How Libraries are Using GIS Mapping

I first learned about geographic information system (GIS) mapping on the Community Health Maps blog from the National Library of Medicine, which offers training materials to teach community organizations how to create low-cost maps related to public health. GIS mapping is used in many creative ways for public health purposes (such as identifying health disparities or visualizing the locations of dangerous environmental hazards). GIS seems like an incredibly useful method for displaying and exploring data on local, national, and international levels, so I wanted look into how academic and public libraries are involved with teaching and using GIS.

Libraries Teaching GIS

Many academic libraries offer GIS mapping services, such as GIS software access, in-person training for students and faculty, and LibGuides that explain the basics about GIS.  For example:

  • At Duke University, the Brandaleone lab for Data and Visualization Services offers access to mapping software (like ArcGIS, QGIS, Google Earth Pro, and more).  Their GIS in the Library webpage offers tips about library workshops and academic courses on GIS and where students can find additional help related to data visualization and GIS.
  • John Hopkins University offers a LibGuide on GIS and Maps, access to ArcGIS software for students/staff, and their GIS and Data Services staff also offer training and consultation on GIS.

The only public library online resource I was able to find related to GIS was the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Online Resources page from New York Public Library.  This online guide provides links to data sources, free software, lectures on GIS, and even NYC online maps.

Public Libraries using GIS for Assessment

While academic libraries seem to focus more on teaching GIS mapping to students and faculty, public libraries often use GIS mapping for assessment of services, facility use, and collection development.  The article Using GIS to Assess Public Libraries by Dilnavaz Mirza Sharma at Public Libraries Online discusses how public libraries “have embraced GIS as a tool for evaluating usage, collection development, and community impact by capturing GIS data to provide evidence of the library’s function in the community serviced.”  The article describes a case study “of how GIS maps were used to identify public library locations in Chicago that would be ideal for providing consumer health information materials to underserved populations.”

Interactive Maps as Exhibits

Some academic and public libraries also use GIS mapping to create interactive maps shared on their websites as digital exhibits or tools to explore useful data sets, such as:

  • The University of South Carolina library website offers a searchable map of locations from the 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book.
  • The College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland has created an interactive mapping tool that allows users to search for and view all libraries within a selected neighborhood, along with related local data on demographics, economics, education, health, and responses from local libraries from the 2013 and 2014 Digital Inclusion Survey.
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Interactive mapping tool to explore Digital Inclusion Survey data, created by the University of Maryland College of Information Studies.
  • Brooklyn Public Library offers a literary map on its website, exploring local landmarks and locations related to children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction.

There are so many potential applications for GIS mapping in both academic and public libraries, from workshops to teach students how to use GIS to interactive digital exhibits that allow users to explore data sets at a local level.  I hope in the coming year to learn more about use of GIS software, maybe using the Community Health Maps training materials.

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Tools to Visualize Local Health Data

Have you ever wondered which issues have the biggest impact on public health in your community, or how your county’s public health ranks in comparison to other counties in your state?  Here are two helpful tools for visualizing and comparing county-level health data, found through the list of County and Local Health Data tools at PHPartners.org (I originally learned about these tools through the free NNLM class Health and Wellness @ the Library: The Essentials of Providing Consumer Health Services).

CHSI 2015

CHSI 2015 (created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) describes itself as “an interactive web application that produces health profiles for all 3,143 counties in the United States.”  Select a state and county to view an “at-a-glance” summary (under the “Summary Comparison Report” section) on “how the selected county compares with peer counties” (better, moderate or worse) “on the full set of Primary Indicators” (arranged under categories Mortality, Morbidity, Healthcare Access and Quality, Health Behaviors, Social Factors, and Physical Environment).

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The Summary Comparison Report for Montgomery County, MD at CHSI 2015.

CHSI 2015 also allows you to view county demographics data and county-level data for specific Primary Indicators.  For instance, the age adjusted Alzheimer’s disease death rate for Montgomery County, MD is 13.3 per 100,000 residents, while the US median rate is 27.3.

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Data on Alzheimer’s disease death rate for Montgomery County, MD at CHSI 2015.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (created by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and University of Wisconsin) measure “the health of nearly all counties in the nation and rank them within states” using “county-level measures from a variety of national and state data sources.”  Check their Our Approach page for more information on their data sources and ranking methods.

Try searching by state from the County Health Rankings homepage, and then choose a county to view the Rankings data for the county (compared against overall state-level data and its ranking compared to other counties in the state)  under categories including Health Outcomes (Length of Life and Quality of Life) and Health Factors (Health Behaviors, Clinical Care, Social and Economic Factors, and Physical Environment).  Choose the “Show areas of strength” checkbox at the top of the screen to highlight public health factors where the county has a strong ranking, or choose “Show areas to explore” to highlight categories where the county has a weaker ranking.

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Viewing County Health Rankings data for Montgomery County, MD.

Choose the “Compare Counties” option to create charts comparing the public health data of two or more counties (including counties in different states).  For instance, the screenshot below shows a chart comparing County Health Rankings data for Calvert, MD, Fairfax, VA, and Montgomery, MD.

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Comparing County Health Rankings data for three different counties.

