Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mapping Information with Google Fusion Tables

Lately, everyone's been talking about mapping.  A This American Life episode features a series of stories about representing our experiences in the world on maps. Adam Gopnik writes in the forward of a new book about maps and New York that "Maps, especially schematic ones, are the places where memories go not to die, or be pinned, but to live forever."  Not just a record of memories, however, maps are important tools for visualizing data and displaying information that can show how societies organize and change over time. Just about any idea can be mapped, and nearly any kind of information can be represented spatially.

Until recently, those interested in mapping data had to use expensive (and somewhat complicated) software packages such as Esri ArcGIS. Now, anyone can create meaningful and visually-attractive interactive maps with Google Fusion Tables.  Inspired by a talk I heard at THATCamp Vanderbilt in 2012, I created a GIS assignment for Virginia Ochoa-Winemiller's GEOG 231 World Regional Geography class that invited students to design maps of their own and infuse them with information. The assignment was certainly a provisional experience, as Google Fusion Tables is itself in an "experimental" phase. At many points in the semester, students in the class were the ones showing me how to work the program.

With Google Fusion Tables, students can explore any research question they want and represent information they find on a map that shows demographic difference and temporal change. For instance, we took this map of population change by race in Florida's counties between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. censuses as a starting example (the map was designed by reporters at the West Palm Beach Post News). Users can click on individual counties and see population statistics by year and by racial demographic. Similarly, users can look at the entire map's color scheme and see patterns in population change across the state. The map invites questions about which external economic factors, such as property value or mean household income, could have influenced the trends in population change during the 2000s.

Students in GEOG 231 engaged in a similar project. Consider the maps made by Ashleigh Hamm, Kailey Goodwin, Maryann Lee, Michael Sumrall, and Michele Brasher. Their group wanted to examine the relationship between the placement of children's homes in Alabama and poverty across the state. Given their interest in children's homes, it also seemed important to look at the rate of births to unmarried teens in Alabama. Logic would suggest that there would be more children's homes located by areas with higher rates of births to unmarried teens. The group began by finding statistics on teen pregnancy in Alabama from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. Note that Annie E. Casey defines this rate as "The number of live births to unmarried females aged 10-19 expressed as a percentage of live births to women of all ages."

In the words of the group:
Our guess was that the placement of homes would be near the counties with the most births to unmarried teens. We found that this was completely opposite of the facts. The data showed that Monroe (20.9), Greene (18.5), Dallas (18.3), and Perry (17.6) did not have any children’s homes. There is one in Clarke County which is somewhat in the middle of all of these called Almost Home Children's Center of Clarke County. We found this very strange because we assumed that there would be more in this area because unmarried teens would have a harder time raising a child on their own so they chose to send their baby to a children’s home.
The group also looked at poverty levels in Alabama, divided by the county level, and discovered what we already know: that the wealthiest counties in the state, Shelby and Madison, include the cities with the most capital, Hunstville and Birmingham. Note that their "poverty level" statistics were gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau's poverty threshold scale.

These two maps allow us to see a clear link between poverty level and teen births. The darker colors, blue and black, represent higher poverty rates (and these counties are located in the so-called "Black Belt" that runs throughout the South). By juxtaposing these maps, we can see that there is, in fact, a correlation between people living in poverty and the percentage of births that occur among unmarried teens. Sumter and Greene counties, for example, are ranked in the top five in the state in both categories, while Shelby, the wealthiest county in the state, has the lowest rate of births by unmarried teens. These two maps suggest all kinds of fruitful questions about the connection between poverty and unplanned pregnancies. More importantly, by thinking about the process of constructing the maps, students began to place these questions in context with one another engage in further inquiry about the effect of poverty on community life.

It should go without saying that GIS projects are a great way for students to demonstrate information literacy learning outcomes. According to Michael Howser, Social Sciences Librarian at Miami University, information literacy instruction in libraries needs to "promote numeric, geospatial, technological and information evaluation to provide students with the critical thinking skills that apply to all formats of information." Throughout this project, I saw students seeking reliable data from American FactFinder,  the National Center for Education Statistics, and many other reliable sources that they otherwise wouldn't have encountered. Through the process of collaboration, each of the groups learned how to find information needed to answer a question, evaluate the quality of it, and represent it in ways that make sense to a larger, public audience.

These maps are not all that the group accomplished. The students also created a valuable information source for other people. The map below includes information on every children's home in the state of Alabama. Each pin has information, including the agency's website, eligibility rules, contact information, and physical address.

This sequence of maps is just one example of eight wonderful projects completed in GEOG 232. If you'd like to hear more about the others, don't hesitate to get in touch with me. And if you're interested in having your own students work with Google Fusion Tables in the future, don't hesitate to contact us at the library. I believe that GIS projects will soon become one of the pillars of Digital Liberal Arts learning. They are already being used in Geography, Art, and Social Work classes at Montevallo, and they are a great way to infuse information literacy learning outcomes into the classroom.

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