, journalists have to trawl through social media in order to find content and place them manually on the map:

“Most of the reports we got were because we were searching on Twitter and then we would pull across these reports to the crowd map.”

“I think the person who comes up with the killer tool where people tweet and the map gets created without having to say can I have this or that, at the moment it can be to labour intensive for a news room so I think when someone comes up with this tool it will be a winning tool for journalists.”

Another big issue is verifying where exactly the events had taken place.

Claire believes: “They only work when you can absolutely know the location so with the crowd map and the tube strike it was relatively easy because people would take a photo of Holburn Tube Station and you would know where it was… That’s why it worked so well with the tube strikes because people were submitting pictures of the tube stations.”

“When you are verifying content there are three things that you need to be looking for: Source, dates, and location. [Location] is one of the trickiest to do.”

The issue of geographical verification was also highlighted by James Cridland is a radio journalist, Managing Director of and social media blogger.

A year after the tube strikes London was once again brought to a standstill by the London Riots 2012. He created a Google Map that tracked verified locations of rioting and received 25,000 visitors.

Cridland invited people to submit reports via Twitter. On his blog (content now not available) he recounts how he painstakingly verified each report before adding it to his map one at a time:

“On the map, I asked people to get in contact with a verifiable source. It’s surprising how many people think that a photograph or a video is verifiable: one compelling video sent to me last night was captioned ‘riots in Liverpool’, but was actually from Woolwich in London.”

“I lost count of the amount of times I was told that riots were occurring in Derby or Manchester. They weren’t, yet on Twitter they were being reported as fact, despite the Derbyshire Constabulary and Greater Manchester Police issuing denials on Twitter, says Cridland.

He then: “Realised that, in order for this map to be useful, every entry needed to be verified and verifiable for others too. For every report, I searched Google News, Twitter, and major news sites to try and establish some sort of verification.”

“My criteria was that something had to be reported by an established news organisation (BBC, Sky, local newspapers) or by multiple people on Twitter in different ways.” (All comment sourced from Cridland’s blog)

Geofeedia is another piece of software that is interesting Claire and may offer a solution to the geographic verification issue, though you do need to acquire a license at a cost.

However there are open source alternatives such as iWitness.

Claire likes Geofeedia because it: “Is a news gathering tool so if you run the Boston Marathon you can put a radius around the explosion site that show any social media that has been posted up in the radius and when you look at what comes from that , tweets, pictures and Instragram.“

Sarah Marshall on the website believes it that:

“This tool offers potential for journalists faced with verifying a breaking news story. Search for a postcode, country, school or sporting stadium and you can see geolocated social media content posted on Twitter, Instagram, Picasa, Flickr and YouTube.”

“Imagine hearing reports of a fire. With Geofeedia you could enter the address and see what images, videos and tweets are being shared on social media”

Geofeedia Source:
click image

The rise of Smartphones with built-in GPS has helped the boom in the use of Geofeedia and in helping journalists verify reports but Claire observes:

“Roughly about 4-6% of social comment is actually geolocated on your phone… there is also a bit of backlash with peoples’ concerns about being identified by location.”

“You get very few You Tube videos because very few people put their location next to a You Tube video, you get some Flickr photos if the Camera has GPS but people are taking GPS off as they are increasingly wary of putting their locations to photos, but Instagram you get a lot because a lot of people still have Instagram without realising it still on.

“If people are taking off the GPS on their smartphones journalists are once again faced with the verification issue.”

Claire also believes that:

“You have to choose your story for it to work well, so the tube story worked well because it was geographically diverse.”

“We tried to use the crowd maps for the Cornwall floods, but it was such a small location that actually geographically it wasn’t an important part of the story.”

Crowd maps are a great way of gathering news, acting as a focal point by which people can upload reports. However issues remain surrounding its use and until someone can find a way of being able to upload verified reports directly onto a map interface then creating a crowd map can be as frustrating as a tourist trying to navigate around London without a map.

A special thank you to Claire Wardle for her invaluable contribution.

Claire also provided a lot of other information including on hyperlocal news sites which I hope to include in a blog in the near future.


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