DEAR READER: Google Maps, RebelMouse help tell a #CoMoSnow storm story

Saturday, February 23, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:51 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dear Reader,

The snow brought Columbia to a standstill and to its knees Thursday.


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At about 1 p.m., the website slowed and in some cases stalled because of the high traffic. Data guru Noah Medling was able to throw a switch here and toggle a bolt there. He quickly had the site humming.

At home or at work, readers checked and re-checked the news. Reporters and editors constantly updated us on official cancellations, weather reports, scanner chatter – there were amazingly few accidents – and more. The first photos ran on the site less than a half-hour after the storm hit.

The item most visited Thursday was a map of Columbia.

An application of Google Maps allowed editors to take road condition reports from all over town and plot them on the map.

Wednesday afternoon, community outreach director Joy Mayer sent an email to all Missourian staff. “We're going to use that as an opportunity for some widespread coverage of a new kind,” she wrote. “We have this huge staff, you see, and this seems like a good time to test out what we can do if we really blanket the town.”

When she says huge staff, she means more than 200 students and staff. That’s a whole bunch of eyes and ears, even if they couldn’t get three feet beyond their front doors on Thursday. It was a valuable lesson from the 2011 snowstorm, when too many Missourian staffers thought their window observations weren’t valuable.

The pool of potential reporters, though, was a thousand times greater, because readers could also submit their observations. In other words, all of us could contribute. By noon Friday, Mayer estimated, a third of the reports came from readers.

“The coolest part to me was that some readers acted like journalists when they shared information,” outreach editor Laura Davison wrote. “They would submit something saying their street was still covered and then submit an update when the plow showed up. One guy sent in six or seven submissions from everywhere he went all morning.”

Road conditions were the first, second and third things I wanted to know about Thursday before I journeyed home. The priority list didn’t change Friday as my daughter contemplated a drive to St. Louis and then on to Wisconsin. Roads were on the lips of anyone attempting to go anywhere. Five-minute trips suddenly took 45 minutes or longer.

A trip across town? I heard of two-and three-hour tours, for those who made it at all.

Columbia was littered with abandoned cars.

As a first attempt, I thought the road conditions map was outstanding, and was limited only by its capacity as an app; the load times dragged occasionally. It was so successful, I found myself wanting more. Yes, Ash Street is cleared, but what about my street?

Davison reports that Google is doing away with this particular map gadget thingee. I’m confident there will be another, even better app around the corner.

“Social snow” was another brilliant idea from the Missourian outreach team. The page was a constantly updated aggregation of posts from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Some "#CoMoSnow" posts published automatically, and some were added by staff.

A very cool app, RebelMouse, is at work here. It renders all these pictures and words in an easy-to-read format.

So I didn’t have to know all that social media stuff to read what Columbia residents were saying. Some posts were cute – a photo of truffles given by a grateful boss “thanking me for sticking it out at work” – to important alerts such as information on warming centers.

Unfortunately, there’s no app for impassable roads.

About 60 percent of Missourian print edition subscribers received their newspaper on time, according to general manager Dan Potter. The paper’s circulation manager ended his day at 4 a.m. Friday and returned two hours later.

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