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Inside Our Towns: Allen Carroll and Story Maps

Evan Sanford explores the origin and evolution of Esri’s story maps with the innovative storytelling tool’s creator, Allen Carroll.

In this episode of “Inside Our Towns,” Evan Sanford talks with Allen Carroll, who founded the story maps team at Esri after he joined the organization in 2010.

We have referred to the Redlands, California-based digital mapping and GIS company often on this site. In April, Jim Fallows wrote specifically about one of the digital mapping company’s tools, StoryMaps. He makes the case for why story maps matter, and explains how Our Towns would be both reporting on the innovative storytelling tool, and using it, here. Jim wrote about what we saw at this year’s Esri User Conference here.

To further explore the creation and evolution of story maps, Evan and Allen discuss why maps matter, how technology has changed and is changing map-making, and cite several story maps worth examining as illustrative examples.

You can listen to their conversation here:

Subscribe to Our Towns on Spotify here.

During Allen and Evan’s conversation, listeners will learn that a staggering 2 million-plus story maps have been created over the past 10 years. They span a wide range of topics – from global to local.

The story maps they reference specifically include:

  • Geography, class, and fate: Passengers on the Titanic. This is one of the earliest story maps, which illustrates the survival rates between first-class and steerage passengers aboard the ship.
  • Hot Numbers, which addresses the impact of climate change graphically with data.
  • The Voices of Grand Canyon, which invites users to read, listen, watch, and learn what the Grand Canyon means culturally to Indigenous Peoples in the region.
  • Wandering Knoxville, which presents a self-guided walking tour curated by a local resident to explore developments in Knoxville since being called “a scruffy little city” in 1980.
  • Boston’s Emerald Necklace, which combines history and current geography to show the continuing beauty and impact of the series of parks in Boston.

They also discuss the Our Towns story map Turning the Tides, with reporting and writing by Deb Fallows and design by Michelle Ellia. It looks at how a connection between turtles and people has an outcome you might not suspect.

Part of the attractive nature of story maps is that one need not to be a professional cartographer or designer or GIS expert to create a story map. The Esri team has launched a StoryMaps version with many of the same features and functions for nonprofessionals, Allen tells Evan, adding:

“If you’ve had a travel experience, or, say, a family history, or a hobby that you’re passionate about, you can create and share your own story…

I felt all along that story maps shouldn’t just be for professionals; they should be for everyone and anyone who has a story to tell that has to do with place – and what story doesn’t have to do with place?”

You can check out that story maps builder here, and listen to Evan and Allen’s full conversation here.

We provide the Otter.ai-generated transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.

Evan Sanford  00:07

Hi there, and welcome to this edition of “Inside Our Towns.” My name is Evan Sanford, and I’m a contributor for the Our Towns Civic Foundation, and I’m also the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Our guest today is Allen Carroll. He’s a Program Manager for storytelling at Esri located in Redlands, California. He founded Esri’s StoryMaps effort, which has enabled hundreds of thousands of individuals and organizations to tell place-based stories on the web, combining interactive maps and multimedia content. He leads an editorial team that publishes StoryMaps, and supports a global community of storytellers. Allen came to Esri after 27 years at National Geographic Society. In his latter, years as the Society’s chief cartographer, who was deeply involved in the creation of the society’s renowned reference in wall maps globes analysis, he spearheaded the publication of many new maps, websites, ranging from large format supplements, to National Geographic magazine to Special Projects featuring biodiversity and indigenous cultures. I’m so excited to get to what he’s been working on in our town. But first, I’d like to welcome our guests to the program. Allen, thanks for joining us.

Allen Carroll  01:23

Thank you, Evan, pleasure to be here.

Evan Sanford  01:26

We’re so excited about the work that you’re doing, at the Our Towns Civic Foundation. But I want to get a little bit more history as to what brought you to Esri. And what have you seen in your time? We’ll get to all of that in a moment. But that’s the first question is, what have you been up to? How did you get here?

