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Software for the Social Good: Locating Food Deserts

In part of our Digital Communities Special Report, we look at how mapping data can help cities understand how an urban community functions and identify where resources are lacking.

Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View links to the entire report here.

The city of Anchorage used Esri’s Survey123 app to create a point-in-time census of its homeless population. It also used Esri’s Collector app to share maps and data on the camps’ locations on mobile devices with the police and parks departments. The Office of Economic and Community Development, which manages the city’s GIS, used other Esri tools to create a camp dashboard and to build a website that allowed citizens to report camps they had seen.

Another use for digital mapping is to connect the dots and understand how an urban community’s food system works and what happens when access to healthy food is limited. In 2015, the city of Baltimore conducted a detailed study of how its population was accessing healthy food. The study was based on mapping data that exposed significant disparities in access to nutritious food, according to income. The report, Mapping Baltimore’s Food Environment, found that one in four city residents live in areas identified as a food desert, that children are largely affected with 30 percent living in food deserts and that African-Americans have disproportionately low access to healthy food.

The report defines a food desert as an area where the distance to a supermarket or a similar retail food establishment is more than one-quarter of a mile, the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, over 30 percent of households do not have a car available and the average Healthy Food Availability Index for food stores is low.

The data that made the findings from the report possible came from the Johns Hopkins Center for the Livable Future (CLF), which promotes research about the relationship between agriculture, diet, environment and health. In 2012, CLF began mapping the state of Maryland’s food system using Esri’s open data platform, and incorporating federal, state and local data sets into the map, which is publicly available online.

As the number of data sets steadily increased, CLF moved the data into Amazon’s AWS cloud, according to Caitlin Fisher, CLF’s program manager. That has allowed CLF and its food map project to host more than 170 data layers for more than 18,000 annual users. “Our goal is to make data accessible, allow people to use it and to improve the food system,” she said.

Now that the maps have exposed the problem that Baltimore has with its food deserts, city officials are using the maps and accompanying data to plan and advocate for better access in the affected neighborhoods. “Maps are great tools for advocacy,” said Fisher. “They allow people to see patterns and trends within the community. Ultimately the data and maps are about creating long-lasting solutions to the food system in Baltimore and Maryland.”

Already, CLF is seeing evidence that the maps are improving the food system in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland. People are requesting more information about urban farming, which is becoming a growing trend in the state. Others are using the maps to assess diet and health in proximity to urban farms.

CLF’s efforts have also brought valuable information about nutrition and education resources to food policy councils around the state. That information, in turn, is shared with local residents. CLF has even worked with emergency preparedness agencies to make sure they include food in their emergency plans.

But as Goldsmith pointed out, accessing and using data to help with decision-making is one thing — using it to predict outcomes is another. For CLF, one challenge lies with accuracy as it works with data of varying levels of quality from different sectors of government. Another is what Fisher calls “ground truthing” data so that it works for the communities that want to use it. A project like this, with multiple players, is “more than just numbers and maps,” she said. “You need to take it to the next level of community engagement and to really understand what’s happening on the ground.”

Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.