Mapping the mystery–Santa Claus and climate change

December 20, 2012

The NORAD Santa Tracker (North American Aerospace Defense Command), a holiday tradition since 1955, is a hit at my house.  With two young boys, the combination of Santa Claus, computers and maps is hard to beat.  And when we read how NORAD tracks Santa this year, the 7 year old grinned and uttered one word: “cool.” The lynchpin in the system is a sophisticated satellite array in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 feet above the earth, with infrared detection.  Apparently, Rudolph’s nose gives off quite a heat signature.  With almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, nearly 1.1 million fans on Facebook, and volunteers on deck to field calls from around the world (1-877-HI-NORAD) there is a clearly an appetite for mapping the mystery of Santa’s great ride.

People have been using maps to decode the world around them forever.  From the folks who accurately charted the night skies with dots on cave walls thousands of years ago, to the ancient civilizations around the globe who embraced cartography to chronicle the ever expanding boundaries of the world as they knew it.  Today, maps still play a role in decoding.  But they aren’t just decoding where things are in the world, they also explain what is happening to our world.

Deborah Potter, a veteran journalist and now head of NewsLab, wrote a post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media last year that nailed just how important tools like maps have become in anchoring news stories about complex environmental issues:

It’s never been easy to report on climate change or many other environmental topics, for that matter. The issues are not only complicated, they’re often invisible. But journalists have to make them understandable to a general audience. When words and pictures just aren’t enough, consider what graphics can do to make complexity clear, especially online.

Her piece goes on to highlight a number of instances where news outlets are doing just that.  They have generated their own maps to break down complicated issues, from residential water use in the Las Vegas Sun to an interactive bubble chart tracking worldwide CO2 emissions in the Guardian and MSNBC’s interactive map of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf last year.

At the same time, people across the spectrum of social change are deploying these tools to try and shape and influence news coverage, and it is working.  Climate Central, among others, has mapped the threat of sea level rise in the U.S due to climate change projections.  When Hurricane Sandy hit last month, the NY Times was all in with their own interactive maps of US cities threatened by rising seas.  That article then had a second run, as it was shared, liked, linked, tweeted and pinned thousands of times across the digital landscape.

We’ve begun to curate a Map This site to aggregate some of the best applications of mapping tools that explain and communicate the complex issues we face.  What are some your favorites?  Send ‘em along.  We’ll add them to the site and see what we can learn about best practices along the way.