Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why was an Interactive Map Series the top story of 2013 in the New York Times?

My dialect map was spot on!
Diana Sinton notes on her blog that the most read story in the New York Times in 2013 was  not a story but an interactive map series.  (The map was developed by an intern.)

An Engaging Map Activity

Here's how the interactive works. After a series of questions about terms used for various actions and objects, the visitor is presented with a personal dialect map. It identifies regions (U.S. only) where people who use the same terms. By most accounts the algorithm is very successful at identifying individual's home regions.

Sinton offers some explanations for why the online offering was so popular:
People like to answer simple, online, multiple-choice questions, especially about themselves. People like to reminisce about their childhood places, where their pronunciations of words were first fixed.  People needed a distraction from the end-of-the-year activities in chaotic December.  People had more unstructured and free time to hang out online over the holidays.
We as geography/GIS educators can learn something about engaging students with maps and geography from the Times success with this map series.

Let me start with this comment from the Atlantic article that Sinton cites:
People will generally click on and respond to things that are funny, personally relateable, positive, and have that "I didn't know that!" anecdotal quality.
There are other qualities of note in the map series: (1) there's a path that's laid out and (2) if you follow it, you get a "personalized prize." To use education lingo, the process is "scaffolded." And, to use motivation speak, there is a "payoff" at the end. Both of those factors, I believe, help visitors get engaged and stay engaged with the dialect map.

At the other end of the spectrum of interactive maps are open-ended, exploratory ones that do not have an immediate connection to the viewer. Consider for example maps with symbols that you can click to view data. Here's the latest one I tweeted; it show U.S. military golf course locations. My experience, I'll admit, with maps like this is that once I've clicked on my state or the dot in my local area, I'm done clicking. Further, I'm not usually interested in putting in the work to read the article to find out why this map is important to me or anyone else. Finding context is too much work.


After pondering the success of the dialect map, I offer these two takeaways for educators:

1) Online map engagement can be driven by scaffolding and a payoff.

As I write this post my Twitter feed and Facebook page are filled with results of the latest successful "payoff" interactive. This one has a quiz, like the dialect one, and as a payoff identifies what city you should live in.

2) Educators need to teach students to create pathways and payoffs for maps (interactive and otherwise).

At one level, this is simply teaching the geographic perspective: What is where? Why? So what? And, yes, that's a lot harder than engaging the public or students with the dialect map and others like it.

Send Help

Consider Esri's JFinteraKtive map (Esri blog post) from last year. Could you help students find context, find a pathway and learn something from this map? Did you? Or, like me, did you look at it and say, "Cool" and move on? I'll be honest: I know I'd need some help there if I planned to teach with this map.

The Esri education team recently asked educators to share their thoughts on how the team should spend its energy in 2014.  I think short "study guides" for educators suggesting how to engage students with some of Esri's interactive maps (story maps and others) would be a great help. In time, perhaps educators could contribute to a library of similar materials.

via Diana Maps Blog


  1. Thanks Adena. On your last point, see new videos at:

  2. Thanks Anonymous… This series seems to be all about how to make the maps. I want guidance to use existing resources to teach geography and GIS principles. I did not find that in the five videos I explored. Is there perhaps a video that addresses a specific story map and how to use it in the classroom? Say the JFK one I cite above?


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