Map Monday: Residential Needs Assessment for Community Schools Initiative

By Chris Bousquet • October 30, 2017

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.

The quality of students’ education is not only a matter of the competence of their teachers or number of resources possessed by their schools, but is also a product of factors outside the classroom, like poverty, crime, and access to healthy food in their neighborhoods. This reality can make educators feel helpless, seemingly unable to address the root causes of students’ poor performance.

Understanding the relationship between contextual factors and school achievement, the City of Philadelphia has sought to expand the role of its schools from educational institutions to providers of many types of social services. The Mayor’s Office of Education (MOE) has implemented the community schools initiative, calling for schools to become neighborhood centers for support services—a cross between traditional schools and community centers.

The first step in developing these community schools was determining the specific needs in the communities surrounding each public school in Philadelphia. In order to do so, MOE partnered with the Office of Innovation and Technology’s (OIT) GIS Services Group to create the Residential Needs Assessment for Community Schools Initiative, a visualization of community needs across Philadelphia in four key areas: poverty, crime, food access, and health. Analysts examined American Community Survey (ACS) data from the Census Bureau, crime data from the Philadelphia Police Department, health and wellness data from Centers for Disease Control, as well as school district data from MOE, all from 2009-2014, and created a weighted composite Stress Index to summarize need in each city corridor.

Thanks to this visualization, city leaders and residents alike can identify the most critical needs of Philadelphia neighborhoods and direct resources to community schools accordingly. For example, a user can see that the area around Edward Gideon School in Central Philadelphia has both a high level of food insecurity (see top map below) and very few residents that attend college (see bottom map below) indicating that the city should emphasize food access resources in this community school.

Philly School Map 1
Residents with low to no healthy food access

Philly School Map 2
Residents who earn a high school diploma but not a college degree

And, by referring to the weighted Stress Index that aggregates various needs, the city is also able to prioritize the areas requiring the most immediate attention. From the map, it seems that schools in central Philadelphia currently face the most severe challenges (high stress areas are displayed in red on the map below), implying that the city many want to address these areas first.

Philly School Map 3
Composite Stress Index for Philadelphia. In increasing order of stress level, the colors are blue, green, yellow, orange, and then red

Using this visualization as well as information gathered via resident surveys and focus groups has enabled Philadelphia to turn an innovative idea into informed policy. It is yet another reminder that governments can use visualization to craft creative policies that consider the various underlying causes of civic problems.

About the Author

Chris Bousquet

Chris Bousquet is a PhD student in philosophy at Syracuse University. Prior to that, Chris was a Research Assistant/Writer for Data-Smart City Solutions. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College.