Why reporters and newsrooms should use geodata

by Gustavo Faleiros
Oct 30, 2018 in Data Journalism

When reporters for Brazilian environmental website O Eco examined satellite data in August, they found a 220 percent increase in the amount of clear-cut land in the Amazon rainforest over the previous year.

This story would have gone untold if it were not for the use of geodata, data that include location information such as an address, a place name or latitude. This information is an invaluable asset for finding patterns in news events, but it is too often overlooked by reporters and newsrooms.

To break this story, the O Eco team looked at the latest reports of the Deter system, a service the Brazilian government uses to curb deforestation on the ground. Media outlets from across the world picked up the story. I helped the team to visualize the information in an interactive map and in a simple pie chart, as part of my Knight International Journalism Fellowship.

As a Brazilian reporter who started covering Amazon deforestation 10 years ago at the financial newspaper Valor Econômico, I realized that there was nothing more innovative and powerful than creating a rich context for the reader by overlaying location-specific news with data on deforestation and forest fires. These data are available due to years of research with earth observation satellites by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and other space agencies.

Last June, the Knight International Journalism Fellowships, in partnership with O Eco and Internews, launched InfoAmazonia, a platform that aggregates news and large amounts of data about environmental degradation in this vital part of our planet. When we launched, only data about deforestation in Brazil was available. But this month, InfoAmazonia joined with Terra-i, a project of several NGOs that detects land-cover changes resulting from human activities, almost in real time. This partnership will extend InfoAmazonia’s analysis of deforestation data to Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

Now more than ever, journalists should embrace geodata. Through the Open Government Partnership, 150 countries have committed to making their data public and searchable. This means a vast amount of information on oil and mining concessions in member countries is being released. The need for journalists to analyze and investigate these data is urgent. Many stories that were hidden from view until recently are ready to be found--as long as newsrooms dedicate resources to data mining.

By simply using free tools like Google Earth, QGIS or many other interactive mapping platforms to visualize data, journalists can came with good amount of reporting ideas. Of course, the more travel and on-the-ground investigation they can do in tandem with this analysis, the better.

Making maps is something akin to peeling an onion. Maps are built with layers of information. By combining the layers, you get the visual messages that tell us about military power, environmental degradation or simply business locations.

The democratization of mapping, via Google Maps and check-in applications such as Foursquare, is changing our relationship with location at an incredible pace. With traditional physical maps, people assume they are looking at a simple representation of a place. But with these maps, people expect to be able to interact with the geodata itself. You do not always need to see the map to get the information that interests you on that particular location. You just need to turn on your GPS and the information comes to—and flows from—you.

Journalists are coming late to this party. While social networks are quickly making advances in mapping people’s locations and giving them geotagged information, media organizations have not transformed their own content into layers of information that can be effectively combined with satellite data or other large-scale scientific mapping. I hope the work we are doing through InfoAmazonia will accelerate this change.

Photo courtesy of Gustavo Faleiros.

Gustavo Faleiros is an environmental journalist and media trainer who specializes in data journalism. He is a Knight International Journalism Fellow based in Brazil. Follow him on Twitter.