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Visualizing Disparities: How Mapping and Big Data Can Provide Insight into Social Equity Indicators

In this special guest feature, Ragi Burhum, CEO and Cofounder of AmigoCloud, a mapping platform, offering collaborative mobile applications and BigGeodata analysis, discusses how we live in a world where the richest one percent own 45 percent of the global wealth. Everyone from scientists to politicians have been grappling with this growing inequality gap, trying to pinpoint why certain groups of people, and certain communities, amass unprecedented levels of wealth, while others do not. However, thanks to advancements in mapping and big data, experts are now finding answers, or at least uncovering root causes.

We live in a world where the richest one percent own 45 percent of the global wealth. Everyone from scientists to politicians have been grappling with this growing inequality gap, trying to pinpoint why certain groups of people, and certain communities, amass unprecedented levels of wealth, while others do not. However, thanks to advancements in mapping and big data, experts are now finding answers, or at least uncovering root causes.

Just as big data and geotagging locations have proven to optimize preparations for natural disasters, this same technology is giving us insight into communities, identifying various factors that affect the quality of life in specific areas. Mapping can paint a picture as to why one neighborhood is experiencing an escalation in crime, while the next-door community has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Or why a lack of internet connectivity in a region correlates to poor education levels. Big data and mapping can better locate and measure these social equity indicators, helping us visualize early triggers in disparities. Here’s how:

High Crime Levels

Location data can help improve local government decisions in improving public works, and in regulation by providing essential information on crime locations. Police in the UK are already using predictive crime mapping, which combines past data on crime type, crime location and date and time to generate a hotspot map identifying areas where crime is most likely to happen. The algorithm, previously utilized to predict earthquakes, gives police a location and window of time to protect said area. A similar project using geocoding API was carried out to map gun violence in the US. The map revealed geographic patterns, which will help governments make easier and more informed decisions in tackling America’s gun violence crisis.

Data collection and geo-referenced maps are also helping to decide where and when to deploy officers in Cali, Colombia to reduce crime. In many Latin American cities, what often separates a more developed, affluent neighbourhood or barrio from an impoverished part is crime. With law-enforcement standards, and data-driven policing tools, such as those being used in Cali, governments can better visualize where high crime is at its worst and work on implementing social programs to reduce rates. By exposing this, big data can also map out which streets would benefit from better lighting or safe public transport routes, for example.

Access to Education

Census data can display the advantages that wealthier cities or neighborhoods have over poorer, and often rural, parts of a country by mapping out the amount of opportunities available. One such opportunity that is generally not equally available to all is education.

Detailed data maps of parts of Seattle revealed that where children grow up and what opportunities they have immediate access to, matters deeply in whether they prosper as adults. The study was able to track problems that persist in disadvantaged neighborhoods, including schooling, which can now be used as data to help lift children in these specific locations out of poverty.

Pathways to Education Canada, along with the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), have launched a Community Mapping Tool. The map identifies the barriers that youth in low-income communities face, including educational attainment levels. The idea of this collected data is so educators can rely on it to create “engaging instructional material and course curriculum”. It is also a valuable insight into areas which would gain from having more readily available schools or educational courses.

Health Factors

Economic and social inequality are inextricably attached to unequal health services and outcomes. Mapping and big data can help track anything from famine in the horn of Africa, to the availability of basic health care in major US cities. Open access to visual data and mapping tools is the best way for governments to make well-informed decisions, responses, and interventions when it comes to health in certain communities.

An increase in tools which map medicare disparities has created more discussion flowing around the subject of unequal health care in the US. The maps, such as the Mapping Medicare Disparities (MmD) Tool, explore health outcomes measured by age, race and ethnicity; visualize health outcome measures at a national, state, or county level; compare differences between two geographical locations, and between racial and ethnic groups within the same geographic area.

A new Washington environmental health disparities map has unearthed that people in low-income communities, and people of color are far more likely to live near sources of toxic pollution or contaminated sites. The map shows how these health factors all compound to create vulnerable communities. Lawmakers approaching environmental policies can therefore use this public health data to focus on ensuring all communities have equal access to clean air and clean water.

Mapping and big data has therefore aided a huge progression in discovering early root causes of inequality. It has helped lay out an understanding that social and economic disparities are not just divided between the global north and the global south, but that disproportions can be seen in neighbouring communities. Visual insight into these three social equity indicators – education, health and crime – can often help answer why one town has developed socially and economically, while another has deteriorated. The clarity that mapping brings will equip governments and various actors of society with the necessary facts to start actively bridging the gap between the rich and poor.

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