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By Stephen Goldsmith • October 31, 2018

Imagine making policy for a major retailer like Starbucks. Where would you start? A map of the city, perhaps, as well as traffic counts, other coffee shops, street infrastructure, rush hour driving patterns, and disposable income indicators. Each time you see more information layered on the map, your insights become more profound and the decisions more actionable.

Cities are predominantly about places—where people, live, work, walk, drive, and play. City governments organize themselves, however, around functions and not places. There is no department of 10th and Main, but rather public works, transportation, and parks departments—all of which work at 10th and Main from time to time. As a result, policies and operations need to be driven by insights from layered maps that show the connectedness of systems that affect places.

Yet senior municipal officials too infrequently rely on spatial insights in their policy development. Even the agency heads who often see maps showing their department’s performance don’t think about the power of mapping as part of decision making.

Policies and operations need to be driven by insights from layered maps that show the connectedness of systems that affect places.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, a data-savvy mayor, recently harnessed the power of mapping by demonstrating how to use location intelligence to drive a major public initiative. Upon creating a $40 million dollar park investment, the largest in the city’s history, the mayor then utilized mapping to determine where and how to invest.

Much like a Starbucks real estate executive might, the mayor and his talented chief innovation officer, Santiago Garces, began the discovery process. With the aid of Trust for Public Lands, they began to examine both access and asset quality. These highlights spurred the planning and parks departments to more broadly and creatively ask the right the questions. Where were the current parks; what was their condition; how did each park rank in terms of access; did the parks need improvements in parking or walkability; how did neighborhood wealth relate to access?

Equally impressive, though, the city did not simply rely on professional analysts; it used these maps to reach out to the community and ask it to react to the master plan. Posted signs in the parks invited community comments through both unstructured voice and data responses with the Map My South Bend Park tool. These responses were connected to the proposed plan, thus increasing localized spatial input about the average park user’s age and whether park visitors thought equity and design were being adequately addressed.

Considering the role of data visualizations through mapping, public officials should create more locational intelligence to accomplish the following goals:

  1. Storytelling and campaigns for better services. Maps can create a compelling narrative about change. One important job of a senior leader is to create a narrative that drives public action, and well-visualized maps can raise public awareness and therefore the willingness to act. Look at the map “Celebrating the Lost Loves Ones,” which depicts the enormous personal cost of opioid addictions and serves as a way of driving action. Or the San Francisco map of wealth divides that helps build the case for affordable housing. Or Louisville’s move to catalyze corrective action through its Redlining Louisville mapping.
  2. Common language. Community meetings and planning sessions are often driven by different interpretations of the data. Maps more frequently create a common understanding and language. For example, a map that clearly shows the sanitary conditions of your neighborhood compared to others, such as in Los Angeles, will drive corrective action through a common and shared understanding.
  3. Maps serving as virtual scaffolds. Cities that operate vertically need horizontal thinking. The GeoHub in Los Angeles allows one department to see what others are doing in the same area by way of geo-tagging. Infamously difficult sequential street cuts, for example, can be reduced. (See examples on Streetwize.)
  4. Platform for Collaboration. The visualization of 311 data by neighborhood allows residents to understand trends in their area and to offer informed suggestions. These tools further the open data movement by making data accessible and actionable, but utilization does not occur automatically. Government needs to provide data, access to the tools, and training to neighborhood intermediaries. New Orleans and Detroit documented blight with pictures of vacant or blighted homes uploaded by city residents, and this input added more and better information to existing maps.

Cities are about the people who live in places. An official making an important policy or operation decision needs to ask the right questions on behalf of the residents. Each of the answers to those questions should be visualized and mapped, and that will in turn yield layered insights, which is why data visualization produces better policies. Inclusive thinking can lead to specific insights on such subjects such as park infrastructure or broad policy concerns such as equity. Mayors have tools at their disposal and should instruct their agency heads, performance managers, and data analysts to develop spatial intelligence in both categories.

Leaving an office in New York City earlier this week, the map on my phone became a lot more valuable to me when I asked for the nearest Starbucks and it generated both the length of travel time as well as the best route. Layered mapped information provides context in the retail and city service sectors, and context is what drives better decision making.