Can a Map Speak for those Who Cannot Speak for Themselves?


I am not certain if what I am about to share with you qualifies as a trend yet. It may be a simple awakening that GIS can be applied to things other than trees, concrete, and taxes. Governments started to use GIS for land assessment, infrastructure planning, and urban design, but now we see a shift to use technology to improve disparities and social inequities. The topics we hear on the news point to the social issues we should all be applying data and analysis to: homelessness, income inequality, unemployment, opioid abuse, blight, community policing, access to public transit, food deserts, and the list continues to grow. Does your organization feel the pressure to address these social inequities? Is this an opportunity for GIS professionals to become superheroes in social justice?

Governments have been producing demographic maps that show basic population information for decades, but in the words of Stephen Goldsmith, Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, we need to shift from demographic maps to policy maps that showcase the opportunity to intervene and overcome social inequalities today. We now see governments moving from creating simple maps of bus routes to looking at analysis of transit routes in relationship to income, availability of cars, and job opportunities. This new application of analysis presents an opportunity for maps to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.  I cannot think of many technologies that can reveal insights and the interdependencies between people, governments services, and social inclusion, such as GIS.

One thing is for sure, there’s a trend moving towards using data, big and small, to better understand inequities and resolve issues in real-time.   The availability of information through open data and crowdsourcing is exposing new ways to understanding our world.  Take for example, policy maps that showcase employment data and overlay it with analytics that show whether household income is above or below the living wage or whether new jobs can support a higher standard of living. Musician and philanthropist Will.I.Am uses data to assert his argument about the need to prioritize education spending over prison spending. He produced a storymap on his foundation’s website to raise awareness that we are spending more on prisons than on education. His Where’s the Love? Where’s the Education? effort shows that we may not be allowing people to turn their lives around.

Insight without taking immediate action is not enough. The next shift that needs to take place is iterative policymaking where issues are addressed in real-time. Dekalb County, Georgia was the first in the nation to geocode homeless populations in real-time and discover locations of unsheltered people eligible for housing assistance. This helped the county identify those in need, down to street level, and better allocate resources. In New Orleans, Louisiana, the city released a mobile crowdsourcing application to gather invaluable data on blighted properties.  The public app drew from citizens and government employees to collect accurate profiles on more than 16,000 properties within weeks. Government officials were able to develop policies and tactics that addressed the issue of blight almost immediately. Both of these success stories are examples of government agencies using GIS to tackle social issues in addition to legacy uses.

Time will tell how much applying GIS to social inequities will impact our communities for the better. Early adopters are already finding success by

1) collecting and analyzing disparate datasets to reveal new insight;

2) taking advantage of readily available applications and dashboards to improve situational awareness and operational tactics and;

3) shifting to iterative policymaking to address issues in real-time.

Will you accept the challenge to apply technology to overcome social inequities in your community, today?

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply

A. E. Sanchez

I would like more funding and smart GIS strategies in most federal government agencies. There should be more workgroups after sing this issue. Thanks.