Roughly five years after its online debut, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) has updated and dramatically expanded a mapping application that tracks food-related data, services, initiatives and institutions throughout Maryland.

The center, which works with students, educators, researchers, policymakers and advocates to build a healthier, more equitable and resilient food system, launched the new Maryland Food System Map on April 12.

The result of a collaboration with Web and mobile map builder Blue Raster, a business partner of Redlands, Calif.-based Esri, the new map took around a year to develop, and its impact isn’t yet clear. Neither is its cost. But in terms of size, data aggregation and versatility, the multilayered site is an exponential step forward.

The map it replaced had generated a significant following among researchers, advocates and government officials and averaged more than 8,200 users per year. But half a decade later, its age and technology were showing.

Searches that could have been virtually instantaneous took minutes to complete, according to Kevin McMaster, senior project manager at Blue Raster, who noted: “Unless you’re a very dedicated researcher, you’re probably not going to wait that long.”

In addition, Google Chrome has begun restricting older Flex-based applications like this one — and while it only hosted around 30 data indicators, adding more further slowed it down. In the old map’s final months, McMaster said, some of its existing functionalities had begun to fail.

“The biggest part was it was becoming difficult to maintain the older applications as things were starting to break,” he said, noting that the print function didn’t always work.

As its grasp diminished and the limits of its reach became clear, CLF Program Officer Caitlin Fisher, the manager of the map, said the organization also realized that finding and downloading data from the old site wasn’t always easy and that once shared, broken links were not uncommon.

The solution involved a redesign powered by modern JavaScript and HTML, using ArcGIS Desktop to gather and consolidate data into one service, and ArcGIS Online as part of its open data framework solution. Blue Raster also used Esri’s new Vector tiled Basemaps to enable smoother searchability that can zoom and label data dynamically; and its Open Data framework to make data more discoverable and useable in outside maps and analyses.

Consolidating data let the app reach all information streams with one call-up when it opens instead of making multiple call-ups and identifying layers through keyword tags eliminated broken links.

“Using this type of data to unify those food deserts or gap analysis studies, that’s one of the driving forces of this application,” McMaster said. “I live in Maryland. It was really exciting working with a locally based organization.” The website also was transitioned to a more secure HTTPS Web address.

“The application is much faster than the previous version, and it’s also mobile friendly and responsive. That was a priority for us, to make sure the mapping function could be accessed and used on mobile devices,” Fisher said.

Other CLF priorities included expanding the search function to include keywords and letting users share the URLs for maps they created.

The new map’s arrival is so recent that even dedicated users haven’t fully explored it yet but Maryland Food Bank Chief External Affairs Officer Meg Kimmel said it has tremendous value in a coverage area -- all but two of the state's counties -- where 491,000 people are considered “food insecure,” meaning they have irregular or unequal access to nutritious food on a continuous basis.

“I think … the functionality is greatly improved, the user experience is terrific, it’s a beautiful product and the number of data sets they have available on this map is commendable,” said Kimmel, whose organization worked closely with CLF to populate a custom overlay on the map’s old version with data showing where and how the Maryland Food Bank distributes.

That overlay will continue to be available on the new map, said Kimmel, who praised CLF for other newly expanded indicators showing food desert areas not just in Baltimore but statewide.

“There’s nothing else out there," she said. "I hope the general public is using it because I think it’s a really valuable piece of information."
 
Overall, the redesign gave CLF the ability to realize the website’s potential, showing all available data and helping it identify and fill gaps in coverage. Now, maps display a spectrum of data across 10 categories including Food Retail, which documents everything from the extent of the Baltimore-area food desert to the locations of supermarkets and take-out and fast-food restaurants. Farmers markets appear under Alternative Food Retail, while oyster sanctuaries and public shellfish areas are charted under Aquaculture.

Schools, hospitals, universities and colleges are listed and mapped under Institutions; mortality, heart disease, diabetes and obesity rates are located under Health; and free and reduced-price school meals, food pantry and free meal sites are cataloged under Nutrition Assistance. Under Projects, maps feature everything from urban farms to mobile markets to an interactive story map about the Baltimore Orchard Project.

The entire site is now searchable via a smartphone, making it a potential boon to Maryland residents who can use it to instantly look for markets, restaurants and hospitals by area or address.

But Fisher said CLF is hopeful the new map’s increased functionality and hundred more data streams will also stimulate development by advocates, nonprofits, governments and communities to make a difference in the lives of residents. The center will likely spend the next year working with different groups to educate them about the map's powerful new tools.

“What we hope to have happen is that our users are able to use that information to create policies and programs grounded in data, and better understand what the public food system looks like, and its connection to public health and the environment,” she said.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:50 a.m. on April 19 to include an interview with Maryland Food Bank Chief External Affairs Officer Meg Kimmel.