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Story Maps: Bringing storytelling and mapping together

Mapping and the art of storytelling both date back to antiquity. Cartographers have illuminated us, expanded our horizons, helped in better understanding of our world and enabled us to go far and beyond, giving wings to the imagination of an explorer. And, in the same tenor, raconteurs, masters of fables and troubadours have enchanted generations, piquing their curiosity, arousing their interests in heroic sagas of triumphs, endearing anecdotes of the human spirit, or poignant tales of misfortune. Or simply riveting them with tales of people, places, and events. The magnetic, timeless charm of storytelling and the indispensable utility of mapping both have played a pivotal role in the evolution of society and the broader world.

What if – the flair for storytelling and the precision of mapping were combined? Certainly a wonderful thought, you will say. But this has already happened. That’s what story maps are!

Allen Carroll of Esri defines story maps as “Story maps are a key part of what I like to call the expanding GIS spectrum. Traditional geographic information systems—if there ever was such a thing—were all about heavy lifting: spatial analysis, decision support, emergency management, situation awareness, and the like. Those functions will always be essential components of GIS. But in recent years, GIS has expanded to include cartography, data visualization, and now storytelling. This newer, outward-facing stuff isn’t just a fluffy add-on. It’s an essential part of the spectrum “

Sequence of maps that narrate a story

Story maps are a recent breakthrough and they are being widely used by journalists, scientific institutes and media organizations to convey their point lucidly, make the story more interactive, easy-to-comprehend and reach more readership. Almost every story has a geographic component, like comparison in the development indices of two countries  mapping food scarcity, agrarian distress, climate change, projecting a natural disaster, death toll in a conflict zone, endangered wildlife species, the demographic distribution-or natural diversity in a region- story maps are second to none when it comes to precisely presenting the information in these stories and ensuring that even a layman is able to grasp it.

Story maps keep the information to-the-point, removing extraneous details that would both make the story less interesting and that are likely to make an average reader disinclined to continue further.

Story Map
Esri map of California wildfire

As opposed to conventional reporting and highly complex, inscrutable data, story maps not only simplify the data but very effectively ensure that the crux is reached to everyone who is interested. With story maps around, no one has to be dispirited about not being able to fathom a maze of flow charts and statistics.

“There’s no question that maps, empowered in the digital age and creatively combined with multimedia content, can be extremely effective as a means of informing people about the many issues we face today,” says Allen.

Creativity, knack for tales, and ingenuity – all it takes for a good story map

For preparing a story map, one needs to have the ability to weave words and the technical skill set and understanding of mapping terminologies. Though both these requisite skills are equally important, for creating a map story that captivates the readers, creativity, brevity and the art of storytelling takes the upper hand over any technical aspects.

A story map that does not take ease of the reading and the crux of its central theme into account, will not be up to the mark even if it is precisely mapped.

Allen Carrol agrees that creativity and the art of narrating mesmerizing stories is crucial to creating story maps. He says, “We don’t claim that story maps are the most creative, but there’s no question that maps, empowered in the digital age and creatively combined with multimedia content, can be extremely effective as a means of informing people about the many issues we face today.

Story Map
Esri Story Map on the Vietnam War

For example, we’re proud of the stories we recently produced in collaboration with the UN World Food Program about the looming hunger crises in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. We love what the Amazon Conservation Team has done in support of indigenous cultures and biodiversity. The U of Minnesota Institute on the Environment told a great story about farm size and nutrient diversity. It was a real eye-opener. There are many more good examples out there.

Think about it: We, as individuals, tell stories in the basic way we engage and persuade our family, our friends, and our colleagues. Maps are highly efficient at modeling and visualizing a complex world”

It is the underlying story and how it is portrayed that interests the readers the most.

How Story maps are kept as simple to interpret as possible

It is -of course- not an easy task to process data and statistics, filtering out what is redundant and making the map as simple as it can get. Dedicated professionals who make maps in the format we see them need bare minimal help from external sources or even the legend. Different story map creators employ different methods that they find most convenient, but the most common one is using varying shades of dark colors for highlighting and making the selection conspicuous.

Let us learn from Allen how Esri simplifies its brilliant maps.

He says, “We’re working hard to make story maps as easy as possible for any reasonably-motivated person to be able to make. A couple of our storytelling apps—Map Tour and Shortlist—are particularly easy in that they put photos and descriptions atop a simple base map. Our other apps often feature maps that GIS professionals have created. But less technically skilled people can find thousands of maps on Esri’s cloud service, and add a shared map to their story with a click of a mouse.

Story Maps
Esri Story Map on world’s top 20 destinations

“The key to our success, I think, is our builder functions, which enable you to create a sophisticated multimedia narrative without needing any web development skills—or GIS skills, for that matter.”

Allen further adds, “Almost invariably, a map that comes straight out of an analysis isn’t a storytelling map. We work hard to eliminate all non-essential information, to choose color palettes that are limited and attractive, and to make the map as self-explanatory as possible. We reduce unnecessary “noise” caused by border rules, shorelines, and graticules. We try to make legends unnecessary by showing a single theme or incorporating interpretive information into the accompanying text. We occasionally make one map into several, and let the map’s story unfold in a sequence of simpler maps.”

When storytelling, reporting and mapping intersect

A lot of good story maps combine not only storytelling and mapping but also comprehensive and exhaustive on-ground reporting – sometimes even new investigations or hitherto unreleased data. Many times it is very difficult to fetch data, especially in the case of pariah states, battlegrounds and conflict zones. In this scenario, the mappers rely on multiple sources for the data, observe it meticulously and then ascertain which is most authentic and can be used.

Story Map
Esri Korean War Story Map

The next part is embedding the subtle touch of storytelling in reporting that might seem insipid to many, and figuring out which parts to omit. It is done to make it more appealing and striking.

So behind the simple-looking and highly informative story maps, a lot of time, skill, creativity, talent and efforts are put in to give them the final shape.

Story Map
Esri Story Map of Kurdistan

Allen provides valuable insights on what the future holds for Esri story maps, “We’re working on a new version of Map Tour—our oldest storytelling app and, until recently, our most popular. We’re giving it a whole new look and feel, and redesigning the builder function to be much cooler and more versatile. That effort is part of a larger push to ultimately integrate our apps, so that you’ll be able to switch from one app to another, even in the middle of developing a story. We’re working to unify the code base and the visual vocabulary we use in our builders. Our apps were developed over several years, and we’ve learned a lot since we got started.”

In the future, with the proliferation of digital technology and more people becoming map savvy, story maps can become the most favored method of telling a story – be it ancient history of an exotic tourist destination, the geographical features in a region, education systems in different countries, or simply a comparison between the living standards of two cities. There are multiple uses in diverse domains.

Can there be something as strikingly informative, easy-to-understand, and refreshingly interesting?

I think not!

Other interesting Esri Story Maps can be found here