So Cool

How an economic weather map changed the climate

Washington , D.C., 2014—The economic weather map, which started out as a gimmick, changed everything. It showed us how the old stuff—good stories told by professional reporters—could live happily alongside all the new: user-generated content, data mash-ups, discussion forums, Twitter feeds, and all that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back on September 6, 2008, NPR launched Planet Money, a team of radio and multimedia journalists producing a podcast, blog, Web site, and ongoing radio stories. Planet Money’s mission was to make clear a torrent of economic and business news. Our theory was that many Americans were eager to understand how economics and business affected their lives, but found much business reporting too jargon-filled and confusing. It was coincidental that we launched on the day that the U.S. and world economies, effectively, broke down. The first few months were wild. By mid-2009 we could, occasionally, catch our breath, and that’s when we put together the economic weather map.

The map was supposed to be somewhat simple: a fullcolor, fun-to-look-at, easy-to-use replica of the world which could show, in rich USA Today colors, just how the economy was doing. Areas with lots of job loss would be in red, the high-growth areas (there weren’t many in those first years) would be in blue.

Pretty soon we realized how much more fun it would be to make the map personal. If I’m a dentist in Akron, what did I care about the job security of computer programmers in San Jose? We wanted users to be able to enter their zip code (or the equivalent outside the U.S.), age, profession, education level, gender, etc., and then see how people like them are doing around the country and around the world. They could zoom in on their city or their neighborhood and compare themselves to the Joneses next door; or they could quickly compare their salary to dentists or computer programmers in Paris or Mumbai or Srinagar.

This was not easy, of course. It meant putting a bunch of journalists used to anecdotal, narrative reporting in the same room as a bunch of information architects and computer-assisted reporters used to massive sets of government data. But once we had it up and running, everybody was happy. The interactive map was just so cool: enter your profession and you instantly saw employment rates and average salaries around the U.S. and the world; enter your zip code and you could see employment rates and levels of bankruptcy and other economic indicators in your county, city, or neighborhood. Interested in trade? You could see global-trade flows. No longer would you have to wonder how circumstances in China or India, say, were having an impact on your job. You could see, in full color, exactly how much money companies in your area were paying for outsourcing services or imported goods.

It was cool, but not yet a work of journalism. It was all pull and no push. The users had infinite ability to play around but no guidance, no broad narrative to help them understand how the world economy works and how it’s changing. The discussion boards and the videos that our audience provided confirmed our sense of failure. There was no overriding view of the world, simply thousands of individuals who had used the map to confirm and strengthen opinions they already had. A disgruntled computer programmer used the map to prove that people in India and the Czech Republic had “stolen my job,” while others used the same data set to show that global trade was an uncomplicated and unambiguous positive for all Americans. Soon, the discussions and the user-generated content devolved into a screaming match among unbending ideologues.

All along, we had hoped that our economic news service would do the opposite: it would create a forum for reasonable, thoughtful discussion and debate, informed not by the Internet’s typical violent animal spirits but by respectful consideration of a shared set of facts.

We decided to show the audience “the truth,” since it didn’t seem capable of finding it on its own. We took back the control of our weather map and created narrative stories out of the data. We made something distinctly old media, even if it used new-media tools—a series of “data stories” in whichthe audience pushed one button and got the equivalent of a high-school filmstrip: a world map with big red arrows and
a voice-of-God narrator explaining exactly how the world economy works. It was authoritative, objective, and completely boring. Our audience fled. We had overcorrected. We were miserable.

In that early period, we thought we only had two choices: embrace new media and create a forum for cranky extremism with none of the perspective provided by professional journalism, or ignore new media and just tell old-fashioned stories with no audience interaction. Yet, we began to wonder: Isn’t there an audience that wants what we want—intelligent, informed discussion? We couldn’t get rid of the cranks, but we could reward the thoughtful.

