Story Maps, a Medium for Data-driven Storytelling
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Geographers have combined interactive maps, multimedia content and text in Story Maps to tell stories about the world around us. Story Maps are now emerging as a powerful medium for data-driven journalism and storytelling. This article will help you to start writing your own.

Esri Story Maps

In An Introduction to Story Maps it is stated that “Story Maps are web applications that combine interactive maps with multimedia content and text to tell stories about the world”. They work on a variety of screen sizes and they incorporate interactive builders. Story Maps are hosted by Esri in the cloud, but they’re open source and can be downloaded and installed on your own web server.

The Esri Story Map team was founded in 2010 by Andy Carroll. Read about his passion for Story Maps in Story Maps chapter in ‘The ArcGIS Book’. As he states, maps illuminate and contextualize words in storytelling and complement each other in Story Maps.

I am fascinated by Story Maps because they combine maps with text, images, and multimedia content. They are excellent for data-driven storytelling because they combine scientific data, facts, and evidence with emotive and creative content to compel people towards a desired action.

I believe that Story Maps can complement and reinforce the content marketing strategy of any organization, particularly those that operate in a wide geographic area. For that reason, let’s discuss them further.

What Story Can I Tell?

Think about your favorite fable, book, commercial, movie or song. There is a likelihood that it used storytelling to engage and captivate you in a unique and memorable way on a topic of interest. Likewise, a Story Map could tell a story on any topic that your audience cares about.

One good place to find inspiration for your Story Map is the Esri Story Maps Gallery a curated selection of great Story Maps handpicked by the Esri Story Maps team. These Story Maps can be filtered by story map app, subject, industry, format, and author and selected by keyword search.

Esri Story Maps Gallery

Let’s review the Story Maps that were captured in the screenshot above:

  • Mapping Irish Surnames – this Story Map tells the story of Irish immigration to the US and locates the region of origin for Irish surnames.
  • Modeling Federally Protected Waters and Wetlands – this Story Map examines the effect of narrowing the definition of protected waters under the Clean Water Act on the protection of wetlands in the US.
  • The Grand Canyon in 100 Images – as the title indicates this Story Map tells the story of the Grand Canyon in a collection of 100 images.
  • Canine Surprises – there are no interactive maps in this Story Map, but it tells the story of a woman and her dog on photo excursions.
  • Building Our Capital – this Story Map presents milestones in the development of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.
  • Protect Our Winters – this Story Map shows the impact of climate change on the US winter tourism industry and how it is changing a way of life.

Note that Story Maps range from impressive research studies like ‘Modeling Federally Protected Waters and Wetlands’ to personal anecdotes like ‘Canine Surprises’. They create awareness about the impact of climate change (‘Protect Our Winters’) and help us to explore natural wonders like the Grand Canyon. Story Maps can also be used to document history as shown in the development of Ottawa and the origin of Irish surnames.

Taking it closer home, a search on the keyword Kenya in the Story Map gallery yielded the following screenshot:

Esri Story Maps Gallery (Kenya)

Here’s what the 3 stories are about:

  • Askari Serpent – this Story Map documents a mission of healthcare delivery to remote populations in Kenya by the British army in minute detail.
  • Our Health, Our Future – this Story Map presents the HoPE-LVB project in the Lake Victoria Basin of Kenya and Uganda in an effective and engaging manner.
  • Kenya National Parks and Game Reserves – this Story Map presents key information and facts on Kenya’s protected areas.

Health and environment are certainly important topics for Kenya and Africa in general, but there’s room for positive and enriching stories about culture, history, and socio-economic development.

In Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do With Story Maps, Bern Szukalski gives lots of ideas on how you could get creative with Story Maps. Here are my suggestions for topics that can get you started:

  • News & Events – there’s a lot going on around us and Story Maps are a great tool for investigative journalism and reporting. A Story Map is easily crafted around a disaster (e.g. wildfire, accidents) or issues of national concern (e.g. health, crime, education).
  • Places – there are lots of places that we know little about, so use Story Maps to provide detailed information on your neighborhood, town, county, or a park that you visited.
  • Journeys – life has many journeys, like the road trip you made or the hike you took up the mountain. A Story Map is an excellent way of documenting them.
  • History – history is a treasure trove of wonderful stories that might easily be forgotten. Use a Story Map to narrate the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway or the Mau Mau wars.
  • Workflows – did you conduct an analytical workflow that resulted in a beautiful map and great insights? Present it in a Story Map so that others learn about it.

Which Story Map Template?

To help you tell your story Esri has developed several Story Map templates. They are listed on the Apps Templates page and grouped under categories like ‘A Rich Multimedia Narrative’ and ‘A Curated Set of Places’. Clicking on CREATE STORY at the top of the page opens up a wizard with a ‘Pick an App’ and ‘Ask the Pros’ tab. The latter guides you to the right app by asking questions about the story that you want to create.

