Civic News

Thoughts on maps and news and the future of communities

Read our lead reporter's delirious slide deck and pray with us that he's all right.

A weird slide from our weird reporter.

(Image by Tyler Woods and the Google Slides "Investor Pitch Deck" template)

The first thing I should say is that I’m not very good with PowerPoint. The second is that I think there is a shift in media and society generally away from the big-box media outlets and back toward local engagement.
Yesterday there was a conference held by Bushwick’s CartoDB about mapping and journalism. It was called GeoJourNews and featured reporters and data scientists from the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, the Mozilla Science Lab and Brooklyn. I presented in a lightning talk at CartoDB HQ my thoughts on the future of news and maps and data visualization.
So here are my slides. As I said, I’m not much for PowerPoint or in my case Google Slides, so I just picked a template that sounded good (investor pitch deck) and pretty much left it as is with just my thoughts written over top of it. This was for comedic effect, but like, only kinda.

Thoughts on Maps and News

News used to be bounded by logistics

  • In the old days, and for much of the history of news consumption post-Gutenberg, you read the news of the newspaper that was within your delivery area. If you lived in Tampa, you read the St. Petersburg Times, not the Philadelphia Inquirer, because the Inquirer’s trucks wouldn’t be able to make it down to Tampa in time for the news to be relevant, nor would it be cost effective to deliver to just you or maybe a few other oddballs who wanted the Inquirer. So you read the St. Pete Times. They would pick up some national and international stories off the wire, but basically you read your paper.

Then the internet happened

  • All of a sudden you didn’t have to just read the St. Pete Times. You could open up your computer at the breakfast table and read the New York Times for national news or for baseball news or BuzzFeed or UpWorthy or (G-d forbid) Vox. Or a million other outlets!, Elite Daily, Slate, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, RealClearPolitics, TMZ, literally whatever you want in whatever quantity you want at whatever reading level you want. And so local newspapers have had their competitive advantage melt away like so many arctic glaciers.

But people are still bound by transportation

  • While the news may be unbounded, until we have a hyperloop or whatever, people still pretty much exist in the place in which they live. I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Others live in Tampa Bay. Others still in Sitka, Alaska. We are not leaving these places to go very far (especially if the L train shuts down). Even within your city, if I have a friend in Red Hook, I will probably just never see them.

Doing things and seeing people in person matters

  • Although we have Skype and Facetime and Google Earth, humans crave connection. We want to see each other and sit in each other’s living rooms and go to talks and events and parties. And the longer you stay in your location the more you become attached to it. You start to care what new stores are opening up on the main street, you care about your grocery store and how they just put in LED lighting which strikes you as kind of funny but also a huge upgrade from the musty fluorescents they had before, you care about your neighbors and potholes and bike lanes.

This is why CartoDB and are having success

  • Both allow people to explore their location and engage with their community. They want to learn about the space physically and they want to know what people in their community are up to and working on. Maps are maybe the most easily digestible way of looking at a city or neighborhood objectively. With CartoDB maps that we’ve featured on, you’ve been able to see the amount of trees in each neighborhood and which kinds of trees predominate, you’ve been able to look at the property taxes paid by every address in the borough, and you’ve been able to see median income broken down by census tract. All that stuff teaches you about the place you live in.

At, we write about 500 posts a year about the people, companies, institutions and politics of technology in Brooklyn. We feature interviews with local tech leaders on their areas of expertise, like former VP of Data at Kickstarter Fred Benenson, who invented the term “mathwashing,” or Catt Small, who started a crowdsourcing campaign to find out which tech companies are best for people of color. And those were both just yesterday’s posts!


So the driving force is the same

  • People want to learn about and improve the place in which they live and they want to connect with those around them in their chosen community. This is also why Meetup persists as a service. Robert Putnam said we’re bowling alone and boy was he wrong. Thanks to the internet we’re 1.) not bowling anymore cause there’s more fun things to do and 2.) doing those things with similarly interested and interesting people we never would have met otherwise.

All of this is to say there is a rebirth of community spirit and engagement.
Therein lies the competitive advantage of and other local news sources. It’s news you wouldn’t get elsewhere. And that stands increasingly in contrast to the nationals. The glut of national internet media of the mid-2000s gave rise to a news market where differentiations have been to a significant extent competed away. The competitive advantage nationals now have seems to rely mostly on who has the most hyperbolic, shareable headline that will play to the Facebook masses. So there’s a huge opportunity there for community (which is not just geographic, but also like music communities, yoga communities, architecture communities) to stand out with content that is actually different from the monolith of the nationals.

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