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Is Google Fusion Tables Right for My Social Impact Project?

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

What do the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and a Denver-based Community Navigator initiative have in common? Well, beyond the fact that they’re projects looking to make a big change in the world, they’re both initiatives that rely heavily on the idea of “place”. In our last blog in this series, we explored how mapping can help tell a powerful story and how GIS can help tell that story. But what do you do when you need a tool that is easy for your partners to use and apply on their own? Enter Google Fusion Tables. As the name implies, this web-based application makes it easy to merge (“fuse”) and analyze data with charts, graphs, and maps. In both projects, Fusion Tables allowed us and our partners to combine our existing information to produce actionable insights for the populations we serve.

From our experiences using Fusion Tables, we’ve found them to be…

  • Google Fusion TablesVersatile – effective for various tasks, including mapping and data management. Even better, it plays nice with other Google products like Google Sheets and Forms, which can be a significant benefit when working with community partners.
  • Good for Collaboration – as long as your partners have a Google account, they can use or modify the data, charts, and maps.
  • Relatively Easy-to-learn – if you feel comfortable navigating the internet and using basic spreadsheets, Fusion Tables are easy to use. However, administering and developing a new Fusion Table takes a bit more tech savvy.
  • Limited in Comparison to Specialized Tools – while you can get a nice set of maps, Fusion Tables are much more limited than standard GIS software. Similarly, if you want better tables and charts, Excel and Tableau are the way to go.

Over the years, our partners in in the Colorado Farm-to-School Task Force have cataloged the various initiatives and projects they and their collaborators have developed. They realized that combining and geocoding could:

  • Help them to address questions about how farm-to-school activities in Colorado have developed; and
  • Help their local partners identify potential collaborators in their geographic area.

We needed an easy-to-use tool that would allow for quick updates to a master dataset as new data comes in, to share the resource across collaborators, and to produce maps nice enough to include on a poster presentation. Fusion Tables met these needs and – importantly – allowed us to collaborate without worrying about the problems of version control. On the down side, we were unable to include multiple layers of geographic information, a standard feature of most GIS software; however, we were able to come up with a work-around solution. In the end, the maps we produced using Fusion Tables uncovered patterns about how farm-to-school activities relate to other food systems activities in Colorado. With this information, our partners can see potential partnerships with other food systems actors and identify which regions are most in need of their attention.

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

Community Navigation

Using Fusion Tables for our work with the Denver Foundation’s Basic Human Needs Project was driven by the need for a database system that could be updated and used by a large number of individual community navigators. Community navigation, which connects low-income people to local resources through a resident navigator, can be improved when navigators share information about local service providers. The challenge is that this information is constantly changing. As part of the initiative, the navigators initially assembled a list of all the providers they use, but they lacked a mechanism for keeping the information up-to-date.

Unlike some other tools we explored, navigators can update information in the shared Fusion Tables database in real-time. They go even go beyond basic content information to adding columns for a rating scheme or updates about upcoming events. Moreover, the map option improved on the original shared Excel spreadsheet, allowing navigators to sort by different types of service providers in different locations and print either a table view or a notecard view of their sorted list.

We also learned that some collaborators can easily embrace the Fusion Table approach, but others struggle with committing the time needed to maintain the data and make the tool worthwhile to all.. If collaboration is essential to your effort, as it was in ensuring community navigators have access to up-to-date information about local service providers, it is important to have a conversation with your partners’ about their willingness to learn this new software.

Want to Learn More?

There are many resources on the web for learning how to use fusion tables. A good place to start is Google’s official site. Searching the web, you’ll find that other people have used Fusion Tables for a variety of tasks, including to tell causal stories (e.g., the Guardian’s analysis of the role of poverty in sparking riots in England), to produce information-rich interactive maps (such as The Nature Conservancy’s maps), and to incorporate publicly available data into their project (like the The Montreal Gazette’s depiction of population density in Montreal metro area).

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Data Mapping as a Tool for Change

ata Mapping of minority business enterprises and job losses

Place matters, and whether or not we explicitly or consciously use the term “place-based initiative,” it describes much of the work we are undertaking right now. In essence, a place-based initiative is an effort to address an issue in a specific geographic area; instead of trying to solve the issue for everyone, everywhere, you focus on solving it in one place (at least, to start!). Not only do place-based initiatives provide a testing ground for larger solutions, they are also a fundamental part of driving effective systems change: local community change fundamentally affects larger systems by directly addressing community needs, empowering residents, and building community capacity and resilience.

But being a place-based change agent and finding solutions to complex problems isn’t just about having skills, knowledge, and vision to tackle change. It’s also about knowing where to look for information – and knowing what tools are out there – that can help you understand the problem and find solutions. This blog kicks off a series on some of the data tools and resources Spark has used to support place-based efforts. Over the next few months, we’ll look at online tools such as GIS, Google Fusion Tables, Kumu, and more, all of which can help support place-based initiatives by providing a visual map of needs, relationships, and complex interactions.

First Up, GIS
ata Mapping of minority business enterprises and job losses
SOURCE: GIS Mapping in the field of Social Equity and Advocacy work

While data in itself is helpful – and necessary – to start to wrap your arms around a problem, geographically mapping data creates a compelling story, helping illustrate community needs and disparities in a clear, visual manner. Geographic Information Systems (or GIS) can be a powerful tool when geographic location is an important part of the problem you are hoping to solve and the solution you want to implement. For example, through GIS, you can create a visual depiction of where the highest-need populations in your community are, or look at where service providers are compared to those in need or where jobs are compared to areas with high concentrations of poverty.

Why use GIS? Maps are a type of visual storytelling, allowing us to quickly see and digest large volumes of data that would otherwise by overwhelming. They also allow us to make spatial connections, such as the location of low-income residents to job centers or highlighting the intensity of a problem in one area compared to another, in a way that would be significantly more difficult in words. Similarly, they allow for layering data to see the interactions or commonalities across multiple indicators. Have you heard the term “disaggregating data”? It’s an important part of digging down into where equity issues exist and is accomplished by unpacking patterns among different subgroups within the data. Geographic distinctions are an important way to disaggregate data. This is the type of analysis that helped surface the reality of the zip-code effect!

Need another reason to use GIS? Maps are visually appealing, making them engaging and memorable in a way many other forms of data presentation just aren’t.

What does it look like in action?

One example of how GIS supports place-based initiatives is equity mapping, which helps make connections between “areas of opportunity” and high-need communities, highlighting the disparities that exist between the two. The Regional Equity Atlas, originally released in 2007, helped change the conversation about equity in the Portland-Vancouver region, providing clear information that policymakers and stakeholders used for advocacy and policy-making efforts, such as improving transit access for low-income residents. Here are some other cool examples of how GIS can highlight disparities in a place-based effort:

  • The Community Commons Maps and Data Center is a free, online GIS resource that includes data maps, along with data sets you can use to create your own map (login required).
  • The Food Desert Locator lets you zoom in on your community (by census track) to identify food deserts and learn about the population in those areas.

Up next, we’re taking a look at Google Fusion tables, using examples from two recent Spark projects where we needed to take data visualization to the next level.

Have you used GIS to support your place-based effort? What was the result? Tell us in the comments!