Some of the most effective uses of mapping tools are not these viral maps. Instead, recognizing how much place matters, they home in on communities and neighborhoods, seeking to better understand the many factors contributing to entrenched social problems.
Recent research out of the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University has sparked several such local mapping initiatives. In Richmond, Virginia, for example, the Office of Community Wealth Building has been working to map which neighborhoods in the city best position their residents for future success. As the Washington Post’s Tina Griego described the initiative, “The basic idea is to look at how where one lives—one’s ecosystem—impacts access to transportation, education, health, credit, and wealth, all indicators of mainstream economic success and physical well-being.”
This visual analysis did not uncover previously unknown truths about Richmond. (Though it is jarring to see how the outlines of poverty in that city today echo the boundaries created by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation’s redlining in the 1950’s.) But by bringing together important local data at an unprecedented level of specificity, the project was able to spotlight where efforts must be directed, and begin to illuminate potential solutions.
In education, the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities and United Way Worldwide is using a similar approach to better understand educational opportunity for young children. Its initiative—Transforming Early Childhood Community Systems, or TECCS—helps communities to collect, map, and analyze local data on children’s school readiness to target investment in early learning.
It’s not just universities that can take advantage of these new instruments. As these analytical tools become increasingly accessible to average users, mapping can offer a route for renewed civic engagement as well. For example, Chicago’s new open data initiative coupled with a newly developed, user-friendly mapping tool, Plenario, allows anyone with access to a computer and Internet to explore and visually manipulate city data to better understand the challenges facing neighborhoods throughout the city.
Local citizens keeping tabs on crime rates in the city have been quick to use these data to explore their neighborhoods and patterns of criminal activity. Last year, in the wake of almost 50 school closings, the city created so-called “safe passage” routes for students venturing through unfamiliar neighborhoods to new schools. Mapping prevalence of crime around those routes allows community members to keep tabs on the effectiveness of the program.
For those hoping to increase social mobility through policy, mapping can help to illuminate with greater nuance and specificity where opportunity is abundant and where it is lacking, and begin to identify important levers for change within a community.