Allen Carroll  01:45

Well, it’s a long and mostly happy story. So it goes back to my latter days at National Geographic, when I was very fortunate to find myself in the position of Chief Cartographer there, as you just mentioned, and this was in the early days of what we then called the World Wide Web. And it occurred to me that National Geographic was known for two things. It was known for beautiful images. And I’d like to think also for gorgeous maps, it was my thought that we could potentially use this new medium of the web to combine those two to tell stories. So we developed a little prototype called geo stories that kind of proved the concept in a modest sort of preliminary way. But over time, I made the transition to Esri and came to realize that this company, this remarkable company, was really the place to expand that effort. And, and I was fortunate to have been given the resources, including, of course, hiring small but talented staff to develop these ideas. And so we came up with ultimately storymaps. Early on, it was a series of applications, little web apps that combine maps and multimedia in various ways. But in more recent years, sister group headed by a fellow named Sathya Prasad as created ArcGIS StoryMaps, which combined those different user experiences into a single application. That’s really both really powerful, helps people create beautiful multimedia stories without requiring any web development skills. And so there are now a couple million of them out there in circulation on all sorts of topics.

Evan Sanford  03:34

And we’re going to talk about some specific case studies shortly. But I want to go back to why maps matter. Why have you spent your life in this field of work, and just let’s start there?

Allen Carroll  03:47

Sure, well, I grew up loving maps. But it didn’t sink through my thick skull for many decades that I would actually make a living making maps. But I was the family navigator on the classic sort of ’50s, ’60s era station wagon vacations from our home base in Indianapolis to various parts of the country. So I always loved maps. It was as an illustrator, it came to National Geographic in the art department of the magazine, but then rediscovered my love of maps by joining the then called cartographic division. But maps of course themselves tell stories really rich and interesting stories. And in the past, they told them in a kind of subtle way, of course, maps in the past were static. They were kind of accompaniments to things as beautiful and useful as they were they kind of in a way they kind of died the instant they were done, because the world kept changing. The map stayed the same. But in this internet age, of course, maps have come to life I like to say think of it as maps formerly have having been a noun and now they’re active verbs. So they dance and move and prance and sing in various ways provide access to lots and lots of information and of course provide remarkable insights about the interrelationships and complexities of this amazing world of ours.

Evan Sanford  05:08

That’s a fantastic analogy. And I will for sure be using that in the future. My question to you is, in your time seeing these technological advancements, how did we get to Maps being an action verb? That doesn’t just happen overnight? What are some of the specific things you’ve seen? Or implemented yourself to make that happen?

Allen Carroll  05:30

Yeah, great, great question. Of course, it’s a combination of things. First and foremost, perhaps just the remarkable, not just march, but sprint of technology, as, as computing has evolved. As the digital age has arrived, we have new tools and techniques, plus a global network that enables us to distribute these active maps. And then another key part, of course, is GIS or Geographic Information Systems, which takes what you know the beauty of maps and adds a quantitative component to them that allow people to make all sorts of spatial analyses and to compare, and very precise and accurate and insightful ways. Different kinds of layers of information, essentially, to help understand the world help guide wise decisions, help manage infrastructure help tell stories?

Evan Sanford  06:27

Where did the idea for storing maps come from? And can you walk us through the process of that development?

