Good Planning Begins with Good Data: Mapping Tools for Community Organizers

Good Planning Begins with Good Data: Mapping Tools for Community Organizers


Recently I had the opportunity to co-teach an elective, Good Planning Begins with Good Data, for the Citizens Planning Institute.  The Citizens Planning Institute, organized and operated by the City of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission, has a mission “to empower citizens to take a more effective and active role in shaping the future of their neighborhoods and of Philadelphia, through a greater understanding of city planning and the steps involved in development projects.”  CPI teaches community organizers and activists about the role of good planning and implementation to enrich their communities and neighborhoods in which they live.  CPI provides two programs yearly which enroll about 25 students each.  Each program includes a rigorous application process and a curriculum of core and elective courses.

The three hour elective course, Good Planning Begins with Good Data, discussed how data informs better decisions and the importance of collecting and presenting data accurately.  The course had the highest enrollment and interest of any elective ever offered by CPI and included the current program’s students as well as many alums.  There was clearly an unmet need among Philadelphia’s community organizers for instruction on locating, assembling and presenting data in meaningful ways.

In order to demonstrate the key principles of our topics, the course focused on the case study of a hypothetical vacant lot in North Philadelphia that had potential to be converted to a community garden.

Mark Wheeler of the City Planning Commission discussed available City resources for accessing planning, zoning and property data such as:,, OPA Property Search and more.  Lauren Gilchrist described how to access key census data tables using American FactFinder and analyze and aggregate the data with key Excel commands.  She also described the best methods for creating web and in person surveys for collecting data.

The portion of the course that I taught was on the available tools for mapping data as well as the best way to engage experts in the arena of mapping data.  Below is a Q and A featuring the most interesting topics and questions from my talk:

Q: Why bother mapping your organization’s data?

A:  Visualizing data is a powerful way to tell your story.  Maps are easier for your constituents to understand than a huge database of information.  And by mapping your data, you can expose hidden patterns and relationships in your data.

Q: What is spatial data?

A: Spatial data is data that defines a geographic boundary or location.  This data comes in many forms: it can be point data such as addresses of constituents, it can be boundary data such as census tracts with demographics.  It can also be grid-based such as land cover or aerial imagery.

Q: How should I format the data I collect?

A: When you collect data, be sure to store it in a spreadsheet such as Excel.  Assign a unique ID to each record and store address information in separate columns (address, city, state and zip).  Keep the document as clean and simple as possible.  This guide is helpful in understanding how you should prepare your data if you plan to map it.

Q: What desktop and web mapping tools exist?

A: The most popular desktop mapping tool is Esri’s ArcGIS desktop software which has discount licenses available for home or nonprofit use.  QGIS is also a great option for desktop GIS. It’s open source software with a lot of geoprocessing tools.

 A great tool for learning QGIS is the QGIS Training Manual.  Desktop tools can have a steep learning curve but generally have greater processing power.

Web tools offer another range of mapping capabilities and can generally be easier to use but have a pricing structure that ranges from free to an expensive monthly fee.  CartoDB is a fantastic tool with a free tier that can be used to quickly make a map.

Q: How can I engage experts to assist me in mapping?

A: Understanding a bit about how spatial analysis is used to answer questions is helpful when determining the analytical needs of your own organization.  Preparing your data using the recommendations described above (or this guide) can be really helpful to a consultant who will spatially enable your data. Azavea offers fantastic spatial analysis and mapping services for our clients.  Hopeworks, a nonprofit in Camden, also does interesting spatial analysis work while providing training opportunities to high school students.

Q: What pro bono and civic services exist to contribute to my work?

A: The Summer of Maps program is a great resource for nonprofits needing spatial analysis services.  Civic hackers such as Code For Philly and area Hackathons may also be interested in provide assistance in mapping the data your organization has if it serves as a civic resource to others.