Thursday, October 12, 2017

My Missing Maps from The Vancouver Sun

I haven't been a data journalist at The Vancouver Sun for more than two years now. But still, every couple months or so, I get an email from someone saying they're having trouble finding an old map or chart from my Sun days and wondering if I could help them track it down.

That's because dozens of maps and charts that I created when I was at The Sun have disappeared from the site since I left.

My articles and blog posts are still there. But in many cases, when they refer to an interactive chart or map, there either isn't anything there at all, or there's a weird error message saying a file can't be found.

The problem of old data journalism gradually disappearing from the web is widespread.

In this case, the blame lies half with The Vancouver Sun and half with me.

First, The Sun's share of the blame. Or, more accurately, Postmedia's.

Every so often, Postmedia, the company that owns The Sun and most other major papers in Canada, updates its websites, often adopting a whole new platform (like Wordpress). This never goes smoothly.

I still remember the first time The Sun transitioned to a new blogging platform. We were assured all the old posts would show up in the new system. That was technically true, but in the process many of the URLs changed, so none of the posts could be found in their old spot (and if someone else had linked to a post in the past, readers now got a 404 Error).

The latest updates to The Sun's website seems to have kept all the blog posts in the same spot. But it stripped out all of the "embed codes" — the stuff that makes sure that maps and charts appear in the blog post properly. The result is that all of the blog posts I wrote that had maps or charts in them no longer do. (For some reason, embed codes in articles seem to have survived in most cases.)

Luckily, in most cases, this problem is easy to fix.

Above most of those embed codes, I put a little note that said something along the lines of: "For the mobile version, click here".

The "mobile version" of all those maps and charts are actually not mobile versions at all, but rather the exact same chart, just in a different spot. This was because of issues we had with embed codes not working on our mobile site. The result, though, is that if you click on the "mobile version" of a chart, you'll be taken to a separate website where you can usually find the missing chart (but not the maps; more on that in a moment).

OK, now for the part that's my fault.

Without getting too much into the technical weeds, many of the maps I made while at The Sun were built using Google Fusion Tables. And in order to add extra features to those maps, like colour legends and search boxes, I needed to do a bit of basic HTML. That raised the problem of where to host those HTML files.

For awhile, I hosted them on Postmedia's servers. But uploading files to those servers was a huge pain, requiring me to fill in IT request forms and other nonsense (not great on deadline) and at least once someone in IT, not knowing what the files were for, decided to go ahead and delete them.

What I should have done at that point is gotten some cheap hosting space on Amazon Web Services: something reliable that I knew would be there for the long term.

Instead, I used a slightly hacky technique to host the files for free on Google Drive. I actually had data journalism colleagues at other papers warn me that this was a dumb idea. "What happens if Google stops allowing free HTML hosting?" they'd say.

Which is exactly what Google did last year.

And the result is that dozens of maps I created for The Sun in Fusion Tables are no longer accessible online.

I actually alerted The Sun to this problem last year and, to its credit, they were working with me to figure out a way to get at least some of the missing content onto a Postmedia server and back on The Sun's website. Unfortunately, the two folks I was working with most closely to fix the problem have since left the paper, too, and so things went into limbo.

The problem is that restoring all these broken links and embed codes is a tedious, time-consuming job and most of it involves old stories that most people never see.

In the end, I figured I'd see if there was a way I could revive the content myself without bugging anyone else at the paper.

In preparing this post, I thought the best thing to do was to upload the old HTML files to GitHub Pages (another free, but arguably more trustworthy hosting solution). But when I tried that I got some weird JavaScript errors and the maps didn't load properly.

That said, for reasons I don't fully understand, the HTML files still seem to work fine when loaded up on your own computer. So what I've done is taken the HTML files for several of the maps that are no longer on The Vancouver Sun site and put them in a single ZIP file called which you can download here.

Just open the ZIP file on your own computer and double click on any of the HTML files. The map should then open in your web browser (in most cases you'll still need an Internet connection as the map data is being pulled from a Fusion Table source online).

Most of the maps are just single HTML files and most of the HTML files names are pretty obvious so you should be able to find what you're looking for.

But there are a couple maps that are a bit more complex.

The Unsolved Homicide Map which accompanied a Sun series on the topic requires you to open the UnsolvedHomicide folder and then click on the index.html file. One thing that doesn't work with that map anymore is the photos of the victims (as they, too, were loaded from a Google Drive folder).

You need to follow the same process for one of the Auto Crime maps that accompanied a Sun series I wrote. Open the AutoCrime folder and then click on index.html. The other auto crime maps can be launched from the main directory.

I haven't had time to grab everything I ever made at The Sun so prioritized content that I know got a lot of traffic when it was first posted and which I think may still be interesting to folks today. My main source was looking through my old blog posts and digging into those that seemed to have interesting content.

To make things a bit easier, I've included below the titles of all the blog posts and articles for which I've added maps to the ZIP file, along with links to the original posts:
For what it's worth, I've since moved away from Google Fusion Tables for mapping and I don't bother teaching it to my students anymore.

Instead, if you've got data to map, I highly recommend Tableau Public, which now has robust support for spatial files like KML and SHP.

And if you're still having trouble finding something I did while at The Sun, I recommend you check out my Tableau Public profile. It contains more than 120 interactive charts I created both during my time at The Vancouver and since I left. My favourites are in the "My Tableau Portfolio" workbook  (the first link on the page).

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