Mapping Inequality Can Drive Social Impact

Investors, policymakers, and businesses are all increasingly looking to measure their impact on the world. As researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation put it, “accountable to taxpayers, funders, and a diligent global community, these organizations have long felt the pressure for demonstrating tangible results.” However, as the amount of funding has dramatically increased in social impact, the result has produced “a lot of bad deals done by good people.”

Data has become a powerful tool for making sure that resources can be effectively channeled to communities most in need. Change-makers can use data to identify how a critical social challenge is preventing a community from opportunity. Nevertheless, with the abundance of data that is out there, raw data is no longer enough. The key is for new leaders to be able to use data visualization to shed light on growing problems so that the private, public, and non-profit sector can drive meaningful change. 

A picture is worth a thousand words

Humans struggle to understand patterns from numbers in a table. Our brains tend to see these numerals as words rather than as insights of the story that they actually represent. When this data is visualized in a graphic, however, our brains are able to much more easily quantify measures in terms of patterns and understand much more information. 

Edward Tufte’s famous example of coding information proves this point. In the table, our brains are unable to draw any meaningful insights. But when we visualize these datapoints, Tufte points out that the “Graphics reveal data. Indeed graphics can be more precise and revealing than conventional statistical computations.”

An image of datatables with random numbers. There are four tables, each with two columns labeled "x" and "y," respectively. The purpose of the image is to show how difficult it is to comprehend trends and relationships between the x's and the y's when presented strictly numbers.
A data table demonstrating the difficulty in understanding trends and relationships when given just raw numbers.
Source: Edward Tufte. 2001. “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” 
Four scatter plots, showing the data for the four tables in the previous image. Each shows relationships between the x and y: linear, curved and other relationships. Two of the charts have points that don't fit the trend, demonstrating that it's easy to identify outliers using this plotting method.
The same data, when visualized as scatter plots, show the patterns and outliers.
Source: Edward Tufte. 2001. “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” 

Data visualization drives decision making

The value of data visualization for decision making proved itself in 1854. The John Snow cholera map uses small bar charts on streets in London to indicate where outbreaks of cholera were appearing in the city’s center. Public health officials had been trying to understand what was causing the outbreak and previously had been unable to, until a clever data visualizer created the image below. 

A London city map showing streets labeled with street names. The streets each contain a small bar graph to show number of cholera deaths in each household
The concentration and length of these bars show a specific collection of city blocks in an attempt to discover why the trend of deaths is higher than elsewhere.

The visualization helped the city realize that the households that suffered the most from cholera were all using the same well for drinking water. This was a revelation at the time. 

The city of London spent years thereafter investing in better sewage systems to prevent well contamination. The visualization is thus so powerful because it not only revealed the nucleus of an issue, it also helped drive forward a solution that would benefit communities for years to come. 

Internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic pushed students online and caused employees to work remotely, the disparities in internet access became quickly apparent. According to the FCC, 21 million Americans and 10 million school-age children did not have internet access, and some researchers estimated that these numbers might be twice as high

America knew qualitatively that it had an internet access issue, but it didn’t always know quantitatively where those communities were.

At American Inequality, we published several pieces visualizing internet access and inequality in the U.S. to address this issue. We used our geospatial mapping to highlight areas that were struggling with the digital divide. We then partnered with a non-profit called No One Left Offline (NOLO) to distribute wi-fi hotspots across Oregon that had low internet access and needed support. The team heard testimonials from families sharing that, “I wouldn't have been able to connect to the internet without this support from NOLO.” 

As the Biden Administration is deploying $65 billion through the new infrastructure bill to provide high-speed internet to communities, they have explained that they plan to rely on maps like these to make data-driven decisions about where to allocate their funding. 

Opportunity mapping for better solutions

Every graph is a comparison. Geospatial graphs in particular highlight comparisons across regions. This allows decision makers to understand where to direct their efforts. 

When we see a map like the one above, our eyes may flash towards the regions in red. These are the regions that are particularly struggling with a challenge. However, businesses and policymakers should also look to the regions in blue to learn from what may be working well. This practice is called opportunity mapping.

Inequality cuts across housing, healthcare, education, taxes, race, gender, and location. American Inequality analyzes the intersections of these social spheres to identify solutions. 

State governments have been using this data practice for years, and it’s time to bring it to communities. Research has shown that as states increasingly struggle with the effects of climate change, state government officials are turning to other states that have been navigating these challenges for years. For example, New Jersey urban planners engaged researchers and local policymakers from Hawaii after Hurricane Sandy so that New Jersey could learn how the island nation had been navigating rising tides for decades. 

Deeper data on counties instead of states can make it easier to tailor proposals for communities. This will allow researchers and activists to build data visualizations with purpose in mind.

Analytics and impact

Data visualization is a powerful tool for making a difference. It can help change-makers understand where to direct their efforts amidst a sea of information on complex topics. 

As leaders in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors continue to use data visualizations to make decisions, the key will be to observe both what is not working as well as what is working well. Cholera maps were able to show public health officials where the issues were, but they also needed to understand where the solutions existed to maintain clear water supplies.

At American Inequality, we include a path forward in every article to suggest some of the ways that we can learn from data visualizations to improve the lives of many. The U.S. is battling against a tide of injustice in housing, healthcare, education, taxes, racism, sexism, and location turns out to be a huge driver of these disparities. Data visualization can shed light on these issues, but most importantly, it can help drive meaningful change. 

Headshot of Jeremy Ney
Jeremy Ney

Jeremy is the author of American Inequality, a publication that uses data visualization to shed light on U.S. inequality topics. He previously worked at the Federal Reserve and joined Google after earning his MBA from MIT and his MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School. 

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