Allen Carroll  06:36

As I mentioned, we had done some early experiments, experimenting with with maps and multimedia storytelling at National Geographic. But when I came to Esri, we formed a small team. And the way it worked, we the way we worked turns out in retrospect, to have been a pretty fortuitous thing. So we would assign ourselves a topic and just decide or brainstorm about how we could present that topic in the form of a multimedia show, as it were. And we kind of custom design a user experience to fit that story. So for instance, we were coming up on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and occurred to us that maybe we could map enable the passenger manifest of the Titanic. And it led to amazing insights. So when we plotted first class versus steerage, first class people had a much higher survival rate, not surprisingly. And they tended to come from major cities or going to major cities of the US and Europe, steerage passengers had a much higher fatality rate, and tended to be from villages in well, in a number of places, Scandinavia, Ireland, the Levant, and elsewhere. So, that was an early insight that, you know, if the maps really do reveal these really interesting patterns, that the user experience we developed for that. That topic, though, was very particular that topic and didn’t apply itself more broadly. But we came up with other things, like, kind of virtual walking tours that we realized, other people could use that they could use that user experience and pour their own content into it. And so that’s when we started to develop these configurable applications. So in other words, people could take, take this sort of skeletal rearrangement of multimedia items, and put their own content into them, their own maps, photos, videos, etc, and text, of course, to tell their own stories. We didn’t really we had a hunch that there was going to be a utility for this and a demand for it. But we never would have guessed that fast forward. 10 years, there’ll be 2.2 million stories out there. So it obviously taps into a need, or at least a desire.

Evan Sanford  08:54

To your point about the Titanic example, what was the feeling in the room when you were given information presented in that manner? It had to have been, you know, somewhat chilling to be presented for the first time with that, because nobody else had the opportunity before that to look at data in that manner.

Allen Carroll  09:20

It’s kind of the gist of GIS. That’s really what GIS is all about. So taking a bunch of numbers or phenomenon, that’s so big and complex that you can’t really discern any patterns, and representing it graphically and analyzing it quantitatively, to reveal surprising patterns. So the Titanic passenger manifest was published on Wikipedia. And it was, you know, it looked like a bunch of names and a bunch of place names and some other fields for you know, whether those people survived or not, and it was only when we plotted it on a map and separated those categories that you know, first class, second class dirige, that those patterns just jumped out at us. And that’s, that’s really the essence of GIS is to discern those patterns and interrelationships. And provide that context that may not be visible in the midst of this incredibly complex, and sometimes confusing world.

Evan Sanford  10:23

I was fortunate enough to go to the user conference in July in San Diego and see some specific ways in which StoryMaps is being used by different entities, organizations, municipalities. Can you walk us through some of them, but also tell us how incredibly exciting it is to be seeing this project take off? Knowing where it came from? Where it is now and the future? Can you just talk to us about what it what it’s like to see people en masse, taking up the charge in which you give them by giving them this opportunity to help them solve problems, portray information in a new innovative way. And at the same time, realizing that in the education space, this is an enormous opportunity to move away from things like PowerPoint, which comparatively is not even useful anymore compared to what StoryMaps can offer?

Allen Carroll  11:31

Well, do you have two three hours I could go on about this for a while. First I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have this happen so often. So I’m a very lucky guy, to encounter a story that somebody’s used our tools to produce. That’s, that’s just, it’s just gorgeous and incredibly insightful, and even moving in various ways, stories, and there’s so many different kinds of stories. So we’re, you know, we were gratified in lots of different ways. So, one example that’s very different from the Titanic, very different is is called Voices of the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon Trust, which is a nonprofit that’s associated with the National Park and helps protect it, and its environs, has published some beautiful StoryMaps, and one of them features several native tribal members, and has handsome portraits of them beautiful pictures of the Kenyan and wonderful audio clips, describing why the Canyon is is not just precious, but even sacred, of course, to their, to their communities. So just an absolutely beautiful, really elegant story that provides a different kind of insight to have, you know, very, very familiar landmark. Another story that our team produced, is called Hot Numbers. Very, very different sort of approached about climate change. And so the idea was that we would present a series of relatively simple numbers, backed up by citations and links to organizations showing that that climate change this is back when there were still quite a few deniers of climate change. So we tried to present it in a graphically strong but very dispassionate way, through numbers, graphics and maps, of course, what the, the, the fact of climate change that was happening and is happening and the and the implications and effects of climate change. So that’s a, that’s another example. There are many, of course, very local StoryMaps. And we love that. So StoryMaps that serve communities that are that can be sources of pride and inspiration that can help tout a beautiful place or a nice community to a broader public to help but attract people to visit that community. So many, many cities and municipalities have published StoryMaps, walking tours of historic districts and locations of brew pubs and things like that.

