Since late May, people across the United States and the world have joined the call for justice for Black lives. Mapping the Black Lives Matter Movement is a project to document this historic moment and highlight the growing movement. We invited the two lead creators, Frank Romo and Malcolm MacLachlan from RomoGIS, to share about how — and why — they built it.
Our team uses geospatial technologies to advance social justice and support the empowerment of disenfranchised communities. In recent years, we have worked with neighborhood and community organizations to document issues like over-policing, criminalization, and mass incarceration. Through our work with partners, we have developed a keen awareness of how communities of color are systematically disadvantaged through unfair policy and enforcement strategies which in some cases, like George Floyd’s, result in death. Yet, the past month of protests has been like nothing we’ve seen before.
We’ve all been inundated with images and videos of the protests. With so much happening simultaneously, it can be easy to miss the bigger picture — especially when many national media stories have focused only on events in major cities. That is why our team decided to create an interactive map that visualizes the entirety of this diverse and widespread outcry for justice.
Building for a rapidly scaling movement
We started by collecting data on protest locations from reputable sources, including lists from NBC and Al Jazeera. Then our team manually collected sources from local news affiliates for each location. We favored local news sources because their reporters can provide better first-hand accounts and capture the local sentiment and significance of an event. This is especially true for events in smaller cities like Worthington, Minnesota or Kodiak, Alaska that are often overlooked in national reporting.
After the first week, we had an initial list of around 500 verified protest locations — but we knew we were already behind and needed to scale up quickly. To keep pace, we created Python scripts to collect data from social media and online news stories every hour. We continued to monitor carefully for data quality, though we eventually decided to start adding locations even if we did not yet have a verified news story or image (though we colored them grey to differentiate them from fully documented orange-colored points).
We wanted this map to be something that everyone could contribute to, so we built three ways to invite others to add content. First, users can add new points by clicking on the “Add protest location” button in the left sidebar which links to a short survey form. Second, users can add news sources and images to existing but unverified points. Third, for points that are already verified users can still add additional stories or images. All of the submitted content is stored in an ArcGIS Online database to easily and securely store multimedia content alongside the location data. Together, these workflows help source additional data for cross-referencing and turn the map into a living repository that can support conversations about race and activism. We want people to look at this map and say “I was at this protest, here” or “Look, there is our city.”
Maps to support our communities
Never underestimate the power of a map to help tell stories of victory and struggle. We want this map to inspire people to keep marching, to keep speaking up for the rights of others, and to keep sharing their experiences of fighting for justice. And it’s happening! We’ve had points added all across the country and even from other countries — prompting us to revamp our design to include locations around the world. Receiving international feedback was a big moment for our team because that underscored the scale of this movement and the value of visualizing it on a map.
For projects like Mapping the Movement that center on a map and involve visualizing a lot of data, we prefer to build with Mapbox tools. Many of the communities we work with include a large portion of people who depend upon their mobile devices for internet access, which means that quick, efficient load times and mobile-friendly designs are extremely important. Building with Mapbox GL JS gives us the flexibility to build a custom application that can continue to grow and adapt. We are already looking forward to adding more types of content to this map to help document the changes and victories emerging from the recent protests.
Thank you to everyone who has helped to build this map and add data — please continue to! We’d also love further collaborations with fellow data scientists and social justice activists to help grow this project. Connect with us to explore how we can work together to support and empower local communities.
If you are using maps or location tools for social justice or other positive impact projects, the Mapbox Community team is here to support you.