Climate change information can usually be summarized in three words: boring bad news. Journalists try to remedy this with sensationalism, such as with the infamous This headline angered ocean scientists and climate change communication specialists alike because it was non-factual, and might make otherwise action-oriented people give up: if it’s too late, why bother?(Oct 11, 2016, by R. Jacobsen).
On the other hand, those trying to communicate nuanced, balanced climate change information can skew to the dry side of things. A 1,552-page carefully balanced report on climate change like theis not going to engage the public.
So, how do you find the sweet spot between the 60-point-font doomsday headline and the impenetrable thesis with a thousand citations?
Enter: the Story Map.
Setting stories in a geospatial, multimedia context
|Image is a screengrab from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, |
accessible at http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/climate-migrants/index.html.
Setting stories in a geospatial, multimedia context
The father of Story Maps at Esri, Allen Carroll, came up with the idea during his 27-year tenure as National Geographic ‘s Chief Cartographer, calling them “geostories.” However, lacking the technical support he needed to develop the idea at NatGeo, he joined Esri in 2010 and began developing Story Maps. They began as a variety of templates designed by his team to support different kinds of narratives. In 2011 these templates became web applications available for free on the Esri website. The applications are fully customizable, and the best examples submitted to Esri are featured in . To create your own Story Map you only need a web connection, a free public ArcGIS account (though paid accounts have more capabilities), and your own content, or links to content. No special technical knowledge is needed to develop a Story Map. Although Story Maps are mostly visual, they can be made accessible for the visually impaired by including audio content, such as podcasts. Story Mapping is a highly flexible tool.
“The novelty of Story Mapping is the interactivity,” said Alexis Mychajliw, a Graduate Student Instructor at the Hadly Lab, Stanford University, where she and her colleague Melissa Kemp taught on using Story Maps to communicate about global change in 2014 and 2015. “People can zoom in on the things they care about.” The two Story Maps created by the Stanford students describe climate change impacts using maps that link to local news articles (See: , 2014, and , 2015). While some
Story Maps firmly direct the user’s experience to a particular conclusion, the Stanford maps let the climate-related news articles linked to points on maps displaying GIS data about climate change projections speak for themselves. The user is left to connect the dots, perhaps making a stronger impression than either an alarmist headline or dense scientific report.
Story Maps are currently enjoying growing popularity. They are in use at the grade-school level (Mr. Carroll says they are used from 4th grade up), and the tool is being taught widely in U.S. higher education institutions. Story Maps are replacing PowerPoint presentations at conferences. Non-governmental organizations are using them in lieu of traditional annual reports and project summaries for funders. Local governments and federal U.S. agencies like EPA, USGS, and NOAA are bringing Story Maps into play (see the NOAA Climate Program’s Story Map).
Conservation science organizations are exploring the tool. There are eight Story Maps in the , all published in 2016, including five about climate change (for example, one on the ).
|Image is a screengrab from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, accessible at http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/climate-migrants/index.html.|
A tool that still needs testing and development
Story Maps have yet to be subjected to impact evaluation as a science communication tool. Generally, Story Maps are found to be “sticky”—they hold internet user’s attention longer than other websites—but there is a hunger at Esri for better analytics. Mr. Carroll reports that while there is anecdotal evidence of the tool’s effectiveness, much depends on the quality of the Story Map. He notes that not everyone is natural storyteller, and the impulse to overcomplicate a story is widespread. There is currently a trend of Story Maps being built inside of Story Maps that Mr. Carroll regards with skepticism.
Besides the problem with quality control in Story Mapping, there is the problem that it is hard to tell the publication date of any given Story Map in the current iterations of Esri’s templates. This is a useful tidbit of information, since much of the quality of a Story Map is contingent on its web links being active. Hopefully in the future Story Map application developers can give Story Mappers easy ways to display the date of their creations.
Story Maps have great potential as conduits for crowdsourcing climate change-related information in a geospatially explicit way. A This type of Story Mapping could have any number of applications for climate change researchers, such as crowdsourcing evidence of the distribution of invasive or endangered species.from 2016 gives users an avenue for submitting personal stories and photos tied to specific parks.
Another place Story Maps might play an important role is in connecting local and historical place-based knowledge with climate model outputs. It strikes this correspondent that Story Maps could be particularly useful in linking climate data with Traditional Ecological Knowledge(s), such as Native/First Nations communities’ oral histories and cultural objects, to tell the story of climate change on indigenous lands.
Altogether Story Mapping is an exciting new tool in the climate change communication toolbox. Its multilayered interactive approach has great potential for inviting new audiences to take up otherwise boring bad news in better, self-paced ways, hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of doomsday overwhelm and over-nuanced pedantry, and moving people from curiosity to action.
Images above are screengrabs from the 2017 Story Map “Climate Migrants,” by the Esri Story Maps Team, accessible at
Resources on teaching Story Mapping
- (72 min, Aug. 2016): a good webinar giving an introduction to Story Maps by Esri’s Allen Carroll and Bernie Szukalski.
- Two pedagogical articles came out of the global change Story Mapping classes at Stanford:
- Mychajliw, AM, Kemp, ME, Truebe, ST, and Hadly, EA (2016). A geographic approach to teaching and communicating global change in California. (Ed. Cowen, DJ), ESRI Press. (See Chapter 8, 155-169 in the 309-page e-book.)
- Mychajliw, AM, Kemp, ME, & Hadly, EA (2015). . The Anthropocene Review, 2:267-278.
- Kerski, J. (2013). . Journal of Research and Didactics in Geography, 2:11-26. Pages 24-25 include a clear, concise description of how Story Maps can be used in a geography classroom context.
Story Maps to explore
(2015). This is an Esri Story Maps Team product created for , covering climate change in five thematic areas: understanding natural systems, mapping human systems, mapping ocean impacts, predicting the future, and international cooperation.
An interesting Story Map in progress:, a Norwegian environmental knowledge foundation working with the United Nations Environment Programme, is working on an Indigenous Peoples Story Map project:
(2016): created by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN agency, this Story Map utilizes photos and videos to quickly and effectively introduce IFAD’s forest management projects and the indigenous women involved in those projects.