When a map makes a difference

Sometimes an interactive map is an interesting “extra” in an online story. Other times it’s an element crucial to understanding an issue.

This was the case in mainstream media coverage of a road blockade near Halifax this week. The issue led to heated public debates, online and off, as to the existence of racism in the province. But no mainstream media outlet included an interactive map in their coverage — and the debates occurred without important context.


View North Preston bridge work detour in a larger map

Protesters from the predominately black community of North Preston had blockaded a road after 10 white families were given preferential access to a private gravel side road. The side road was a shortcut to avoid a detour other residents were forced to make, following a maintenance-related bridge closure near the community. (See the map I’ve authored at right.)

Some protesters claimed racism was a factor in the decision. A municipal councillor initially said the 10 families were granted keys to a padlocked gate because they were the ones most affected by the bridge closure.

The story quickly re-ignited longstanding passions among Nova Scotians concerning the treatment of blacks in the province (see this Globe and Mail story for context). The headline on the National Post story cited allegations Nova Scotia is the “‘Mississippi of the North.” CBC Nova Scotia received 203 comments on its original story and 135 comments on the follow-up, many disparaging the black community for the allegations. CBC Radio Nova Scotia interviewed three former politicians this morning as to whether the lack of representation of African-Nova Scotians in municipal government contributed to the communication breakdown between the two communities. (Disclosure: my wife produced the item).

  • Which residents were most inconvenienced by the bridge closure?
  • How far were the 10 homes from others, whose residents would have to take the full detour?
  • How distinct were these 10 homes?
  • How much distance was saved by the shortcut?

These facts were not clear in most media reports.

Seemingly out of frustration with the lack of context, CBC.ca commenters “CanadaGirl47” and “chief wiggam” made pleas for someone to post a map to better explain the situation. Users themselves answered by providing their own maps to explain their positions. Commenter “kjasant” posted a screenshot of this map and commenter “ItsJustNotFair” linked to this one. On the Globe’s site, user “Tilgore Krout” provided 5-step instructions to view the side road in Google Maps.

An encouraging example of user engagement with the news? Perhaps.

But also a good reminder of how online maps can offer more information than text and, in this instance, can help readers better understand competing perspectives on an issue.

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