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Making Interactive Data Journalism Easier for Stations: PBS Launches First DataTool

Written by Michelle Minkoff, Data Producer, PBS

The power of the Internet means we have more ways than ever to tell stories online. But when we create interactive graphics, many of the things we want to do require programming skills, time and technical knowledge. It's harder than it needs to be.

At PBS, we're making tools that you can use -- no programming required -- to make some of these tasks easier. Since most of these tasks deal with organizing information, or data, we're calling them DataTools. Go to this page, where you will find an index of all the tools we've made.

We're just getting started, so there's a grand total of one completed tool. We call it ColorTheStates.

Recently, the SPI blog covered how more and more stations are using Google Maps to help tell stories. But one of the problems with Google maps is the map just goes on and on -- there's no way to denote where your information ends. So, if you're just focusing on the state of Virginia, it would be nice to be able to create a background color for that state to give it some definition.

From FronterasDesk.org
Google offers the MyMaps tool to help users build Google Maps without programming knowledge – but that tool doesn't understand what shape Virginia is.

That’s where the ColorTheStates tool comes in. For example, this is a map using Census data from the FronterasDesk.org Local Journalism Center on immigration. I created a file for them that "colors in" the five-state region the project covers.  ColorMyStates is essentially that type of file – but in the form of a tool that  any PBS station, or anyone creating Google Maps, can use to get this done.


The process to create the background layer is complicated by the fact that determining colors in Google maps requires something called KML colors, which is different than the hex codes used in HTML that make this word red. So we’ve also built a hex-to-KML color converter into the tool.

If you do know some programming, the code that makes the tool go is open sourced, and can be found in the GitHub repository for NewsLab, a PBS initiative which DataTools is a part of. You're welcome to use it under the MIT license, and we encourage you to submit/request changes you'd like to see.

The idea here is that it'll help you add a little bit of extra visual punch to your Google map, whether you've never made an online map before, or you’re an expert programmer.

Be sure to let us know how ColorTheStates works for you, and send us examples of the tool in action, any questions you might have, and suggestions for future tools! 

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