Here’s an overview of the different categories and their templates:

  • A Sequence of Place-enabled Photos or Videos – Story Map Tour is the only template in this category. It allows you to present a set of photos or videos with their location shown on a map. It’s ideal for illustrating a city bus tour or a tourism circuit in your county. You can also use it to document your latest holiday, a hike up Mt. Kenya or an interesting road trip.
  • A Rich Multimedia Narrative – Story Map Journal and Story Map Cascade are the two templates under this category. Both combine maps, 3D scenes, images and videos with narrative text. The Map Journal uses a panel with different sections for the narrative alongside its content. The Map Cascade provides a scrolling-experience that alternates the narrative with immersive content such as maps and 3D scenes.
  • A Series of Maps and Other Content – The Story Map Series template in this category makes it easy for people to browse through a series of maps. The maps can be presented in tabs, numbered bullets or an expandable ‘side accordion’. Apart from maps, you can include other multimedia content or even complete Story Maps. Story Map Series is a good choice when you want to display a large collection of maps, show the steps in an analysis workflow, or disseminate a collection of Story Maps.
  • A Curated Set of Places – The Story Maps Shortlist template under this category can be used to organize a large collection of places under different themes. The ordering of the places can be used to imply ranking. A classic use case for Story Maps Shortlist is a town directory with its hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions.
  • Two Maps – The Story Map Swipe and Spyglass template allow for the comparison of two maps. Use this template to compare changes over time (e.g. land use), imagery before and after an event (e.g. landslide), and the relationship between two variables (e.g. diabetes and obesity).
  • Just One Map – The Story Map Basic template make a single map the centerpiece of your narrative. This is a no-frills template that displays a map with a title bar and an optional legend. Think of it as an alternative for publishing a web map or a basic web app.

How to Write a Story Map?

Here are 3 key points that you should consider before writing your Story Map:

  1. Purpose – Consider your goals and objectives. Are you seeking to inform, report, engage, entertain, interact, promote, persuade, teach or instruct? What’s the expected shelf-life of your Story Map and how often will it be updated if at all?
  2. Audience – Try to picture your targeted audience(s), since this will inform the language that you will use, the content of your story map and how it will be presented (e.g. visual vs. textual).
  3. Content – Have a look at the visual content that’s available. Are you publishing photos or videos, and can these be linked to a location on the map? Are you publishing raster or vector data and points, lines or polygons? What’s the accuracy and resolution of your data and will you publish content for different periods in time?

Didn’t that just sound like a cartography class? That’s perhaps where I got it from. So, let’s get out of class and review the steps Hannah Wilber suggests in How to Make a Story Map.

  1. Get Ideas and Get Inspired – Getting ideas is something we discussed. Once you have the idea, go to the Story Map Gallery and get inspired by other Story Maps on a similar topic.
  2. Choose a Story Map template – Select a Story Map template that suits your story. My recommendation is that you have most of the content ready, especially the narrative.
  3. Start Building – The hardest part of anything is to start, so get going with a complete draft that is reviewed and edited in subsequent steps. Don’t try to get things right in one go.
  4. Publish and Promote – Publishing your Story Map consists of sharing it through the Esri cloud. Promote your Story Map to your audience via social media and your website.

My Own Story Maps

By now you must be wondering how many Story Maps I have written. Not too many really:

My Own Story Maps

  • My first Story Map ’Our Common History’ intertwines my personal life journey with Esri software developments and Esri’s history in Eastern Africa. It was presented in 2015 at the 3rd Esri Eastern Africa Education User Conference.
  • ‘15 Exciting Eating Places in Westlands’ was developed for the members of my church. It still features on the gallery of Spatiality’s ArcGIS Online account but is probably due for a review.
  • ‘Nairobi CBD Business Directory’ was developed for a concept note to the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They are still sitting on it.
  • ‘Exploring Homa Bay County’ is still a work in progress, but it intends to promote 3 tourism circuits in the Kenyan county of Homa Bay.

Creating a Story Map is not without challenges and here are a few that I have encountered with a few encouraging words:

  • Intimidation – there are many great Story Maps that can inspire you, but they can easily intimidate you. It takes time to become proficient but let that not stop you from starting.
  • Social Media – posting on Twitter or Facebook takes less effort and has a wider reach compared to making Story Maps. Don’t invest in vanity but in something worthwhile.
  • Narrative – creative writing is mostly an acquired rather than a natural talent, so many of us struggle to come up with a compelling narrative that flows. Just keep editing until you get it right!
  • Photography and Video – finding the right multimedia content which is licensed for reuse or creating your own is an arduous task. Collaboration and partnerships might be the answer.
  • Spatial data – getting authoritative spatial data is a challenge in Kenya, so lots of time could be spent on acquiring, correcting, completing and aligning spatial datasets.

Wrapping Up

Story Maps are an effective medium for data-driven storytelling since they add location context and data to words to create an immersive and compelling narrative. Story Maps have been written on a wide variety of topics, but start with stories about the news, a place, a journey, history, or a GIS workflow.

Esri has developed templates to get you started and there are lots of tips on you can build your own Story Maps and deal with the challenges along the way. Mastery comes with practice, so now it’s up to you to start building your own Story Maps.

What will it be about? The drought in Northern Kenya, a favorite National Park, your hike up on Mt. Kenya, the building of the SGR railway, or your final GIS project at University? The choice is all yours but start building now!