Making news maps with Google MyMaps

When you need to make a map in a hurry, using a relatively small amount of information, it’s hard to beat Google MyMaps.

The look of a Google MyMap may not be as elegant as, say, a typical New York Times map. But it sure beats other efforts, like this one, and this one. Plus, you can run Google MyMaps from a tablet or smartphone almost as easily as from a computer. That capability makes Google MyMaps an ideal tool for producing maps on the go while covering an unfolding news event.

For example, Rutherford County residents awoke Dec. 14, 2016, to news that a tractor trailer carrying chlorine had crashed and caught fire on Interstate 24, sending clouds of potentially deadly chlorine smoke toward nearby residential areas. Emergency authorities first issued a “shelter in place” order, then an evacuation order. They also closed a section of Interstate 24.

For most of the morning, though, it was unclear exactly which residential areas were affected and what part of the interstate was closed. It turned out that the incident involved only one section of I-24 and only one subdivision in the county’s southeastern quadrant. A map like this one would have helped considerably:

The map, which is interactive, shows the location of the fire, the evacuation zone, and the detour around the closed section of Interstate 24. It also shows the location of a command post set up by police and an an emergency shelter opened for affected residents. Click an icon, and you can see relevant photos and video culled from local media coverage on the day of the incident.

Watch this video to see the techniques involved in making the map. Note that you can watch the video full screen, if you want to:

The video mentions a “.kml” file, which is a map file made using keyhole markup language. If you’d like the file, here’s a link to it. The file is inside a compressed “.zip” file:

Rutherford County border in .kml format

If you’re looking for a practical way to use these mapping right away (as opposed to waiting for the next chlorine fire), try making a crime map like this one:

All you need is a source of crime information about what crimes happened where, and when, in a given area. This map is based on a campus crime log published in .pdf format by Middle Tennessee State University:

MTSU Media Log

Other possibly helpful files include the more succinct “Crime Log” and the campus map, both also in .pdf format.

Whatever information sources you use, this video shows you some additional techniques useful for producing a map:

Some additional things to try (for fun):

  • Use your smartphone or tablet to log into and create a new map.
    Draw the campus boundary.
  • Find MTSU’s campus, and drop a pin at each building you have a class in this semester.
  • Label each pin and add any relevant fields to the pop-up windows, like “Class name,” “Meeting time,” or whatever.
  • On your way to that class, stop outside the building and take a photo of the building.
  • Tap the camera icon in the lower-right corner of the pop-up window for that building.
  • Tap “Upload” and “Select a file from your computer.” Upload the photo you just snapped (or snap and upload a new one on the spot). Google MyMaps will add the photo to the pop-up window. Cool, huh? Do you see the potential, here, for using Google MyMaps for covering breaking news?
  • Add a second photo. Google MyMaps lets you add more than one to a single pop-up window.
  • Try the same with a video. If you can’t upload a video directly, upload a video to YouTube and include the video’s URL. More breaking news gold here, eh?
  • Imagine you’re the news editor for Sidelines. You’re sitting in the newsroom one afternoon when a staff reporter calls in to say that five demonstrators have handcuffed themselves together after forming a circle around one of the trees in the grove between Peck Hall and Cope Administration Building. They’ve told the reporter that they’re protesting the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. You ask the reporter to describe the exact location of the protest, but the reporter can’t. Thinking quickly, you ask the reporter to use his smartphone to send you some photos and video as well as the latitude/longitude coordinates of his location. He does, and the coordinates are: 35.846921, -86.369378. Paste these coordinates into the MyMap’s “Search” box, and add a marker there to show exactly where the protest is happening. Note that you could add the reporter’s photos and video once you receive them – or share the map with the reporter and let the reporter post the photos and video directly.