Geo-News: At the intersection of stories and places

Every day, with every news story and every tweet, we are filling a map of the world with stories and events. Over days and weeks and decades, the location-marking pins become layered so densely we can barely see the outline of the map underneath.

This geo-news map reflects our biases and interests as reporters and citizens, and it morphs over time to show how places change.

We can each trace on the map our personal radius, and be alerted when important events happen near our current location or the places we’ve indicated we care about.

Journalists and locals alike can better understand how buildings and neighborhoods change by digging into archival coverage on a block-by-block or even building-by-building basis.

Or we can go exploring, and understand what matters to people across the globe by making a virtual flyby to delve into their local stories.

If only.

Despite the fact that locations are fundamental to news, geodata is a vastly neglected and underutilized opportunity for the media industry. Few news organizations geotag their stories or make use of tools that can help automatically detect locations. And even when they do, this data is rarely made available for the types of applications that could show its true utility.

Especially in a world of news consumption on mobile devices, this is a missed opportunity to better filter and target news to find local and nearby audiences.

When I arrived at Stanford after a decade reporting on technology startups, I had to confront my own skepticism about the idea that I would build a location-based, news aggregation mobile app, find an audience for it and figure out some way to sustain it after the fellowship.

You could say my entrepreneurial gag reflex is perhaps a bit overdeveloped.  

So I went back to basics: One, my enthusiasm around the potential for connecting places and stories and, two, my journalistic skills of researching fundamentals, pulling strings and connecting to people through networks of sources.

In my first months in the fellowship, I focused on building my personal repertoire of tools around data and mapping — from tussling with ArcGIS to visualize real estate transactions in Detroit, to telling stories about place names in the Sierra Nevada by creating an enormous printed map.

Meanwhile, I researched locally targeted news distribution via Facebook advertising, which turned out to be surprisingly promising. I also had unsuccessful, but informative, experiences, like trying to create a map of news stories about my own city block in San Francisco, which was stifled by a lack of data.

Along the way, I met the people who made a beautiful map of every single building in the Netherlands (nearly 10 million of them! so much publicly accessible data!), sorted by time of construction. I talked to those deeply involved in emerging news distribution methods like Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages and the local social network Nextdoor. I connected with many people who have participated in failed local news aggregation experiments, but still burn a candle for the concept. And I ran into promising new efforts like Billy Penn and Blockfeed.

As my fellowship progressed, I was struck by the disparate community of people who care about location-based news distribution, and who would benefit from connecting around these ideas. I think I have found my place to contribute, as a sort of evangelist for the space. I am working to bring these people together at a geo-news hackathon and summit at Stanford in the fall of 2016. The next big challenge seems to be convincing publishers to see the utility in these ideas, so I will focus on documenting and collecting existing efforts, obtaining access to promising data sets and analysis methods, and sparking ideas for new applications at the hackathon.