Atlas of Legal Needs Surveys

This summer I had the pleasure of working with CORE GIS to build a web map for the World Justice Project. One of their ongoing programs is to aggregate surveys of unmet justice needs from all over the world, and we made them an overview map to present the data:

Screenshot of a world map with countries for which surveys are available in blue, and a popup highlighting Colombia's surveys as an example

The map and filters are automatically populated from a file that WJP maintains, to give them a straightforward way to update data without having to engage a consultant each time. The underlying data is more impressive than anything we built, though: the screenshot really is highlighting a 129,000 person face-to-face survey conducted the year before COVID.

Explore the map, or read WJP’s intro to the project.

Gaining elevation

A/B Street is both a game and a very powerful tool that allows you to download a detailed street map of an area and test out changes to the configuration of roads:

It uses OpenStreetMap as a data source. OSM has impressively rich data on things like the number of lanes a street has, where bike lanes and turn restrictions go, and so on, but one thing it lacks is detailed elevation data. The developers noticed that it was suggesting absurd routes for cyclists in Seattle, including routes that no-one who’s actually tried cycling would ever repeat because of the hills involved. So they brought me in to figure out how to add elevation data.

I wrote a simple Python tool that reads in paths as plain lists of coordinates, and writes out statistics for each one: the start and elevations, and cumulative elevation gain and loss along each path. A/B Street incorporates this into a data load by exporting each road segment as a series of points every metre along the way, getting as fine-grained a picture of a route’s hilliness as the source data allows.

By default, elevation_lookups uses data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, because that source provides fairly high quality data for most of the world’s land. I learned about SRTM while making this tool, and I’m still sort of star-struck that we have a global dataset like this, freely available to anyone who has a use for it. But it is also relatively low resolution, so I built in the ability to override the data source with higher resolution sources where known. It comes preconfigured with examples of both raster (LIDAR source) and vector (contour source) datasets for the Seattle area.

This is an open-source project. I hope it can be useful for other applications, and I have more ideas for it then I have time to implement. I’d love contributions from anyone this appeals to, and have some suggested starting points (not all requiring programming skills!).

I also ran into some technical surprises, which are below the fold in case the information is useful to anyone else

Staying relevant when the ground shifts

Before the pandemic,Crisis map legend, showing emergency services, which businesses were open, where to get sanitiser and places to volunteer I was working on a major update for Washington Hometown’s recreation mapping work. They’ve long been a major provider of outdoor recreation data, but wanted to put more of that data into public-facing maps that they host. They partnered with TOTAGO for mobile maps, and I built a map generator for their desktop maps so that they would be able to quickly publish new thematic maps by just updating some configuration files rather than having to write code each time.

This flexibility turned out to be more important than any of us had anticipated, because before the project wrapped up the pandemic hit. In the first months of Washington State’s lockdown, a lot of public land was either entirely closed to the public or had very limited services. Suddenly being able to publish a spring hiking map just didn’t seem relevant or even appropriate any more. But WHT’s speciality is keeping data current as things change, and they applied the same mindset to the map themes themselves. At the height of public confusion about where to find COVID tests, sanitiser supplies, and so on, they released a “crisis” map with that information updated daily.

As things calmed down, they quickly pivoted away from the crisis map (quickly enough that I didn’t even get a screenshot of the working map!), and started focusing on the ever-changing list of which public lands were open, closed, or somewhere in between. Now that we all know that outdoor activities are relatively safe, there are far fewer closures, but still enough that it’s valuable to have someone keeping track.

I was impressed with my client’s ability to keep this project relevant when I was afraid that the pandemic would sink it. And in the end it’s been a great validation of the map generator itself, which has helped them to stay agile.

A map of central Washington State, showing mostly open public land with a few closures

Fitting more housing into the city

Seattle is suffering from a deep housing affordability crisis, with more and more people being priced out of living there. At the same time, it’s been deeply resistant to changes in zoning that would allow enough new housing to be built. One of the examples of this is that it has a program called “Encouraging Backyard Cottages”, and has gone through at least two rounds of legal reforms to support that, but figuring out whether one can be built on any given lot still involves going through a long checklist about the exact dimensions of the site and intricacies of zoning.

In theory, DADUs (Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, the much less appealing legal term for “backyard cottages”) allow a lot of small, affordable housing to be added to single-family zoned neighbourhoods and spread out enough to not feel like a radical change in the streetscape. In practice, the complicatedness of the process adds enough of a barrier that relatively few have been built so far. Hatchback Cottages has a plan to solve this with a set of ready-to-build designs and a package of support to help people through the process.

Even with their expertise, assessing a site under the arcane rules is a time consuming process. But computers are good at applying lots of rules and calculating all the measurements, so Hatchback contracted me to run a GIS analysis assessing every residential lot in Seattle for suitability.

A map of one city block with individual lots shaded green if they could have a DADU and red if they couldn't.  Existing building outlines and the area in which a DADU might fit are also shown.

Fortunately for us, Seattle and King County publish very comprehensive and regularly updated open data about zoning and development, so I had a lot to work with. The analysis takes into account existing building footprints, lot characteristics and potential complicating factors like steep slopes and landslide hazard areas. It will never be a complete replacement for a knowledgeable human looking at the site, but by ruling out all the sites that definitely won’t work it saves my client a lot of time. Now the experts can solely focus on sites that have a relatively good chance of working out.

Allen Coral Atlas

As a child, I adored the National Geographic magazines.  I collected them for long enough to fill a bookshelf, and I think it’s fair to say that they had a pretty big influence on how I’ve ended up making a living.  So it was particularly satisfying to see a project I’ve been involved with since the summer get a writeup in National Geographic:

Inside the daring plan to map every coral reef from space

It’s a wonderfully ambitious project—using imagery that wasn’t available 5 years ago—and terrifyingly urgent.  Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, and massively important as both habitat and shoreline protection.  We have very little time to left to figure out ways to make them more resilient, or lose a major source of protein and watch storms do more and more damage as the reefs’ protection is lost.

