How WNYC Used Mobile Mapping to Fact Check Mayor Bloomberg

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WNYC’s Jim Colgan tells us how the station used mobile to fact check the mayor’s claim that New York City had the recent blizzard under control.

Combining the power of the radio with the direct connection from mobile messaging, WNYC asked listeners to text in their real stories of what was happening on their blocks. The result was a mobile map that gave visual – and sometimes, audible – proof of the progress of the city cleanup.

How did WNYC come up with the idea for the plow map?

First, the blizzard happened. And we were reporting on that. And then it seemed very quickly the story became about the cleanup, and how much the city was doing to plow the streets.   There were reports there were delays, and there were a lot of complaints.

[Mayor Michael] Bloomberg had a press conference. He said that all the streets were going to be plowed by Thursday morning. And he was saying that everything was okay – that things were under control.

So we said, let’s ask people. That way, we can get a snapshot of where the city plows have actually reached. We knew we wanted to have an on-air component because we wanted to hear people’s voices, but we also knew we wanted a snapshot we could map. That’s why we thought texting was the best way to go.

How did you actually implement the program?

We put up language online, and we got mentions on air, asking people to text “PLOW” [to our mobile shortcode]. When they did so, we sent back, “Tell us if your street’s being plowed.” Once they did that, we told them, “We’d love to hear your story, so we can play it on-air . Text back your name and we’ll connect you with our voicemail.” A lot of people did that, as well.

We then used Google Fusion Tables to geocode everything. That generated our map, which we could use to even link to the audio. You can actually click on the map and hear some of the stories.

So we had all this data with which we could both reflect people’s situations with their stories on the air, and also get a glimpse of how the progress of the cleanup was going.

So you integrated the text map and your on-air reporting?

Yes, a lot. We had at least 50 or 60 voicemails of people telling their stories that we could play on-air. You think of what reporters are doing – going out and getting stories wherever they can go. We could extend the reach of the voices we had on the air.

It really encourages other people to send in their story and contribute, when they hear people just like them. When we’re going on newscasts saying, “This lady told us what the situation was like on her street. You can also send in your story.” I think it’s a huge enticement when you hear someone else.  It seems a lot more accessible – so you’re really opening it up, you’re inviting people to call in. You’re making it a lot more welcoming.

And then you followed up to find out about the progress.

We created the map on Tuesday. We continued to receive information throughout Wednesday, so we created an updated map on Wednesday. Then on Thursday, I said, “Why not just follow up with these people?” So we sent them back a blast, asking, “What’s your situation like now?”

That kind of follow-up is really good. You often aren’t able to do that with a traditional man on the street interview.

So, how are you going to use this system moving forward?

The next part of it, that we’re going to do now, is trash collection. We just texted the people who texted in about their plow situation, asking whether their trash had been picked up.  I’m passing that information on to the newsroom, so we can use it for leads. We’re not using it as a definitive survey by any means, but it’s great for sourcing.

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