Jess Weaver Grey

By Jess Weaver • April 2, 2018

Complementing Harvard’s Map of the Month series, each week, Map Monday highlights a data visualization that enhances understanding of or helps resolve a critical civic issue.

Over-crowded sports bars, rowdy Halloweens, and plenty of overheard conversations covering structural oppression to Sartre. Yes, living in a college town has can induce eye-rolls, especially among Boston’s jaded natives. It also has its benefits, as evidenced in the impressive cross-institution collaboration that has resulted in the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), a data-driven duet co-conducted by Northeastern and Harvard Universities. BARI describes itself as an “interuniversity partnership that pursues original urban research on the cutting edge of scholarship and public policy, with an emphasis on opportunities created by novel digital data.”

Among its litany of projects, which include improving smart cities, equity in public schools, and segregation and urban mobility, BARI’s researchers have generated the Boston Research Map, a treasure trove of Boston’s public data powered by WorldMap, an open source mapping software developed by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University. Users can view data at the neighborhood or city levels, and view both contemporary and historical data. Eager to harness the intellectual capital of the college town, the map’s creators have also made it possible for users to upload their own data.

The wide variety of issue areas and associated data sources paint a complex, layered portrait of Boston – destabilizing the myth of a simple college town. Users can view key urban locations such as police stations, colleges and universities, supermarkets, subsidized housing and major developments, and community health centers, all along the MBTA’s subway lines or bike trails.

affordable housing bari
A visualization of the city's subsidized housing.

The map includes data from 311, such as evidence of “private neglect” (dilapidated housing) or “public denigration” (such as graffiti), as well as 911 reports, allowing users to view areas with high incidences of public violence with or without guns.

Public Violence Viz
Levels of public violence in Boston.

The tool is also educational, describing indicators or inputs that might not be intuitive to users, particularly the less data savvy. The map includes innovative methods of measuring measures the city’s health, identifying perceived disorder and crime, as well as social dynamics and relationship indicators below, offering a complex portrait of the city over the years.

Social Dynamics Indicators
The tool provides a deep-dive into the indicators for broad categories such as social dynamics, educating users about how issues are defined and data sourced.

Of equal interest as the distinct indicators is the range of sources, which include the American Community Survey (2012-2016), the 2010 Census, historical census tracts, various political boundaries and areas, and even historic maps from back to 1875.

The Boston Research map isn’t just for the Ivy League; it is a highly usable site with civic utility for residents and data scientists alike, a unique clearinghouse for public data that can be utilized for the purposes of education or advocacy. Users can insert comments on various data points for researchers to take into consideration, and to foster conversation between users about accuracy and include more context or anecdotes to accompany the visualization.

User Comment
Comments provide context for indicators such as public safety.

As much as a data-rich interactive tool, BARI’s map serves each function of its mission: pursuing core research-policy partnerships focused on addressing Boston’s major challenges, supporting the Boston Data Portal, which makes emergent data accessible for research, and convening Boston’s civic data ecosystem. The map will also be a key feature in BARI’s spring conference, held at Northeastern on April 28th. This year’s theme is a critical one for anyone with an interest in data innovation and the smart city: Confronting Inequality and Economic Mobility – Data-Driven Lessons From Boston, for Boston.