Geographic information systems (GIS) solution developers and service providers are generally focused on important behind-the-scenes work that includes spatial analysis and support — extremely technical tasks. This has been the case for many years and continues to be. But there is a more simple side to dealing with GIS data, and its significance is being realized.

Allen Carroll, an expert in storytelling with maps, likes to think of GIS as a spectrum with one end representing the heavy lifting — the complex work. The other, lighter end includes cartography, visualization and storytelling, and Carroll is happy to see it getting more attention. “Those are kind of more recent areas of focus and, I think, very vital to the picture because if you’re doing all that wonderful, sophisticated analysis, but you’re not communicating what you’ve been doing, then what’s the point? We all need to communicate to our colleagues and friends and communities, not all of whom have the expert knowledge that a GIS specialist has.”

Static to Dynamic

Maps are an ideal medium for storytelling in Carroll’s opinion. He had a long tenure at National Geographic and spent about half of it using “old media.” He created maps to accompany magazine articles, as quick graphics for television productions and for reference atlases. But now, as program manager of storytelling at Esri, he combines digital maps with multimedia content on the Web to tell stories and enables others to create their own.

In the world of storytelling, maps provide context and can help consumers make better sense of the information they are taking in. The more complicated the information is, the more helpful maps can be in revealing patterns and relationships. “When you combine maps with supporting text and other content, it enables you to double or quadruple those insights,” Carroll says. “Maps by themselves can be cool and interesting, but if they’re interpreted and reinforced with other content, I think you’ve got a stronger, more powerful result.”

While maps and storytelling have been around for centuries, the digital age has given them new meaning. Maps in “old media” were extremely important and powerful, but they were generally static. Now, they are dynamic and GIS masters are still learning how to take advantage of all of the opportunities and power they offer. “It’s like going from a noun to an active verb. So maps can become the basis for, link to and interact with all sorts of multimedia content — photos, video, audio, text — to tell all sorts of stories. So it’s a really exciting time and, in a way, represents a new medium,” Carroll says.

What is a Story Map?

One popular platform designed for storytelling with maps is Esri’s ArcGIS, specifically ArcGIS Online. This includes an entire ecosystem of content. Authors of story maps sometimes use maps to locate photos and videos. They might create maps that show different points. They might also illustrate thematic information. To do this, they are able to utilize tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of maps that have been posted by the GIS community and shared on ArcGIS Online.

In the most general sense, story maps exist to inform. Often they are used to inspire and get people to take action, like making a monetary donation or joining volunteer efforts. They can also be used to entertain; Carroll says he’s seen story map authors share their travel logs just for fun. The content is also used to collect and display varying viewpoints via a crowdsourcing function. Carroll sees them being used in the classroom more and more by teachers as instructional materials. “I think story maps have potential as creative medium too. I’d love to see someone do a geography-based short story using a story map,” he says.

From his experience, a large proportion of storytelling with maps is carried out by geospatial professionals. For example, they may be published to help city government show capital improvement projects or plans for zoning changes. The movement of migratory animals between protected or unprotected areas can also be shared. Emergency management agencies use story maps to summarize how they are responding to events. The platform can also be used to illustrate the implications of climate change. “Story maps can show whole series of thematic maps about anything and everything, from infrastructure, to demographic patterns, to vegetation and ecosystems and climate change, to physical things like geology and geomorphology; you name it, all sorts of things,” Carroll explains.

Elements of Effective Storytelling with Maps

When he worked at National Geographic, most of Carroll’s colleagues were naturals at storytelling, and pretty clueless about data and technology. Then, when he joined Esri more than six years ago, it slowly dawned on him that exactly the opposite was true. He has found that the traditional GIS community is very comfortable with data and technology, and pretty panicky about storytelling. This phenomenon has brought the importance of establishing and sharing story map best practices to the forefront of his mind. He spends a lot of time educating people about how to tell stories with maps using blogs and presentations.

There are many lists the Esri story maps team has come up with to guide authors in effective storytelling, but the master list is made up of three questions that should be addressed:

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. What do you want to communicate to your audience?
  3. What is the best way to go about communicating that message?

Within that third point, there are many others: avoid technical jargon, be accessible without being condescending or inappropriately informal, personalize the story with real people and anecdotes, go back and forth between the big picture and examples, think about the right kind of pacing, don’t make the story too long. The list goes on, but these are key guidelines.

However simple or complex, using maps to tell stories is a practice that continues to evolve. Maps bring information to life, and the range of multimedia that can be integrated with them will continue to widen as technology evolves. At a time when data is increasingly vast, storytelling with maps helps simplify complexities and drive important points home. The goal is to not only enrich story map platforms for geospatial professionals, but to make authors of the masses.

“I think the larger communities of students and consumers and marketing specialists and scientists — these broader audiences are less heavily represented in the story map user community. But I think there is huge potential for these larger audiences. So that’s going to be my main focus going forward, is to make more people aware of story maps and make them as easily accessible to these broader audiences as possible,” Carroll says.