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Philadelphia Uses GIS to Increase Playability, Enhance Children's Lives

A pro-bono design collaborative in Philadelphia is using GIS analysis to improve the success rate of its projects that are aimed at bettering the lives of children in the area.

Education research illuminates an American youth that spends increasingly less time playing because their environments don’t support it. Children who don’t play aren’t just physically unhealthy, they miss opportunities to develop their social skills, problem-solving abilities, coping mechanisms, and capacities for empathy and creativity. Kids who don’t get a chance to play have a hard time blossoming into functional adults.

If any one place needs a greater focus on play, it’s Philadelphia. The city is the most obese and diabetic in the nation, where two out of five children are either obese, diabetic or both, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Philadelphia-based Community Design Collaborative (CDC) recognized a need to provide citizens with more playable spaces and, through a partnership with GIS firm Azavea, they may have a chance to do just that.

CDC supplies pro-bono, early-stage design work to community groups and nonprofits not equipped with the experience or resources to do such work themselves. Through a partnership with Philadelphia-based GIS firm Azavea, CDC obtained visualized geographic data that will help it find the ideal sites for development and could assist in fundraising. In 2014, some of CDC’s design concepts included park renovation, open space improvement, and greening projects for schools and mixed-use facilities.

A summer fellowship program led by Azavea connected a graduate student with experience in urban GIS projects to CDC, providing the organization with data-driven insights it couldn’t have realized alone since CDC doesn’t have staff trained in GIS, said Azavea Senior GIS Analyst Daniel McGlone.

“We did a suitability analysis where you layer different layers and you get a score,” McGlone explained. They ended up with a composite map that shows which areas would be best served given the provided criteria. The CDC was trying to target areas that needed help most, the ones that had a high youth population, had many families, were impoverished, didn’t already have access to green spaces or child-care services, and may have had a high level of housing unit vacancies. 

The CDC has been around for 23 years and has led about 700 projects, so it knows the community well. CDC staff already had a good idea of where the potential sites were, but getting data to support or sometimes refute their claims is exciting for them, McGlone said.

“What they had done in the past was, ‘Well, we know this neighborhood has high poverty or we know this city council member wants to revitalize this park, so let’s do that,’" he said. "But now they have a robust methodology using spatial analysis so there’s numbers backing up why they want to target this neighborhood or that area or this specific park."

Having data to support a project is also a huge advantage when it comes to fundraising, said McGlone. In a similar project last year, Azavea collaborated with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. “We gave them a 10-page report that ranked all the districts based on different metrics like accessibility [and] number of children without access. They went straight to city council and they ended up getting a $100,000 grant to improve child care in the city. That had a huge impact, and this project helped get to that point.”

Azavea Fellow Tim St. Onge had experience with urban GIS projects, and also with issues of urban play, having once volunteered with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project in Washington, D.C. The play sessions they organized through homeless shelters or transitional housing groups gave kids designated playtime they might not have gotten otherwise, St. Onge said.


This map created by Azavea shows the final design grant candidacy scores for parks, playgrounds and schoolyards based on a composite of related data sets. Credit: Tim St. Onge, Azavea

Though the CDC play project is just getting started, and might never be implemented, St. Onge’s GIS contribution through Azavea is complete.

“I was encouraged by the end results and by talking with the collaborative,” he said. “At least for them, I know that when we had our maps and our profiles of the top sites from our analysis that seemed to be top candidates for funding and specifically targeting. You have the data issue, but you also have the realities on the ground, what other organizations are working on projects, what’s the planning landscape, the political landscape, so it might be a process that takes a lot of time. I think at the very least, the collaborative has an idea of at least where in the city to target.”

CDC hired a program associate who is now planning an initiative around play space, and using the data supplied by Azavea to support the process. CDC is looking for sites where the community will welcome the project, said Chris Mohr, resource development manager at CDC.

“We are in discussion with a local funder here who, if they decide to fund this design initiative with us, would probably work with us and the public agencies to see that some funding for implementation could happen. But that’s down the road,” said Mohr. Before any preliminary designs are finished so they can find funding, they need to benchmark their progress by engaging communities, he said.

“I would say our community-engaged design process is part of what helps provide a reality-test to our design,” Mohr said. “On the one hand, we want it to be creative, innovative, attractive, cool and intriguing to people, and at the same time, it’s got to be responsive to what people in the community are interested in, so it helps build community buy-in from the start at that early stage so you don’t get down the road and suddenly discover, 'Oh, this group of neighbors doesn’t want it.' The idea is to have some kind of community input, often structured as a task force that brings together stakeholders up front and it really helps build support early on for these ideas.”

CDC estimates about 25 percent of its projects have reached completion, and in recent years it estimates about 70 percent of projects reach at least the first phase of development. But project failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Mohr explained. “Sometimes it’s a reality check for a community-based nonprofit that may have a big idea but not the capacity to move ahead on an idea, and we may actually be saving them some time and trouble,” he said. Also, communities sometimes launch an initial phase of a project, leaving the opportunity for more development later on.

For this project, the data provided by Azavea was helpful because in many cases CDC already knew which sites were good candidates for development, but there some surprises that enriched their understanding of the city, Mohr said.

“The maps both confirmed some of those things we would have known anyway, but it also helped bubble up to the top a couple of sites we might not have known about,” he said. “What was also interesting was that one of the sites we were most interested in didn’t show up in the top 10, it was a bit further down. What we know about this other site is that it shares many of the same characteristics as some of the other ones that were at the top of the list, but it also has interest from institutional partners, the university, some employers not too far away, and that would increase the capacity to get something built on that site, so we also brought in our own knowledge beside the variables we had mapped. It was an interesting blend of a data-driven approach combined with our own human knowledge.”

Data helps, but in projects when you’re dealing with people and neighborhoods, it’s not science, Mohr said, which is why the real takeaway from Azavea’s data is that it will allow CDC to tell a more realistic narrative about the sites it chooses. “We are responsive to communities. We’re not just going to put together a map and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to go there.’ We have to know there’s a community-based organization that wants and needs the services we provide, so it’s not like we can just do a map and parachute in. But the technology, the mapping and the work Azavea did informed what we do in a helpful way, so we’re definitely grateful to them.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.