A futuristic cityscape created with Esri CityEngine GIS technology

(Image courtesy of Esri)

If the end goal of media is to transmit big ideas and meaningful stories to readers and viewers, then geospatial data is indispensable. Whether the media is fact-based or complete fantasy, geospatial information and technology provide insights, context, and color to the data presented in a story.

In much the same way that data-rich GIS visualizations are valuable in courtrooms, their ability to relay complex info to laypeople is impactful in the media realm.

From weather patterns to following a population over time, tracking supply chains to following a viral outbreak, the news media makes use of GIS data to help break down big ideas for their viewers. Maps can give context that might lack in an old-fashioned spreadsheet infographic.

For example, election results on a spreadsheet-like table or chart might convey the winners and losers of a contest, but added context of past and present economic, social, and other data in the same voting district is where media consumers can begin to make sense of new information.

The integration has become so commonplace that the New York Times even holds “data bootcamps” to ensure its writing and editing staff have a proper handle on the technology.

A frequently-cited example of geospatial data’s importance in journalism is then-Miami Herald journalist Steve Doig’s work on the damage left behind by 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

A newspaper article with a map of wind damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992

(Image courtesy of Risk Management Services)

He placed layers of data over one another: wind speed and damage assessment. This spacial analysis led him to determine that developers had been allowed to put up haphazard construction, leaving properties vulnerable to hurricanes. This insight not only put blame on the relaxed regulations in place, but it also allowed for future preparation for storms in the area.

Other corners of the media industry use GIS data to simulate multi-layered destruction, in an effort to bring fictional stories as close to real-life as possible. Geospatial information helps embellish imagined worlds on TV and movie screens in a similar fashion to how it does in video games.

For the havoc created by extraterrestrial visitors to Earth in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence, Esri’s CityEngine was used to create lifelike renderings of real cities like Singapore to be annihilated. Nine months of work went into roughly forty seconds of footage, but that work can now be built upon (even if it was wiped out in a simulation run for the movie).

A slider adding details to a digital cityscape using Esri CityEngine GIS technology

(Image courtesy of geoinformatics.com)

For the future-ruins of Las Vegas in BladeRunner 2049, the movie’s visual effects team, Framestore, turned to CityEngine. They based the foundations of their version of Las Vegas on government maps, then continued to embellish it with other data. The effect is a startlingly real-seeming expanse of waste and degraded architecture that feels close enough to the real city to be jarring. That might explain why Framestore was awarded an Academy Award for their work on BladeRunner 2049.

In short, geospatial data continues to play an important role within television, journalism and movies to illustrate data, draw insights and create real-life landscapes. Given the constant innovation within this field, it will be fascinating to observe how GIS and cartography will be integrated within the Media industry as technology evolves.

Key Takeaways:

  • GIS data helps the media industry pass on stories and information to consumers in more easy-to-digest formats than charts, spreadsheets, and paragraphs.
  • In journalism, the ability to layer data points out previously hidden societal dynamics, and the ability to render findings into map form helps readers and viewers digest the information quicker.
  • Movies have begun using technology like Ersi’s CityEngine to create lifelike renderings of cities (both real and imagined) with reality-based detailing, thus heightening audience immersion.