Maps are a fabulous tool. They help us get around, see where we're going, get a sense of what's out there beyond our immediate vision, and so forth. For centuries, people have found maps useful in those ways.
Geographic information systems (GIS) harness the power of computers and data to make maps even more useful. For their "American Futures" Project at The Atlantic, Jim Fallows and his wife Deborah have partnered with ESRI, the premier GIS company, to bring the power of maps to bear in understanding how America is changing and, specifically, why some towns and small cities are proving to be more hardy and resilient than others.
As Jim noted when launching American Futures in early August, their intention is to use this technology in two ways. One is for explanation. "For instance," Jim wrote, "if you want to understand the different politics and economics of North and South Dakota, a map of the Bakken shale-oil formation does a lot to explain." And just today, Jim used a population "pressure" map to throw light on where America's population is growing and why. (You can see other ways Jim and Deb have used maps so far in the American Futures series by going to this site, and scrolling through their articles by using the bar on the left side.)
Apart from using maps for explaining what they're finding, Jim and Deb are employing GIS maps to help choose places to go. Writing in August, Jim put it this way:
Mainly we're selecting cities the old fashioned way -- via reading, reporting, one-idea-leading-to-another, plus pure accident and surprise. But we're augmenting that process with "spatial statistics" tools. If you were looking for small cities with unusually stable employment levels, where would you find them? Or with good -- or bad -- records of absorbing immigrants? Or with unusually high rates of business-creation? Or with very strong school systems, or public-service cultures? And so on.
What follows is an example of that new-fangled process at work. (I'm offering this glimpse as a largely-behind-the-scenes member of the American Futures team -- someone who only occasionally travels with Jim and Deb to do reporting. I'm trying to develop GIS mapping skills to make my Boston-based work for the series more useful.)
If you've been following the American Futures series, you know that the winter weather has temporarily suspended the Fallows's travel for their reporting and that they intend to return to the southeastern United States as soon as weather permits. And you probably also know that Jim has a special interest in reporting on high-tech firms in the cities they're visiting. So, as they think about where to go in the weeks ahead, they could try to locate small cities with interesting high-tech sectors by using the sort of traditional methods mentioned above. Some sort of paper directory or listing might be helpful, but unless it were organized by geographic locale, it wouldn't be easy to identify communities where high-tech entrepreneurs cluster. Even if it were, the process would be tedious. That's where GIS mapping and other "spatial statistics" tools excel.
The map below was created using ESRI's ArcGIS software and a layer of data assembled by Laura Meyer for the Southern Governors Association, where she is a program coordinator. The map shows the distribution of high-tech manufacturing firms in the southeastern United States. Viewing the information this way allows Jim and Deb to see where these firms are clustered, helping to identify towns and cities that are lodestones of high-tech entrepreneurialism. Viewers can zoom in or out on the map and click on individual points to call up data such as the name of the company, its exact location, what line of work it's in, and how many employees it has. Give it a try.
Geospatial information is transforming the way we see and understand the world around us. We plan to be using it much more in the months ahead for the American Futures series.