Instead, he strove to make the map useful while taking steps to protect the underlying data. “We didn’t allow exports, which is just a tick box. In Fusion Tables you can edit what goes in the info window. You can set the zoom as well, which is what I did — it’s not rocket science.”

When what he wanted to do was beyond his expertise, he reached out to Google for help. “I’m not a programmer,” Rogers says. “I asked them, ‘How do you limit zoom?’ Google are phenomenally helpful with this stuff. ” Although the DataBlog usually publishes its underlying data for download, Rogers decided against it, due to public sensitivity about the riots. “It was such an emotional thing here,” Rogers said. “People were still quite raw about it.”

Rogers acknowledged that this didn’t mean the data was totally inaccessible. “If you were a developer, you could go into the code and look for the table ID and go in and get the information, but it seems to me that’s as much effort as a FOIA request.”

Though the code on the Journal News site suggests that they had the technical expertise to do so, the paper declined to put similar restrictions on their data or map views. For at least a week following publication, the data remained downloadable from the underlying Fusion Table.

Rogers was circumspect in his assessment of the Journal News piece. “It’s exciting,” he empathized. “It’s a big dataset. But now it’s been three weeks since they’ve published, and it could have been this really beautiful, detailed thing. The map would have been more interesting to me if they had overlaid income or unemployment or whether people have lots of kids. To me, those are more interesting questions.” As Rogers knows from experience, the technology is a barrier only if one lets it be.

Practicing journalism requires constant value judgments: what stories to pursue, what sources to use, what — and how — to publish. The choice that faced the Journal News was not simply whether to map gun permit holders’ addresses, but how. The Guardian’s map illustrates that showing judgment in that task is feasible; the Journal News map, that it is necessary. Data and technology do not have independent agency; they embody the agendas of their designers and creators. If, as journalists, consumers, and citizens, we fail to use these products in a way that meets our own objectives, then our work will almost surely end up serving someone else’s.

UPDATE, January 22: A few days after this piece ran, the Journal News made some changes to its gun permit map, including removing the underlying data as well as limiting zoom and removing satellite view.


Susan McGregor is an Assistant Professor at Columbia School of Journalism with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In 2011, she was named as a winner in the Gerald Loeb Awards’ “Online Enterprise” category for her work on the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series.