Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion: The future of geographic information systems for local journalism

OpinionOpinion: The future of geographic information systems for local journalism

Staff Reporter

This article will be published in The Review’s special magazine issue, set to be available on campus starting the week of April 24. 

According to Pew Research Center, circulation of locally-focused newspapers has declined steadily since 2015, leading to the widespread belief that newspapers are dying. This is in part due to the rise of technological advancements, such as online and televised news, but obtaining unique content that is applicable to local communities has additionally proven to be challenging for many local news stations. 

With many local newspapers struggling to survive, these outlets are looking for ways to revamp the content they’re publishing in an effort to bring in more audiences. Geographic information systems (GIS) could be the answer to a call that many local newspaper outlets have been patiently waiting by the phone for. 

According to National Geographic, the information GIS can map includes data about population, environmental and industry demographics.  This data provides information about a broad range of conditions within a specific area or community, such as income level or type of vegetation. GIS allows people to layer various demographic information and analyze the data spatially.

I spoke with the GIS team for the City of Newark to discuss the advantages of the system and how their departments use it for day-to-day operations.

“Within public works, GIS is used to locate and record information about our assets in public works for the city; that’s our stormwater utility network, sanitary sewer system and our water distribution system,” Mark Neimeister, Newark’s water operations superintendent, says.  

Neimeister went on to explain the various ways that GIS is used in other governmental departments, as well as how it can be used to prioritize where to build new businesses. 

“GIS is used for city planning purposes such as zoning, like what buildings can go where or even marketing components,” Neimeister says. “By looking at the demographics within a certain area [and] the potential incomes using census data, [GIS] can map distances to populations to prioritize where you would want to build a new Starbucks, for example.” 

Although it is used heavily for governmental purposes, many cities, including the City of Newark, have GIS data available to the public for further analysis through their website. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having this data open to the public can be useful for people with specific questions about their local area or for research questions. This can be especially useful in data journalism or for local journalists looking for answers to demographic questions in their communities.

“We have what’s called a GIS application gallery on the City’s website […] that opens a list of GIS maps and applications of information that we do serve out to the public,” says Jay Hodny, GIS technician for the City of Newark. “Stuff like parcel information, snow plow routes, council districts, upcoming elections, developments that are being built around town.”

With all this information available, utilizing GIS may be able to help journalists determine what to report on and who they’re writing for. This is the type of information local newspapers could be searching for to revamp the topics they cover, where they need to sell their papers and more. 

Many major media outlets, such as CBS News and The Washington Times,  are using and have used GIS for a variety of purposes, including weather forecasts and federal election statistics.

“GIS is used for weather, it may not be the software that we use, but when you see the radar forecast and things like that, that’s essentially GIS, it’s data being displayed in a spatial format,” Neimeister says.  

In David Herzog’s book, “Case Studies in GIS and Journalism,” he analyzes how The Washington Post was able to use GIS systems to analyze ballot rejection rates in Florida after the 2000 presidential election. The Post reporters layered information about voter registration, race and over-and-under-votes in the election to come to their conclusions that African-American and heavily Democratic neighborhoods had a disproportionately large number of votes rejected compared to other neighborhoods.

Reporters went even further to interview election experts on why this could have happened, and they found that “new voters were more likely to be confused by the poorly made [punch card] ballots […] and that African American voters were somewhat more likely to live in areas where poll workers didn’t check ballots immediately for errors and give voters the chance to correct them.” 

This news story caught national attention and helped expose spoilage data and how ballot registration can disproportionately affect areas in the country with more people of color or less voting education and experience when it comes to voting. Overall, the reporting done by The Washington Post called for election reform countrywide and the foundation of their reporting relied on GIS.   

Since then, GIS accuracy has improved immensely, advancing over the past 23 years. Through this, it has also become easier to use. This has led to more public access to GIS records, and more opportunities for local news outlets to utilize these systems to inform viewers about what is happening in their communities. 

“It’s interesting. I’ve been working in the GIS field since 1992, and it used to be not so user-friendly, very specialized,” Nicole Minni, associate policy scientist and GIS and graphics specialist at the university, says. “Now, it’s used in a lot of different areas of industry.” 

Minni goes on to explain that newer tools, such as story mapping, are more interactive ways that people can use and analyze maps created by GIS. 

“Now there is a new tool, called story maps,” Minni says. “We are really telling the story of the map and kind of explaining why the map was created and how it can be used. It’s more interactive, not just a static map. It’s online, it’s digital, it’s interactive, so people can navigate and use it themselves.”

Additionally, Minni says that using GIS in various industries, including journalism, can help people uncover vulnerabilities in communities and allow community leaders to be proactive once they are made aware of possible issues. Similar to the issues with the ballots in the 2000 presidential election, she believes that technological barriers prevented senior citizens from COVID-19 vaccine access. 

“With COVID, people were encouraging seniors to utilize rideshare to get a COVID vaccine,” Minni says. “A lot of the seniors couldn’t necessarily use that type of technology to do that so they were relying on their families, friends, neighbors, to get them signed up [for the vaccine] as well as fill out the forms and get a ride there.”

Vulnerable populations are heavily impacted during a crisis. GIS can take demographic data that’s collected through the census to find where the vulnerable populations are within an area to allow people to be proactive before an emergency occurs. 

As advocates for their communities, journalists can use GIS to expose these vulnerabilities, bringing them to the attention of the general public and local lawmakers to enact positive change in their communities. Using GIS could be the starting point for reassessing what is relevant news and what issues are really pressing the community in local news outlets. 

Nya Wynn is a sophomore biology and media communications double-major and a staff reporter at The Review. Her opinions are her own and do not represent the majority opinion of The Review staff. She may be reached at nyawynn@udel.edu.




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