Geotagging news - straightforward enough, but short of target

Any regional reporter daring to file copy about an event without giving details of where it took place soon becomes aware that ‘geotagging’news stories is hardly a new phenomenon.

As the news editor nails their head to the desk and harps on about the ‘Five Effin Ws”, they have plenty of time to reflect that the ‘where’of a story has been a staple of the trade for centuries.

Nonetheless, the concept – sometimes also called ‘geocoding’– is enjoying a fresh spell in the limelight, largely thanks to the efforts of those lovely, selfless people at Google (other brands of internet monolith are also available).

Their insatiable desire to catalogue just about everything on the planet has led them to develop a mapping system that allows internet users to pinpoint places with astonishing precision.

Journalism has been quick on the uptake. Following ChicagoCrime.org, widely lauded as the first editorial mapping site, newsrooms with longitudes from 0 degrees to 180 degrees and back again have been wrestling with the idea of using addresses and postcodes to plot the stories they cover on their websites.

I read about map ‘mash-ups’– on Press Gazette’s blogs – and wondered how easy this stuff is to do. As research for a book on new storytelling techniques for journalists, I figured I’d try it out. And what better example to use than the circulation figures for the UK’s regional newspapers?

On the face of it, it’s a straightforward enough project. The circulation figures are released concurrently for more than 400 newspapers by the Audit Bureau of Circulation every six months.

It should be a simple enough, even to someone of my limited technical abilities, to take the top-line figures from this ABC data and bung them into a database along with postcodes of each of those newspapers. Then use GoogleMaps’ power to plot them on a web map and Bob’s yer uncle.

The devil, though, is in the detail. First, turning Google’s system into a customised map for your own website is not user-friendly. It required spending a sleepless night grappling with web languages including javascript, php and SQL.

More significant for other journalism-related mapping projects is a telling detail Postman Pat would appreciate. It was only near the end of last year that Google Maps offered the ‘geocoding’UK postcodes service – turning them into plottable map points.

It turns out it is not too accurate: the system has been ‘hobbled’so the markers miss their target – it seems that Royal Mail is rather protective of the way it licenses the use of this commercially valuable information.

That’s not disastrous on a map like this that doesn’t require great precision (see the Regional ABCs Google map here). But for more ultra local news sites, it would be hopeless.

It’s clear that the road to simple news mapping has a few twists and turns in it yet..

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