Thursday, January 3, 2013

Spotty Past

By now you've probably seen the Census Dotmap that everyone is talking about. It is "a map of every person counted by the 2010 US Census. The map has 308,450,225 dots - one for each person." When you look at it holistically, it's kinda cool, but you might not feel like there are any particular insights.

Let's see, the east side of the US is more heavily populated than the west. People love to live along coastlines. You can pick out metropolitan areas and assign them a name with ease. In some ways, it's not very different than some other maps we've the one of the US at night.


But I like maps. I think there are stories in them. And I'd like to tell you one based on this particular point.

Click to embiggen, if you don't believe there's a town there.

I know, it's too small to see at this scale, but at the end of that arrow is the town where I grew up. So, here it is up close:

You are here.
Remember, each of those dots is a person---about 6000 of them. And when I look at this, I not only "see" the neighborhoods where my friends once lived, but also something of the topography. Can you tell where the main road (and train tracks) go through town? Can you tell where the university is, with its abundance of students? Would it surprise you to learn that there's a mountain at the southeast edge of town (where the dots line up, but go no further)? Even without the street labels, I can make a pretty good guess of where my mother's house is, because there is an empty space on the map for the elementary school---just a block away from the house.

Does this help?

What about this? You can definitely see the mountains better.

The interesting thing to me that the Census Dot map does is that while it doesn't hold surprises at a large-scale, the more I poke around in different towns, the more small-scale questions I have. I see things with this map, in terms of use of space and concentrations of population, that I can't see with the other maps.

Useful or not for schools? I think it's another tool in the arsenal. What do those distributions of population tell you about the needs for access to public services---and is that happening? What about arts and culture? School buses are getting pretty sophisticated these days with GIS data, but I still wonder if there is something to learn from a look at population. What would this map tell us about the community we serve?

Go play and tell me what you divine from the dots: past, present, and future.

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