I also want to highlight a website specifically for my local county (Montgomery County, Maryland) called Healthy Montgomery, which allows users to create customized health dashboards for their local zip code.

From the Healthy Montgomery homepage, choose the Community Health Dashboards option under the Find Data drop-down menu.  You can then choose to view county health dashboards based on a variety of health indicator measurements (like Healthy People 2020 or Maryland SHIP 2017).  You can also build a custom dashboard and filter to view only specific indicators, view data for a specific location (zip codes within Montgomery County), filter by comparisons (like Healthy People 2020 or Maryland SHIP), filter by subgroups (like age, gender, or race), or filter by data source.

The dashboards include helpful icons beside measurement data to indicate if the measurement is higher or lower than county/US average, or if the measurement has an upwards or downwards trend when compared to prior values.

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Customized dashboard from Healthy Montgomery for Silver Spring, MD (zip code 20910).

While the county-level health data tools like CHSI 2015 and County Health Rankings are useful for getting a general idea about public health in larger communities, I hope all counties will eventually have websites like Healthy Montgomery available to view health status (and local health disparities) at a more granular, neighborhood-based level.

Visualizing Library Data in Socrata and Tableau

I decided it was time to experiment with Tableau again, and what better way to practice than using data from my local public library system, Montgomery County Public Libraries?  Locating MCPL data was almost as fun as using Tableau, since I was able to learn about and experiment with another data sharing and visualization tool called Socrata.

Socrata is a cloud-based platform that government organizations can use to host and share public data sets.  Montgomery County uses Socrata to power dataMontgomery, where I found a data set called Gov Stat MCPL Spreadsheet, listing Montgomery County Public Library performance measures.  The Socrata platform offers tools for filtering, sorting, visualizing, and exporting data sets, so I was able to filter and visualize the data in charts (like actual and projected numbers of “attendance of library programs” by fiscal year, displayed in a line graph).

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Data visualization in Socrata (actual and projected numbers of “attendance of library programs” by fiscal year).

I was also able to export the full data set to a CSV file in Socrata, which I then saved to Excel and uploaded to Tableau to practice creating a dashboard.  In my first Tableau viz I used the Story format (basically, a slide show of graphs and charts).  For my second viz, I decided to try the Dashboard format, where I can organize multiple charts on a single screen.  I created four charts but was only able to fit two of the charts comfortably on the dashboard screen (“Actual and Projected Attendance” and “Use of Library Services and Website”).  Here’s the completed viz, Service Usage and Attendance at Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL).

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My second Tableau viz.

I love experimenting with Tableau, but the best part of this exercise was learning about the data sharing and visualization capabilities of Socrata.  A quick Google search for “Socrata government data” shows that many local and state governments use Socrata to share data sets with the public (for example, Baltimore and Hawaii).  Federal government institutions also use Socrata to share data sets, like the open data catalog for the Institute of Museum and Library Services or NASA’s open data portal.  It’s a promising sign that both local and federal governments are making it a priority to openly share data with researchers and the general public, so anyone can use the data in new and creative ways.

Learning Tableau

Creating interactive visualizations of data to tell a story is a great skill to have, but what if you don’t have programming skills?  I fall in the non-programmer boat (although hopefully I can fix that knowledge gap this year by learning R), but fortunately there are a ton of free online visualization tools, many of which don’t require programming knowledge.  Tableau is one option for creating free or low-cost interactive visualizations of large data sets using a drag-and-drop interface.

What is Tableau?

Tableau is data visualization software that includes both subscription and free versions.  The free version of the software is called Tableau Public.  Through Tableau Public, users can download the Tableau Desktop Public Edition app, upload and clean data, create visualizations, and then save and store visualizations (called “vizzes”) to your Tableau Public Profile.  You get 10GB of space in your Public Profile, and vizzes can be shared and embedded on websites and blogs.

How Can Libraries Use Tableau?

A quick search of Tableau Public shows some academic libraries using Tableau to create dashboards of library usage statistics (see Library Assessment for UMass Amherst Libraries or LibraryViz@OSU for Ohio State University Libraries).  Public libraries (like Brooklyn Public Libraries) may use a subscription version of the tool for indepth usage analytics and decision making.

Getting Started

For my first Tableau visualization, I decided to use a relatively large data set downloaded from PillBox.  PillBox is a database from the National Library of Medicine and can be used to identify unknown pills and capsules by visual indicators like color, shape, and size.  I wanted to explore the pill shapes, colors, and distributors for pills containing the active ingredient Acetaminophen.

My first (rather rough) attempt at a Tableau visualization can be found here.

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Visit the full visualization.

I mostly just figured out how to use the interface through trial and error and Googling any questions I had about the tool (there’s a large and active user base for the software, thankfully).  The Tableau website also offers some basic tutorial videos.

A few random thoughts:

  • I had trouble using Tableau Desktop Public Edition app on my Dell, since the Dell Backup and Recovery program interfered with the app.  I had to uninstall Dell Backup and Recovery to get Tableau to work.
  • Now that Google has gotten in the data visualization game with Google Data Studio, Tableau better up it’s game.  Here’s a comparison of Google Data Studio and Tableau I found interesting.