Mapping Equity: Gathering Data and Building Strategies

January 19, 2022
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In my previous article for Directions, I talked about “equity mapping” and the patterns of inequity we find in places when we look at certain indicators. Maps of health, economics, and accessibility indicators, and how they interact, help us to understand and support the experiences of underserved and historically excluded populations. We can see a picture of what exists in our communities and in the world.

 In many ways, mapping “equity'' is the same as mapping any other topic. The four main components of geographic information systems and mapping — data capture, data storage, queries, analysis — and presentation of the findings are important regardless of the topic. In this sense, equity is just another opportunity for us to look at the world from a spatial perspective. GIS can help us to understand equity — the way(s) that it manifests, and how it informs the way we experience the world.

 As with other topics, equity mapping requires narrative and geographic context. In order to make statements about communities with equity challenges, we need to highlight areas of opportunity and areas of disinvestment, which are easier to identify when explicitly presented in equity maps and equity atlases. Users of equity maps, regardless of their level of expertise, should be able to obtain a clear picture of which assets exist within a community and which assets are lacking, so that they can make informed decisions about how to bring communities to parity.

 Collecting Data

 Collecting data for equity maps in the United States has become much easier in recent years, particularly with the advent of geospatial web services that allow GIS professionals and data analysts to access information without leaving the office. Demographic data, housing data, and facility and infrastructure data are all easily available from the respective owner agencies and can be downloaded from their Open Data sites. Data in some other countries are still not as consistently accessible, but collecting the data necessary to perform analyses around equity becomes easier all the time.

 On the other hand, it can be difficult to find the historical social and political data that help to provide context for some of these other data and the resulting analyses. Mapping demographic data is fairly straightforward, but mapping the structural reasons for why those demographic patterns occur is not. Why do people from certain groups live in certain areas? Often, there are historical reasons, including racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and others, that are not as easy to map because little to no data exist on these topics, due to the data and the data infrastructure having been created by the very same people who were perpetrating the behavior. Researchers looking for ways to map racism, for example, have to resort to what is known as “administrative data reuse,” which involves using data in ways they were not originally intended to be used.

 Looking To The Past And Into The Future

 Equity mapping shows us what is happening now, with context provided by what happened in the past and what we want to happen in the future. We collect data, and then use GIS to analyze these data. At some point, we create maps to show the community, the stakeholders, what the patterns are and why they are this way. Then, we engage the community in what comes in the future.

 An interesting example of administrative data reuse to explain segregation in American cities is using racial covenant documents and redlining data to generate data for maps of how racial segregation was implemented and used to change the demographic profile of most cities in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Several projects, including Mapping Segregation DC, Mapping Prejudice (Minnesota), Segregated Seattle, and others, have been collecting covenant information from property deeds and turning it into geographic information. These data help us to understand that there was a calculated and organized effort by businesses and the government to restrict non-white and non-immigrant people to certain parts of cities and towns, patterns that extend into our lives today.

 These efforts at the local and regional level have developed into other projects and programs, like the National Equity Atlas (a “report card” on racial and economic equity in the United States), Greenpeace’s Mapping equity, diversity, and inclusion project, the Metro Atlanta Equity Project, and many others, with the goal of these organizations primarily being to generate “actionable data and strategies to advance racial equity and shared prosperity.”

 Where To Find Data

 There are many data sets that can be used to inform equity research, but here are a few to get you started:

 An internet search for the name of a particular jurisdiction plus the term “open data” or “GIS data” will usually result in a link to the jurisdiction’s Open Data catalog. Examples:

  • Cuyahoga County GIS data
  • Fairfax County GIS data
  • Tennessee Open Data

 Equity recognizes that each person in a community has different circumstances and that a community should allocate resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. As our populations around the world become increasingly diverse, equity mapping will become more and more important and a central part of all conversations. Think about how you can use mapping tools and data to understand and encourage your community to discover solutions for an equitable future for all.


You might also be interested in our curated collection of free data resources here at DirectionsMag.

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