At California Watch, it is our goal to include multimedia content with every story to better illustrate the issues and sometimes complex processes outlined in our print pieces.

Our recent report on seismic safety, which examined buildings deemed seismically hazardous in the UC and CSU systems, presented a special challenge. The damage that an earthquake could potentially cause in most cases couldn’t be seen by the naked eye, which made it hard to illustrate visually. Instead, we asked ourselves “What would the reader want to see?” From that idea, we decided to create a series of interactive maps that showed exactly where each of the potentially hazardous buildings was located and contained information pertinent to each building.

Then came the hard part: identifying the physical location of each building. I started back in September 2009 to plot the latitude and longitude coordinates for each building using a spreadsheet of hazardous buildings provided by reporter Erica Perez. The location of each building was determined using a combination of campus maps and a free online mapping tool called Map Builder. The coordinates for each building were entered manually into an Excel spreadsheet and combined with Erica’s tentative collection of information for each building.

Map Builder

The campus maps weren’t always accurate and were often missing the buildings on the list, so the entire process took several weeks. The resulting spreadsheet that contained all the information seen in each marker was formatted, rearranged, coded and uploaded into Map Builder. The site allows anyone to upload a CSV file (created from the spreadsheet) and automatically plot the points onto a map.

The result is four different maps that showcase seismically hazardous buildings at the UCs, CSUs, UC Berkeley and UCLA (the last two were given their own maps because of the large number of hazardous buildings at either campus). If you zoom in on a point on the map, you can view the exact location of the building and read about what’s wrong with it. The maps were developed over the course of seven months, but the bulk of the work happened between January and February 2010.

The process of creating the interactive maps was mentally exhausting as the majority of the time spent creating them was revising outdated or incorrect information provided by the universities. Trying to juggle several different spreadsheets was also difficult as was sharing that the information between editors, partners, Erica and I.

Nevertheless, I decided that another visual element was necessary so I created the interactive timeline of the history of earthquakes in California. It’s one thing to see a list of earthquakes…it’s another to actually see them happening before your eyes.

I created a static map, the basis of the timeline, using a photoshopped and customized version of a CloudMade map. I used the latitude and longitude coordinates provided by the California Geological Survey to identify the epicenter of each quake. I combined this information with the location of the UCs and CSUs and plotted them all along the timeline in Flash.

I spent the bulk of my time on the previous four maps so I aimed to make the Flash map as simple as possible, using simple animation and easy-to-read text. The Flash timeline was created in about two weeks.

All in all, I’m happy with the way it turned out and it was definitely worth the time and effort required to construct the project. I often write about great multimedia techniques, but this was my chance to actually put the techniques I talk about into action. Not only did I satisfy my own personal ambitions with this project, but I created multimedia experiences that both enhanced the story and were useful to readers.

The next drawing will be held in early May. Here are more details about the promotion. Keep those good comments coming.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.