Equity Mapping: How We Can Do More with GIS

December 8, 2021

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GIS has been used to understand and explain the commercial and economic space for many years. Site suitability analysis is a very common study for aspiring GIS analysts, and is one of the first examples that many people think of when they talk about GIS. When community discovery is discussed, we tend to speak about land use analysis, transportation modeling, environmental analysis, socioeconomic analysis, and many analyses that are typically taught in GIS education – academic and informally. Standard GIS analysis tools like proximity, interpolation, buffering, map overlay and connectivity measurement are used to describe how goods and populations of people, animals and insects move; how habitat has increased or decreased; and many other facets of life relevant to the conversation about place.

Other kinds of evaluation can be used to support a business’s choice to locate in a certain area, for example, or how investment in certain areas has changed over the years. Studies are designed to find areas of suitability or abundance for human or animal populations, and many of these projects examine places where numerous “positive” aspects intersect.

“Equity mapping” has been around for at least 10 years and focuses on collecting information about topics like environmental exposure or access to healthy food. An equity map combines information about how data related to specific issues are spatially distributed and how they overlap with other demographic, economic and social vulnerability data. A number of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have adopted equity maps or equity reports that describe the patterns of equity, or more accurately, the patterns of inequity. These maps are generally intended to help policy makers to understand where and how communities are impacted and where programs should be located.

It’s not surprising, in the wake of the many cultural and political events that have occurred since 2019, that we have started to redefine not only what community means, but how we study and understand it. Conversations about racism, equity, diversity and belonging are a regular part of the daily discourse. It’s not to say that our communities in the United States were not already having these conversations, but the conversations came to the fore. We are talking about what we think our communities look like, what we think they should look like and how we get there.

“Equity,” “diversity,” “belonging” and “inclusion” are terms that have become part of the common lexicon when discussing the idea of community and what it means to be a community. It only seems fitting then, that we move away from describing communities solely in terms of racial characteristics, demographic statistics and whether or not communities are equitable; we should expand the conversation to include how mapping and GIS can help bring equity to a community, and move beyond categorizing and classifying toward operationalizing.

For example, research has moved from analysis of income disparity to calculating household wealth. In her paper, “Measuring the Effectiveness of Equitable Economic Development Strategies,” Amy Minzner said that “… the racial and gender wealth gap has become more visible and better understood.” We now understand that the “wealth divide” is not just about economic class, but also about race and gender. As Minzner said, both wealth and growth in overall economic equity should be considered in any conversation about economic and social development, and need to be viewed through a lens of the “structural racism and economic policies that favor the very wealthy.” Thinking about the intersections of race, gender and wealth is key to understanding and moving beyond the analysis of equity.

Racial and economic gaps exist all around the world. We know that social scientists, economists and other researchers have used GIS in many studies that describe these gaps and the reasons for them. Clinton Johnson wants to move beyond what we know. “I don’t want to do anything that's just about proving, again, that [inequity] exists. I want to help people to take action to create progress.”

In his work with Esri’s Racial Equity & Social Justice team and NorthStar of GIS (a nonprofit organization promoting positive practices for intersectional antiracism and advancing racial justice, equity, and belonging for people of Black / Black African descent in GIS), Johnson helps organizations create geospatial strategies for equitable outcomes. A major component of his work focuses on taking the standard analyses, assessments and interventions used to make change, and showing organizations how to engage the community in more meaningful and lasting ways around equity, diversity and belonging.

We use GIS to figure out where community assets exist, how to deploy resources, and how to reduce harmful community conditions — but, as Johnson said, it doesn’t stop there. “We can’t just stop while we are implementing interventions. We can and should use GIS to operationalize racial equity and justice.” Johnson went on to say that we, as geographers and GIS experts, should use GIS to:

  • Track progress.
  • Frequently and consistently engage with communities.
  • Partner with the people who already have the trust of these communities.

“Providing a full set of guidance and resources to help people get to the other side” is how we can truly move forward.

GIS is used in many projects at the local level, often through local government and nonprofits. Businesses also support these efforts in many cases. GIS is particularly helpful in the beginning stages of community assessment and stakeholder discussions, during the planning phase of a project, and during the evaluation and implementation phase. To continue the process of using GIS to operationalize racial equity and justice, these organizations need to center the conversation on and in the community, “…engaging the community through storytelling, crowdsourcing information, surveying folks so that you validate your understanding of needs,” Johnson said. “You take that understanding of where the needs were greatest based on that distribution of benefit and burden,” (the map and analysis) and then, “look at your actions, [and] the actions of others in the whole community.”

Véronique Couttee, a community-focused geographer based in Mauritius, echoed Johnson’s comments. “GIS and mapping are incomplete tools. If we discount the diverse perspectives that are impacted by these structural changes in policies, practices and resources, how do we design a geospatial product that will be used by decision-makers and by the main people affected? … We need to start reflecting on the individual change that needs to happen.

“Equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging must be placed at the core of impactful geospatial strategies,” Couttee said. “When using GIS or any form of technology, we are basically problem-solving using tools that help us shape decision-making.”

Equity mapping isn’t enough by itself. We use GIS to analyze these data, and maps to show stakeholders the patterns and possible outcomes, and then engage the larger community in the implementation and outcomes. We cannot make change if we ignore or discount the diverse perspectives of the people who are impacted by these structural changes in policies, practices and resources. 


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