Every election since I started my professional career has led the news organization I was working for at the time to say, “We really should have a map of election problems.” Then we’d build some UGC map held together by virtual duct tape. Sound familiar?
User-populated maps have come a long way in the past few years thanks to lots of free technology available on the web. Google Maps, for instance, was a early precursor that still has a lot of utility today. See my [very impressive] map for free donuts as a good (and yes, silly) example of a quick Google collaborative map.
In 2008, Ushahidi (which is Swahili for “testimony” – the more you know) made its debut in mapping post-eletion violence in Kenya . The mapping tool allowed for user to add reports to the map using SMS, email and on-site forms. They’ve since added support for reports via Twitter hashtag.
While they’ve had great success in mapping international crises (like the Haiti Rescue Efforts) and domestic trends (like the Atlanta Crime Map), the main problem with Ushahidi is that it isn’t altogether quick or easy to get a map set up. The software is free and open source, but you need to have a server and programming know-how to get it going.
Thankfully, Ushahidi recently launched a stripped-down, hosted version of it’s mapping tool called Crowdmap. In about 10 minutes, you can have a user-contributed map up and running with no programming know-how and no server.
Reports submitted on-site flow in to a back-end queue that’s easy to publish as verified or unverified reports. Messages sent via email or Twitter can be converted to full map reports by an admin in a matter of a couple of minutes. All reports have an option to add photos, videos or news links to more info. You can schedule reports to publish and certain times, plus designate specific submitters (like your staff) to have their reports be auto-approved.
Crowdmap does have a couple of downsides. For one, it isn’t embeddable on your site. It has to be used on Crowdmap, though you can use a Google analytics tracking code to track traffic. It also isn’t particularly customizable, so you can’t brand it or add significant new features as you can with Ushahidi. Still, though, it’s a heckuva lot better than some of the cobbled-together maps I’ve had to put together before.
I recently built a couple of these maps for TBD.com, one for mapping Washington-area transit issues and another for monitoring polling problems on the day of D.C.’s primary elections. Neither took much time to set up and both had/have decent participation, given that we promote it on our site. We got far more Twitter reports than anything else, which is likely because we put the most effort into promoting it there. At some point, I’d like to expand our reports to include SMS contributions.
I’ll have a post soon that will walk though setting up a Crowdmap, but for now, check out the site and tinker around. It’s super easy.