Software tool lets Sky News map breaking stories online

Last month, Sky News added an interactive map to its website, featuring some of Britain’s most wanted fugitives from justice. One fugitive appearing on the site was swiftly identified and arrested following the launch of the site.

Sky News’ online map was the first interactive Google Map created with NewsMap, a tool produced for ‘a few thousand pounds’by Puffbox, a consultancy in Newbury headed by former Sky News website staffer Simon Dickson.

Dickson had taken a prototype, which had been built in three weeks, to his former colleagues on spec. It came just at the right time for Sky’s crime special.

The idea for NewsMap came to Dickson as he absorbed the emerging story of the massacre at Virginia Tech. ‘First of all, I didn’t know where it was – somewhere in America, but that didn’t really help,’he says. As the story moved on over the course of the day, Dickson had difficulty keeping track of the chronology of events and the locations within the university campus that were mentioned repeatedly.

An interactive map, combined with a timeline of events, would have been the perfect way to illustrate the story.

The New York Times drew praise for its very detailed online infographics it was able to produce within hours of the shootings.. But assembling something much simpler while a breaking story is still developing is another matter.

Building a Google Maps project from scratch would require a bit of knowledge of Javascript and HTML, and probably some MySQL and PHP to do anything sophisticated.

Dickson says: ‘To a geek, it’s not a big deal. But what if you imagine the sort of newsroom conditions – a call comes in or a snap drops on PA or something – and the tech guys aren’t there?”

Puffbox’s tools let non-technical journalists produce interactive Google Maps in 10-15 minutes. To add a new pushpin to the map, there’s no need to know latitude and longitude coordinates or postcodes – a journalist using NewsMap simply needs to navigate a crosshair to the desired location on the online map.

After selecting the location, the software allows the standard Google pushpin to be replaced with a custom marker image.

For its crime map, Sky opted to use the suspects’ faces as their markers. Next, the text or images can be added that should appear on screen when each location is selected. This is a standard HTML field, so it can include anything that could appear on a web page – Sky even embedded tiny video reports about each fugitive.

Once all the points are plotted on the map, a simple drag-and-drop interface in the Puffbox software allows them to be re-ordered chronologically, allowing users to follow an emerging story to see events pop up on the map in order.

Dickson thinks the tool’s full potential will best be seen when it is used in major developing stories.

‘I still have this vision in my head of something like the Virginia Tech story,’he says. ‘When the big story happens they can just press a button, fire it up, and start dropping in stories.”

Sky News was able to use Newsmap this way during its coverage of the floods in Yorkshire this week. Photographs sent to the Sky newsroom from the region were plotted on a map to contextualise where they had been taken. The map also linked to streaming video of Sky News correspondents’ reports, showing the locations where they had been shot.

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