Mapping tools add new dimensions to social demographics

Less than a decade ago, easy access to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) caused a paradigm shift  in how we understand demographic data. GIS and spatial analyses have, literally, added new dimensions to our understanding of social landscapes.

Tools to map social data have shifted rapidly through the following stages (note: these are my labels, not some broadly recognized system).

Static maps

Static maps are the ones we remember from our classrooms, hung on the blackboard or tucked into the beginning of our Scholastic Atlases of Canada; inscribed with dozens of symbols which needed to be deciphered with the legends, they covered a range of topics including topographic, climatic zones, agricultural, industry. They were draw by experts.

GIS–enhanced maps

When GIS software appeared, it furnished a way for social scientists to re-examine their stores of demographic data. Instead of comparing along a dimension of time or between similar populations, GIS introduced a way to look at the complex way in which multiple factors overlap and interact within a physical space, the lived world of their “subjects.” GIS capabilities allow social scientists across a wide range of disciplines to add spatial analysis to their analytic toolboxes.

An excellent early example of this stage was The Canadian Council of Social Development and United Way of (Greater) Toronto’s Poverty by Postal Code report in 2004. It looked at the concentration of poverty by neighbourhood, or specifically census tracts, over three decades in Toronto. Professor David Hulchanski’s work through the CURA with St. Christopher’s House on the subject of neighbourhood change and gentrification, has produced similar maps over an even longer time period.

The Toronto Police crime data maps and Toronto Public Health maps do this as well. The maps are static, but the information is conveyed in new and easier to understand ways.

What became apparent from these new analyses is the complex way social problems interact. For instance, Poverty by Postal Code sparked further debate about the importance of neighbourhoods and place-based strategies. United Way and the City established the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce, which by mapping proximity to service against social need, sparked new planning priorities.

Web 1.0 maps

Web 1.0 maps moved mapping off computer desktops and onto the internet, allowing broader interactivity. With Web 1.0 technology, viewers are able to move through pre-mapped⁄pre-coded data to find answers (sometimes) to their own questions. Good local examples of these are:

  •’s Close to Home maps of 211 Ontario data, allowing newcomers to search for services closest to their residence/place of work.
  • City of Toronto developed MapIt, an interactive map which allows viewers to select what city services should be shown on the map and then to zoom to an area of interest.

Statistics Canada data has been incorporated into several Web 1.0 vehicles to make accessing it more interesting than looking at a set of dry tables. Several Canadian examples exist, and many of these are incorporating other data sources as well:

  • The Canadian Council on Social Development has established a national platform through its data liberation initiative for municipalities and non-profit agencies. The Canadian Social Data Strategy has a public front door and an area for local agencies to have access to further data.
  • Although requiring registration and log-in, the Canadian Mothercraft Society has also built a very usable platform for community agencies to select and map out data in their areas of interest.
  • The Government of Newfoundland & Labrador led Canadian provinces in establishing Community Accounts, a web-based map system which produces local profiles upon a range of factors which may be selected by the site visitor. Nova Scotia has followed suit.
  • The Toronto Star has a blog and staff dedicated to mapping newsworthy social issues.
  • Using a democratizing Google mash-up, the creative Baby Name Map was established in Calgary.

Web 2.0 maps

Web 2.0 mapping is taking GIS interactive. (Web 2.0 engages internet surfers in two-way information exchanges, so that they can add information as well as get it.)

I have been able to identify several ways this is done in mapping:

Open Source GIS: The power of mapping technologies has, in this initial period, remained concentrated in the hands of experts who have access to software which can cost thousands of dollars. Several open source software are emerging and refining to the point that GIS software will become more available to everyone. Grass is one of the most preeminent ones. My Maps on Google Maps also give easy access to people to map their own worlds.

Crowd-sourcing: This method farms out work, realizing on the small contributions of many to make sense of complex problems. For instance, Industry Canadainvited Canadians to submit information about their broadband access which could then be mapped out across Canada to identify areas with significant service gaps.

Community mapping: Google maps are some of the frequent examples of interactive mapping. Family Service Toronto is working with Waterloo’s Comap to launch a community mapping initiative in the Teasdale-O’Connor neighbourhood, which will invite local agencies and residents to contribute and shape the maps of the neighbourhood.


Real-time: Real-time mapping is still emergent. For example, an iPhone app uses GPS to update your location to selected friends and family.  Twittervision and celebrity-stalking websites like Gawker’s Stalker are powerful because they add a geographic scale to the information shared.

Other good examples and methods are continuing to emerge. Please feel free to share other good examples!

Toronto: An incomplete index of interactive maps on the internet

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