From customized designs to user-friendly templates, digital storymaps have emerged as tools of choice for communicating an array of rich, geographic-based information.
With the ability to combine text, images, sound, and video, these GIS multi-media interfaces tell a compelling story through an immersive user experience. In addition to educational value, storymaps are also powerful platforms for user engagement and action, thus capable of broadening local calls for support with global reach.
A notable case is that of outdoors company Patagonia, which launched in 2018 The Blue Heart of Europe storytelling map, part of their Dam Truth campaign to protect the rivers of the Balkans from hydroelectric damming.
The company’s digital team built a “scrollytelling” visualization using a custom-designed map (styled with Studio), which allowed users to “fly” to a location in concert with scroll positioning.
The platform also includes an embedded Blue Heart documentary film with more than 1.2 million views, additional video clips, and stories of local activists and citizens that as part of the immersive user experience, curated to motivate readers to become involved.
The scrolling experience lands users on an open “Sign the Petition” statement with a call to action. Names from signatories around the world are leveraged ongoing by local activists and groups to demand that banks halt the funding of dam projects that may harm fragile riverine ecosystems, while also increasing support for energy efficiency and clean renewable energy.
Although the Blue Heart storymap campaign was custom and thus no doubt resource-intensive to build, ArcGIS StoryMaps (capitalization is theirs) is a cost-accessible avenue for changemaking organizations, government agencies, and implementing partnerships to profile their global development and sustainability work with robustness and impact.
Reasons For Changemakers To Use Storymaps To Tout Global Impact
There are four overarching reasons why implementers in agencies and public-private partnerships should consider creating a StoryMap to promote sustainability and global development and impact work.
1. StoryMaps are easy to develop.
There are several products on the market for building storymaps. ArcGIS and their StoryMaps is a leader. The company provides free accounts intended for noncommercial, nongovernmental use. These are basic templates that allow creators to upload images and web and map scenes, bring in video, and include guided map tours and slideshows. There is no coding required, and templates and functionality are constantly upgraded by the ArcGIS team.
For those reporting on organizational projects in global development and sustainable impact work, an annual, basic “Storyteller” subscription license may be worth the investment. In fact, consider writing a subscription request into your next proposal as a compelling way to promote impact work and outcomes.
Projects with more intensive GIS geographical data might necessitate subscriptions to the next levels up, including the “Creator” or “GIS (Professional)” accounts. These offer full capabilities in ArcGIS to create 2D and 3D maps, build apps, and publish layers of geographic data on the web.
Comparable to free accounts, subscription-levels give creators customizable options, including generating map data, embedding image galleries, and integrating far more capabilities in map tours.
The experience of creation feels like working in a simple website template, with options for accessible subpages and similar, built-in design prompts such as selecting and inserting text boxes and applying styles, uploading and inserting via drop-and-drag, and linking to external sites and content.
In terms of map interfaces, there is GIS-based map functionality with aerial map or satellite views where data exists. By inserting “pins,” or geotags, users can move through the map while scrolling, pulling in location-specific curated multi-media content. This is where the experience gets immersive and exciting, while still being relatively easy to create.
The Mapbox Storytelling Template, a competitor in this space, also provides a low-code, modularized template that anyone can use to input copy, select the elements of the map that they want to feature for each “chapter,” and quickly publish a highly interactive story experience with high quality visuals to support the content. The template works well for any story that highlights multiple locations, and especially ones that include custom map data.
2. The reach is limitless.
Aside from ease in creation, one of the most impressive benefits of creating an ArcGIS StoryMap specifically is the ability to connect to an extensive community of creators and storytelling consumers.
In other words, publishing your StoryMap with a viewing option plugs you and your work into a global web of people who are consuming specific content for an array of purposes.
This includes researchers, journalists, policy-makers, agency personal, organizational changemakers, historians, geographers, planners, and even potential partners for future work.
When ArcGIS rolled out its latest StoryMap capabilities and templates for beta tasting in 2019 the surge in use was astounding. Millions of StoryMaps were being published across wide-ranging topics and endeavors. Accompanying this work, agencies published grey literature case studies with links to their published StoryMaps, thus fulfilling project reporting and broader public outreach goals.
On top of the sheer volume, ArcGIS worked to innovate its development capabilities while simultaneously building community through curation and promotion of creators and their diverse, creative StoryMaps. Weekly newsletters land in inboxes that include design tips as well as highlighted galleries of best practice integration of sound or imagery, for example, or a bibliographic list with links by similar topic (e.g., “An Ocean of StoryMaps”).
This effort illustrates that being part of the StoryMap ecosystem provides opportunities to promote development and sustainable impact work beyond an organization’s existing networks. You are literally tapping into a stream of people already potentially interested in your project that you didn’t even know existed.
3. StoryMaps are collaborative.
StoryMap development invites collaboration. If your work involves many stakeholders who bring diverse knowledge and understanding, the capacity of design allows multiple experts and storytellers to co-create. In this way, StoryMaps can be either one and done or ongoing, inviting interactions and integration of new information, data, and human stories as they emerge.
Imagine the possibilities of broadening participation and new mediums in long-term project promotion!
For example, many agencies and NGOs encourage the involvement of citizen scientists in their work. Whether it’s monitoring water quality, documenting sightings for wildlife census counts, or uploading stories on smartphones in critical places of natural, social, or heritage significance, technology enables the curation of information and data from multiple sources edited or in real time.
And critically, you may identify new voices that have been unintentionally overlooked who may offer valuable information and insights. In that way, StoryMaps have the potential to increase diversity of participation and narrative curation – even promoting democratic tenants of inclusion.
Of course, enduring StoryMaps require dedicated monitoring and updating, so it is important to assess whether a StoryMap should be a one time published deliverable, or established for ongoing involvement and updating. Permission from granting agencies to publish, especially for public view and accessibility, is also an imperative.
4. They can move people.
StoryMaps have the potential to be a powerful medium in conveying technical information and outcomes in concert with those critical place-based human impact stories that emerge from global development, sustainability, and cross-sector partnerships. They also frame narratives through the lens of “Place,” which helps those engaging in StoryMaps connect to nuanced details that are uniquely different than their own place-based experiences, creating a curiosity gap that draws people in to scroll on to close it.
Although we could write a full report on the psychological research that underpins how multi-media can motivate people to internalize information, change attitudes, or respond to calls for action, there are four integrating principles tied to this medium that make it impactful. These include: multimedia vividness (intense clarity and detail), valence and arousal (emotional stimuli linked to memory), and immersion (the subjective experience of “being there”) that contribute with good narrative to a compelling story.
StoryMaps are One Engaging Tool in an Impact Communications Toolbox
StoryMaps offer a tremendous opportunity to profile work and invite participation. It should be noted that those who are promoting efforts and educating publics should always examine the challenges and ethical considerations of digital technology use.
This includes assessment of user accessibility and potential marginalization and curation decisions that may elevate some voices over others. Be sure to also conduct a thorough feasibility assessment as well to realistically identify time and resource requisites for creation and updating.
If practical, creating a storymap (ArcGIS StoryMap in particular) is a great addition to the many engagement and outreach tools changemakers and partners in the global development and sustainability space have in our toolbox. The collaborative process is also a potential conduit for ongoing partnership communication, fostering monitoring, project assessment, and lessons learned for future opportunities and improvement.
Visit the USAID Fish Right StoryMap
Check out a StoryMap that communicates the coastal mapping work in the Philippines carried out by one of our partnerships – USAID Fish Right – to illustrate the capabilities of this medium to promote global development and sustainable impact work.