Al Jazeera America’s Sandy Interactive is Smart and Poignant

After seeing talk of this Superstorm Sandy interactive about a week ago, I’m just now getting around to taking a close look at it. Basically, Al Jazeera America’s (AJA) Jared Keller and Dominica Lim created an interactive map inviting anyone affected by Hurricane Sandy to tell their stories using text, photo and video. This is one way AJA plans to recognize the devastating storm’s first anniversary and offer context as part of its continuing Sandy coverage.

“With the anniversary of Sandy approaching, we’re inviting Al Jazeera America audience to share memories of the experience — moments of shock, fear, companionship, inspiration, resiliency — that remain with us today,” Keller and Lim wrote.

Readers can email Keller, fill out a form on AJA’s site or tweet their stories and photos with the hashtag #SandyStories to be considered for publication. As the submissions roll in, AJA has been plotting the map with stories represented by dozens of people impacted by the storm along the Eastern seaboard. The interactive is emotionally powerful, but also an astute move by AJA.

This interactive map is smart for two reasons (if not more):

1. It connects readers with each other and to AJA.

I think it’s really important for people who have experienced the trauma of a natural disaster firsthand to have an opportunity to freely share their stories with a community. In this case, the community is the Internet. With such a sensitive topic, it’s paramount for news organizations to find a way around simply reporting the story — say, the “it’s the one year anniversary of Sandy, which did XYZ damage” piece — but rather to lead readers toward an overall understanding of the events that shape us. Perhaps this understanding can even morph into healing. In our digital landscape, journalists can add many more layers to a story than ever before due to sheer volume of information and the ease with which we can access readers. So why not add those layers? This, to me, is where the public service aspect of journalism can really shine — it’s when we can give those who might not usually have a voice a megaphone.

2. Its successes and failures will shape AJA’s next multimedia feature and probably make it better.

For AJA or any publication experimenting with reader contributed- and/or interactive content, putting together a package like the Sandy map allows the news organization a chance to work through the kinks. Because they’re going to be there. Even monitoring Keller’s tweets, I could see that some people were having issues with map link redirects and such — might not AJA’s problem at all! — but those kind of bugs are good for any reporter to try fixing. For example, AJA might find that collecting reader stories via Twitter is the most efficient way to compile their information and would thus carry out interactives differently next time. Maybe more importantly, efforts like AJA’s, which, coming from a brand new operation are impressive, show what they’re capable of doing. Readers will be more likely to engage after seeing the results of the Sandy project — at least, one could surmise as much.

What’s the best interactive you’ve seen a publication create to help tell a story?

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