Letter from the Low Lands: Holland from Above: GIS on TV, Is It Worth the Effort?

February 6, 2012

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Working with geographic data and systems for TV is a unique challenge, but that didn’t stop the producers of a recent TV documentary called “The Netherlands from Above.” The documentary looked at our country from various perspectives: Where do we live? Where is nature? What do we do in our spare time? These are typical geographic questions, but in this case explored by a documentary on national television. Its outcome might just change the way we look at maps and geography for years to come. But is it all worth the effort?

Answering geographic questions
Producers at VPRO, a Dutch public broadcasting organization, were inspired by programs like “Britain from Above” or “Deutschland von Oben”; they wanted to produce a similar TV program. They sought the close cooperation of many geo-minded organizations. The producers were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response. “Nederland van Boven” (“The Netherlands from Above” in Dutch) sought to demonstrate how we live in this small and densely populated country. Exciting stuff for geo-professionals, as they could share their knowledge and skills with the whole nation. What mapmaker would not want her maps to be shown on national television?

The first broadcast started with an impressive visualization of how Holland awakes: when and where we use our mobile phones (anonymous data, courtesy of Vodafone). And soon more followed: How does a seagull fly around in our country? How much damage would be caused if disaster strikes from the North Sea? Even though it is in Dutch, this is worth watching if you are into geography. Set up as a multimedia project, the series of documentaries goes beyond the traditional TV screen; it invites viewers to interact with the maps for themselves online. These maps answer critical geographic questions as well. For example: Should I take a car or travel by public transport? When can I shop (knowing that most shops here are not open 24/7)? But also: Where do I find the nearest pancake restaurant? There are 10 episodes planned, and the last one is scheduled for Feb. 7. In case you don’t live in Holland: the reruns can be seen here: http://www.uitzendinggemist.nl/programmas/4629-nederland-van-boven.

A myriad of technologies
When the producers first exhibited their work at Esri Nederland’s GIS Conference last September, it became clear there is a big difference between a map and a map for TV. Impressed as the participants at the conference were with moving lines in the harbor of Rotterdam (actually a data file with some 10 million records), the editors felt it needed a bit more work. The real challenge: to take geographic data beyond data visualization to data journalism, and to a great story to show, and tell.

It turns out that working with geographic data and GIS for TV is a completely unique experience. Take five weeks of preparation, add five hours of actual work with data and technology, and you still might not get even five minutes of airtime. For that, “Nederland van Boven” uses a myriad of technologies for analysis and display and it is hard to single out any particular one.

Thanks to social media, the feedback from viewers, both positive and negative, has been direct and instant. So far, the viewers voted with their presence: the documentary airs on a weekday (Tuesday at 10:00 PM) and still gets a million-plus viewers. That is a big number for a small country and might just turn this series into the biggest cross-media project to date.

The best possible encore
So is it worth it? The maps and visualizations might take more time and energy to put together than your average GIS project. But with this kind of audience, it is a very gratifying enterprise for all involved. Actually, I sense a kind of pride in what we, who work daily with geographic information, are able to achieve and show. This documentary certainly is the talk of the country, and it is getting more citizens to think geographically.

The airing of “Nederland van Boven” coincides with a wave of calls for more open government (geo) data. It would be a suitable finale for the series if the enormous datasets used in it would become available to all (or at least the derived datasets). That would enable many citizens to dig into the maps they so admired on TV, long after the series is in reruns. And it would be a call to action to the data journalist in every one of us: scrape data in order to map society. What will actually happen, however, remains to be seen.

It will be interesting to discuss the documentary at the upcoming international conference for professional information designers and journalists, infographICs 2012 (do come!). Will it take center stage there, as it has so far in the Dutch “geo world”? It seems that the whole Dutch geo world is talking about the series!



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