OpenGov Voices: MapStory: A data commons for a changing Earth

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Daniel Dufour SunlightPicture Marino
Daniel Dufour (left) and Jonathan Marino (right) of

Jonathan Marino is the Director of Content and Strategy at MapStory — a non-commercial global data commons tool which uses technology to inform users about the history of places. Daniel J. Dufour is a 2013 MapStory Fellow. He tests new functionality, trains human rights workers in data collection, coordinates Syria mapping projects and hangs out in the Dream Lab. Jonathan can be reached at while you can catch Daniel at

The open data movement is progressing quickly, thanks in large part to organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, the newly instituted Open Data Foundation, Code for America and more.

The next challenge is to make good on all these data now flooding the public domain so average citizens can understand what’s going on in their communities and ultimately, live better lives.

We recently launched with that challenge in mind. The goal is for to become a space where anyone can share openly licensed geospatial (temporal) data and store it from now until the end of time. MapStorytellers, as our users are known, weave this data into stories with a particular focus on how places and topics they care about have changed over time.

Building a community, not a company

The platform is in beta — we affectionately call it a ‘public prototype in development’ — and we know it has a long way yet to go! In 2014 we’ll roll out a bunch of new designs and features based on ideas from our growing community of MapStorytellers.

The model of growth is sort of like old-fashioned American barn-raising. Anyone with knowledge, skills and a willing spirit can come and lend a hand! This process of iterative improvement will never fully be finished. But already over the past few months some fascinating MapStories have emerged.

For example, Nitin Gadia, a resident of Ames, Iowa, took it upon himself to pull open data from the City of Ames and map the evolution of the town since its incorporation in 1862. Now he’s working with neighbors to gather ‘annotations’ that can tell the story of why/how Ames developed as it did.

Inspired by his efforts, additional volunteers have pulled similar data sets from more than 100 cities across the U.S. and dubbed their collective effort “MapStory Local.” Read more about it here and here. When MapStory adds ‘versioned editing’ capability in 2014, these folks will be able to combine and continuously edit their data, like a wiki, so it grows into a comprehensive body of MapStories that show the evolution of all U.S. settlement through the lens of buildings, roads and parcels. To succeed, we’ll need local communities to follow the lead of California and make that data freely available.

Inviting the globe

MapStory is for the world, not just the United States. For example, Kathryn Pole simply loaded a spreadsheet with dates and locations of every World’s Fair in history and added some annotations about these fairs.

Now that she’s done this, no one ever has to ever do it again. Other MapStorytellers don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They can continually improve on her data and the other data that has been uploaded to

There is no limit to the location or time of MapStories. You can create a MapStory that covers your neighborhood block or the whole earth. MapStories can go as far back as 300 million years and forward 50,000 years.

In essence, we’re inviting people everywhere to contribute to a story of humanity from the beginning of time and into the future.

Collaborating with Sunlight

In recent weeks we’ve started collaborating with the Sunlight community and look forward to pursuing lots of great projects in 2014. Our shared focus on open data and civic engagement make the two organizations natural collaborators. For starters, we put together a quick and dirty MapStory that plots out all the states and cities in the U.S. that have implemented open data policies and embedded their actual policy statements into the MapStory using Scribd.

Clearly there are many more dimensions to the story of open data in America, but it’s a start.

So if you’re a teacher, developer, researcher or professional in pretty much any field and any place in the world, we’d love to have you involved. Guidelines and policies for quality assurance need to be developed, better user interfaces need to be implemented and of course, new data needs to be liberated from file cabinets and flash drives and brought into the 21st century!

Reach out at or @mapstory. Also, check out our Roadmap here (

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