So: we gave the audience the tools to create their own datadriven narrative. Each person could more rigorously show how his own life—his profession or his neighborhood or his financial situation—fit in the context of the global economy. People could create their own personal documentary, complete with—we hoped—some journalistic balance. We provided access to the data and a whole suite of new tools—map mash-ups, intuitive information design, video and audio archives, do-it-yourself animation—which allowed anybody to create a simple, but pretty awesome, narrative.

Some were cartoons; some were videos; some were audio or text; some were simple PowerPoint displays. The more ambitious had plenty of room to expand. An easy, standards-based format meant that the personal stories could be as elaborate as the audience wanted, and expert users could create their own data mash-up tools and then share them with the rest of the community. A novice could create a basic story in ten or twenty minutes. Others spent months perfecting theirs. Since NPR is the ultimate hyper-local company—a big, national network with hundreds of local partner stations—it was natural that user groups opened around the country. We soon were seeing group-developed economic histories of Akron, Ohio, and Logan, Utah. Some member stations began hosting discussion sessions on economic issues that had been raised by the project; they would invite active users onto local talk shows to share what they had learned.

The level of user activity is what you’d expect: most visitors don’t create anything; they just browse; most of what is created is of interest only to those closely linked to the creator, while a few are true masterworks. Some of the minidocumentaries are less than a minute long and tell one specific story—the history of one neighborhood, for example, or one company. Others run more than an hour and have sweeping narratives spanning centuries and continents. A history of the sock industry, for instance, was particularly fascinating, taking the viewer to ancient Rome, medieval England, colonial Massachusetts, mid-century North Carolina, and contemporary China and Pakistan. Each element of each documentary is keyword-coded, so someone, say, creating an economic portrait of Pittsburgh can quickly find homemade videos of retired steelworkers, charts about steel production, and user-generated tools.

Every mini-documentary is connected to the central map that serves as the entryway and meeting place for the community, and where a first-time visitor can get a sense of what is available. Through careful information-architecture design and by celebrating the best user-created content, we’ve been able to elevate the conversation. Users have rich, heated discussions about the exact causes and implications of controversial topics like outsourcing, immigration, and trade tariffs. When someone comes out with a strong but poorly argued attack, other users respond with a simple request: show it with data or shut up (SIWDOSU is our favorite acronym).

Many of our early internal debates now seem quaint and odd. We would argue about the role of journalism—Does usergenerated content replace us? Does it make us irrelevant? Not at all, we’ve learned. Our role seems quite clear. We have a staff of expert data-driven reporters who are constantly creating high-quality digital documentaries to go alongside our radio reports or to illuminate a breaking news story. For most of our users, this is an occasional pastime.

For us pros, it’s our job. We do it all the time and, as a result, our stories are almost always better. Our training makes us better storytellers, better information-assimilators, and we have a richer understanding of the ethical requirements of balance. In short, our work is professionally made. We clearly label which stories full-time professionals wrote and which stories they didn’t, though in most cases it’s not necessary. The amateur stuff often seems, well, amateurish and, alas, most of it still suffers from strong bias. That said, at least a few times a year, some fifteen-year-old creates something far better than anything we’ve produced.’

Perhaps the greatest surprise is how helpful the site is on days with fast-breaking news. We often find that some user has already created a mini-documentary about the bank or official or country that is suddenly in the spotlight. If the user’s content is good enough, we highlight it. If it’s not quite up to our standards, we can work with the user to develop it. If no user has yet created a mini-documentary, we only have to wait a bit. By the end of the day, someone will.
We now have a full-service news site. Users can find out what happened and they can quickly get our take on the news. They can also access a rich trove of narratives to place the news in context. They can even create their own minidocumentaries to reflect on what the news means. If they think we’re biased, they can make an informed, data-based argument. If they think we’ve missed something, they can tell us what it is and see if we bite. Journalism has never been stronger.

Now all we have to do is figure out how to make some money off of this thing.

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Adam Davidson is editorial director for NPR's Planet Money project and reports on business and economics for the network's national desk.