Digital Storytelling

How do you tell a story?  Do you weave a tale of intrigue by using the spoken word or do you use pictures to convey your message?   What about geographic context?

I like to tell stories using text, pictures and maps.  Traditionally, I would have used ESRI Storymaps to tell that story.   I’m a fan of ESRI Storymaps. They have a lot of bells and whistles that lead to flashy storymaps.  BUT (and there is always a but) you really need to have a GIS background to create a masterpiece.

What do you do if you don’t have that level of sophisticated GIS knowledge but still want to tell your story with pictures, text and maps?  Well, the answer is simple. You use StoryMapJS . This is a free open-source tool developed by the Northwestern University Knight Lab.  I spent a little bit of time testing this tool by creating a storymap of my recent Iceland trip (Figure 1).  I thought I would take this space to share some tips that I learned along my StoryMapJS journey.

Image showing the location of a collapsed volcano in Iceland.
A StoryMapJS of my Iceland Adventures

I found the StoryMapJS editor straightforward to use and I didn’t need to have any GIS experience or know coding to make a nice looking storymap.  (BONUS!!) The first thing you need to do is sign in using your Google username and password. You can read the privacy policy and learn why StoryMapJS needs access to your Google Account at the bottom of this page.  Once signed in, you will be directed to the page below.

Opening screen to create a storymapJS.

You can see that there is a map, media box, and space to enter a headline and text.  You will also see a place to add a slide. Other areas to note are the Background Options in the lower right corner, the Options button in the upper left corner and the Preview tab in the top center of the page.  

I’m not going to go into HOW to make a storymap using StoryMapJS because that has already been done.  You can find tutorials at these sites (just to name a few):

There are also pages and pages of videos that will walk you through the process – just Google “StoryMapJS Video”.  

While all this guidance was very helpful, I ran into a few stumbling blocks along the way, as well a few, “Hmm, wonder what this button does…” thoughts.   Here are my lessons learned:

  1. Media Sources:  I am old school, y’all.  I upload my pictures to Amazon and (sometimes) Google Photos, but unfortunately, StoryMapJS does not pull media from these sources.  Apparently, media can be used from Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Dailymotion, Google Maps, Wikipedia, SoundCloud, Document Cloud and more.  Sadly, Amazon or Google Photos are not included in the more. Honestly, I don’t even know what Dailymotion, Vine or Vimeo are, let alone how to upload media to them.  I do, however, have a Flickr account. I dusted off the password, did some downloading and uploading, and was able to get the images displayed in my storymap with no problems.
  2. Media Image:  You can only upload one image per “slide”.   Sadness, I know. However, one possible way to get around that is by creating an image collage using an app or website.
  3. Image Stretching:  Do not panic if an image taken in portrait orientation appears stretched in the StoryMapJS Preview.  The problem will resolve itself once the storymap is published. This appears to be a known bug.
  4. A display window will pop-up if you click on the Options button in the editing view.  You will see two “Treat As” options. The “Cartography” option will connect the map markers with a dotted line as you move around your Storymap and the map scale will change.  The map scale is automatically determined and appears to be a function of how close the map markers are to each other. A detailed map will appear if you drop markers on the map close to each other.  Conversely, if the markers are geographically spread out, then the map 
    Illustration of the way the mobile version looks.
    The mobile version of my StoryMapJS

    will display at a coarser scale. However, if you select the “Image” option, then the lines and markers will not display on the map and the map scale will remain at the scale in your edit mode.

  5. Mobile Version:  Yesss!! And I think it looks better than the desktop version.  This is a key feature since most of us use cell phones to explore various websites.   You will see the top pane displays the map while the bottom pane is made up of the image and text.  You swipe right to move to the next “slide” and up on the bottom pane to view the text under the image.  

Overall,  I found StoryMapJS to be quick and intuitive.  I also didn’t really feel like I needed a GIS background to add the geospatial component to the storymap.  There were lots of options to customize the look of the storymap, such as adding new markers and background maps, but I found it to be a little more complicated than using the default map options and would probably require some coding.    Even without the customization, I was very happy with my Iceland Adventure Storymap. Color me impressed.



One comment

  1. Great write-up! I had not taken a look at anything made with StoryMapJS before and I was impressed – one notable thing up here in Alaska is that these maps ran very fast on limited internet – always refreshing to see something that is both slick and fast.


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