In journalism school, our professors were fond of reminding us that perspective is essential. It’s not always enough to simply report that tens of thousands of people had their lives upended by a tornado in south-central Oklahoma.
How many is 15,000 or 26,000 or 367,000 people? Maybe there’s a sports stadium in the newspaper’s coverage area and readers would better understand the story if they knew the storm’s survivors could fill every seat plus the skyboxes.
Take the recent catastrophe that hammered Pakistan. Authorities from the United Nations and the Pakistani government say floodwaters have left as many as six million people without homes. If true, that’s nearly enough disaster victims to replace every single resident in the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego. Combined. Have you ever been to San Francisco? There are people everywhere. You can’t escape them.
The BBC of London has taken this valuable journalism exercise and turned it into an online public-service tool driven not by reporters but readers themselves. Found at Howbigreally.com, the Dimensions project allows you to take the geographic breadth of a major event and place it over a map of where you live or work with the help of satellite images.
The best example there now is the segment of Pakistan believed to be affected by the deluge. We overlayed it with the San Francisco Bay Area where the Center for Investigative Reporting is located (see first image).
By typing in our main office’s zip code, we could instantly see that the flooding reached far into Oregon at its northern tip and well past California’s southern border with Mexico at the base. Or, to look at it another way, driving the length of the damage would take roughly 13 hours.
“We want to bring home the human scale of events and places in history,” the project’s site says. “Dimensions is part of the BBC’s continual experimentation in trying to find new ways to communicate history.”
Unfortunately, there’s no embed option, so we had to use screen shots here instead of interactive versions you could play with. But check out the numerous other events they’re making available for you to visualize in entirely new ways. How big are the footprints of the Twin Towers in your neighborhood? Is a deep-sea trawler net used by commercial fishermen and banned in some parts of the world big enough to drag away your local corner store and maybe a few neighbors or a rec center?
An extraordinarily giant mass of trash swirling endlessly in the Pacific Ocean is big enough to cover the entire southwestern United States with plenty of room to spare. Of course, there’s a Gulf oil spill mapping option, too.
A service like this could potentially contain all kinds of accuracy issues. We’re not professional cartographers to begin with, and debate continues over how far oil in the Gulf has actually spread. But Dimensions at least begins to help anyone interested develop a stronger grasp of one moment in time that may otherwise seem worlds removed from the average American.
Image credits: British Broadcasting Corporation