The project also lost two of its champions this year: Paul Allen and Ruth Gates.  I wish I had had the chance to get to know Dr. Gates.  Among other things, she set a great example of how to engage with work this sad and frightening and never be crushed by the weight of it.  The project continues, and feels like a fitting memorial to both.

My role is to integrate the processed data we get from two different research groups: one infers depth from the satellite imagery, and the other classifies areas of reef by types of sea floor and what’s growing on them.  I write automation that turns the depth data into false-colour imagery, and prepares everything to be displayed in the web map. Here’s a snapshot of that depth imagery:

Bathymetry around Karimun Jawa, Indonesia

So far we just have a single snapshot in time of 6 reefs, but the real challenge will be scaling that to all the reefs in the world, updated regularly.  You can explore it yourself and read about the methods and partnership at http://allencoralatlas.org/ .

Because it’s a limited preview so far and most areas aren’t covered yet, panning and zooming around the globe isn’t very satisfying.  I recommend clicking on the place names in the “Mapped Areas” list to see where we actually have data.  And for a first look I prefer to turn all of the data layers off, zoom to a location, and then turn them back on one at a time starting from the bottom of the list.

Texas education funding map

I got to collaborate with COREGIS again this year, on a couple of maps for a Texas education advocacy group.  The first was an internal tool for their staff use only, but the second was public facing and is now available:

A map of Texas school districts, with colour indicating how much a proposed funding change would affect them, and dots showing the location of charter schools

I am often a bit skeptical—perhaps more than you might expect from a GIS consultant—of the value of displaying information on a map rather than a chart or a table.  Sometimes clients ask for maps simply because they look good, without thinking about whether geography is a useful dimension for the questions we want to answer.  These two were interesting cases because geography is relevant, but not for the most obvious reasons, and this influenced their design:

  • The internal tool is for lobbyists to show to state politicians, so the design is very focussed on zooming to individual districts and showing how they compare to others.  In the big picture that’s not exactly the ideal way for politicians to make choices, but we all know that they do it, so it’s realistic for an advocacy group to appeal to this bias.
  • The public map is a way of showing just how big a public funding advantage charter schools have over public schools.  The message would have been lost in a chart or table, because the same unlevel playing field benefits rural school districts (which don’t generally have charter schools nearby) over urban ones.  Putting the map together helps us to compare like with like.  I don’t know anywhere near enough about Texas education politics to know if either bias is deliberate, but assigning blame is outside the scope of a map anyway.  It’s enough that it shows the effect of a policy.

“A Renewable America”

A map I made just went live at arenewableamerica.org .

This was a relatively small project, but there are two things I’m particularly happy with. One is that it’s the first time I’ve hand-drawn boundaries with enough detail to actually publish – all the convoluted parts of the Grid Campaign layer that don’t correspond to state lines are hand drawn from a reference map:

A map showing the very convoluted shapes of 3 of the US's "Regional Transmission Organizations"

The other is that it’s the first time in years I’ve been able to work on promoting renewable energy. After leaving a PhD program, my first work outside academia was an internship for a local renewable energy nonprofit, but since then I hadn’t found a way to contribute to this field until this little project showed up.  It feels good to circle back to a cause I’ve never stopped caring about.

“Mapas interactivos para el análisis de la inclusión financiera en México”

One of the pleasures of working on FINclusionLab has been getting my work translated into the languages of most of the countries we cover: French, Spanish, and Turkish. By happy coincidence these are also most of the languages that I either speak or am making a serious effort to learn. I am not fluent enough in any of them to do the translating myself, but I can at least understand the translations that I’m applying, and read domestic press coverage when it comes out. It’s not always easy to get key stakeholders to actually use the tools we’re making for them, so it was particularly nice to see Mexico’s national bank trumpeting the release of the financial inclusion dashboards we made:

La CNBV presentó los mapas interactivos para el análisis de la inclusión financiera en México

[Google’s translation is not bad, albeit even wordier than an already government-speak heavy press release]

A screenshot of the Mexico dashboard showing a map and chart about the spread of correspondent banking state-by-state

You’re not imagining it – 2017 was an unhappy year in the US

9 years ago, I was part of a small team that founded what is now Happiness Alliance. Our goal was to get happiness taken seriously as the primary objective of public policy, instead of the status quo in which governments maximise economic indicators without questioning whether they are even good metrics of the economy, never mind why we prioritise the economy above everything else in life. This is not a new idea; in fact I still think Bobby Kennedy said it best in 1968:

…Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile….

And yet, four decades later we still encountered endless skepticism about the whole idea. Those who accepted the premise kept telling us that it was futile because public policy interventions never make a measurable difference to happiness anyway.

Sadly, recent work by the Happiness Alliance (I am no longer involved, but cheer them on from the sidelines) has proven the skeptics wrong in the most negative way possible. We can now clearly see that the grinding awfulness of 2017 was not just in my head or my social circle, but has added up to a measurable decrease in self-reported happiness:

There are a couple of important caveats to understand here:

  • This is a “convenience sample”, meaning it has not been weighted to be fully representative of the population –but there’s no reason to expect that 2017’s sample will have new or different biases, having been recruited in the same ways as previous years’.
  • We don’t know where every survey taker was, so it’s impossible to compare US-based respondents with those elsewhere –but we do know that the vast majority of respondents are in the US.

It’s not a huge effect size—only 5-6%—but it is highly statistically significant, and when I remember all the people saying we’d never see any changes at all I can’t help but be impressed. And glad that this thing I helped start has had the staying power to be able to look at trends over years.