Evan Sanford  11:31

Are there any other specific ones that you can point to that, of course, we’ll put on our website that viewers of this podcast can interact with on the Our Towns Civic Foundation’s website?

Allen Carroll  14:19

Sure. So one is we’re talking about walking tours. So they’re here a couple of one is called Wandering Knoxville. And so it’s called a self guided walking tour curated by a local and it talks about Knoxville as being called a scruffy little city in 1980. But the walking tour kind of demonstrates that Knoxville is no longer scruffy and has lots of interesting amenities. So it takes you on a tour as you scroll through the story. You go to music venues and restaurants and public spaces like Market Square burger joints. AT T shirts, objects and you name it. So that’s one example. There’s another example called Boston’s Emerald Necklace, which is a nice example because it combines history and current geography to show the continuing beauty and impact of the series of parks. Many designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm in Boston that that provide this this Greenway around the city or so-called Emerald Necklace. There’s one of course that is published by the Our Towns Civic Foundation. There’s a really beautiful narrative about a community working volunteers working within a community on the Gulf Coast of Florida, to help protect nesting turtles and to make sure their nests aren’t damaged or destroyed by various activities. That’s that story is a wonderful example because that like many show a kind of local phenomenon, but tie it back to a global thing. So these sea turtles, of course, are threatened and endangered. But a local effort can make a difference to global issues and phenomena. So it’s a beautifully constructed story that does exactly the kind of eye opening thing that that makes us really, really proud and happy.

Evan Sanford  16:26

Well, a special shout out has to go to one of our fearless leaders, Deb Fallows, and Michelle (Ellia) on our team to, to put that together. And it really is a stunning example of how StoryMaps can be utilized. But it also speaks to the work that the Our Town Civic Foundation is doing, which is spotlighting local, nonpartisan ways in which communities are coming together, tackling issues and portraying that information in articles and in podcasts like these and all of the efforts that we’re trying to undertake. So before we go, I want to ask you what does the future hold for StoryMaps? What does the next phase look like?

Allen Carroll  17:10

The next phase is actually already started. Thanks to our sister development team, they’ve continued to do enhance what we call ArcGIS StoryMaps as a product that serves primarily not exclusively, but primarily a community of professionals. But we now have what simply called StoryMaps, you can go to storymaps.com. And if even if you don’t have especially if you don’t have any GIS experience with if you’re not a professional mapper, or geospatial person, but if you’ve had a travel experience or say a family history, or a hobby that you’re passionate about, you can create your and share your own story. It’s got mapping functions, but some simple ones that are easily used by nonprofessionals to provide the location components. So we’re really excited about StoryMaps, I felt all along that StoryMaps shouldn’t just be for professionals, they should be for everyone, and anyone who has a story to tell that has to do with place and what story doesn’t have to do with place.

Evan Sanford  18:16

Absolutely, we’re so glad that you were here to tell us about how StoryMaps is changing the game. And if any of the people listening today are interested in viewing examples that Allen just mentioned, you can go to OurTownsFoundation.org and links will be there to interact with.

Allen Carroll  18:36

I’d like to add one quick thing, which is it’s a real pleasure and honor for us to be working with the Our Towns Civic Foundation, their mission of really bringing a spotlight to all these really wonderful positive mostly non partisan things that are happening at the local level, kind of in contrast, even defiance to the sort of political paralysis and bad faith at the national level is just incredibly exciting. And it really kind of matches the spirit and goal of what we’re all about with ArcGIS StoryMaps and Esri in general. So it’s just a thrill to be working with Jim and Deb and all of you.

Evan Sanford  19:18

Allen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Allen Carroll  19:21

Thank you, Evan. My pleasure.

Evan Sanford  19:23

And thank you for listening; until next time, I’m Evan Sanford, and this is Inside Our Towns