How Cities Are Utilizing Visual Data to Solve Community Problems

Some municipalities are using visual data solutions to address social concerns, others are improving internal operations and delivery of services

By Mary Velan


Local governments across the country are realizing the value of data solutions and advanced analytics to better understand community needs, and develop and deploy efficient solutions. Some municipalities are using data solutions to address social concerns, while others are optimizing the technology to improve internal operations and delivery of services.

Tackling Poverty and Inequality

One common way cities have embraced data technology is by creating interactive maps that place data points in different locations within a community. The goal of data visualization tools such as maps is to illustrate patterns or trends of certain activities to educate the public and enhance decision making. The visualization tools help local governments, community organizations and residents monitor behaviors and leverage the data to incite policy action. In fact, many communities are using data visualizations to impact legislators and fight poverty and inequality.

Data visualization tools have evolved greatly in recent years. What was once used as a basic mapping tool to showcase community amenities can now be leveraged to identify municipal problems, develop solutions and monitor results. Data visualization technology has already proved success in:

  • Improving building and food inspections
  • Monitoring real-time traffic congestion and public transportation
  • Simulating natural disasters before they occur
  • Engaging citizens in municipal service delivery, small business decisions and land use planning

Many cities are now working to link data visualizations to expose and tackle systemic issues that lie deeper and are harder to remedy - such as poverty and inequality, GovTech reported.

At the 14th Project Municipal Innovation Advisory Group meeting, a panel of data experts discussed the different strategies cities can deploy directly shape policies that address poverty and inequality with data visualizations. When discussing poverty and inequality, cities typically refer to maps for crime rates, school retention and infant mortality measures. To understand why certain neighborhoods demonstrate higher concentrations of inequality and poverty indicators, the experts recommend cities overly these maps with existing geographical distribution of service delivery. In doing so, decision makers can see where services are more or less accessible to better allocate budgetary dollars in the future and eliminate any potential underlying discrimination.

Likewise, cities can use spatial correlation analysis to identify which neighborhoods are high-performing and understand why these trends occur. Some communities may demonstrate poor marks for economic indicators but high marks in community wellness. Data visualizations can help decision makers determine what is causing these results.

Furthermore, cities are encouraged to use regression over space and time to dig deep into root causes of poverty and inequality. When cities take into account, they can better track communities that may benefit from early intervention to prevent downturns or regressions in the future, GovTech reported.

All of the recommended strategies hinge on one key factor: citizen engagement. The panel of experts agree that policy officers and data officers must work collaboratively to monitor trends and identify problems or successes. But spending time to educate the public on what is happening in the community using data visualizations is vital to developing long-term solutions that will receive strong support.


The King County Assessor in Washington has developed a single platform for location-specific information that goes beyond providing just property data. The King County Assessor's office unveiled Localscape as a tool to analyze and share data layers in the Seattle area such as:
  • Census
  • Education
  • Economic development
  • Permitting information from local jurisdictions

Through the use of data mapping and aerial navigation, Localscape allows users to explore different data points in their community through comprehensive toggling and layering functions. The tool is designed to provide access to a plethora of data sets in a single platform, rather than searching for the information in independent silos. The goal of Localscape is to increase transparency and accessibility while engaging citizens in the ever-changing landscape of the Seattle area.

Users can explore new development projects in a specific neighborhood, monitor property values and pull up a history of permitting information for any plot of land on the map. Localscape allows people to dig through data at the property level, as well as explore neighborhoods as a whole through analysis of various information layers. Users can also examine demographic data for a specific neighborhood, compare educational opportunities or economic activity, Route Fifty reported.

At the local government level, officials can use the data to support accelerated decision making. The data tool can bring up archives of community information to illustrate trends that are impacted by policy. If a city makes adjustments, officials can monitor the changes or results in real-time with data analytics and mapping. This allows officials to better understand the needs of the community and ensure services provided directly match demands.

Microsoft's Civic Graph

Microsoft released a Civic Graph to provide an interactive visual of civic innovators in locations worldwide. The graph aims to be a living tool that acts as a crowdsourced guide for civic tech's developing network of connections. The Civic Graph allows users to upload new data in real-time, which then triggers the graph to expand its visualizations of:
  • Funding opportunities or activities
  • Data usage
  • Collaboration projects
  • Social media activity
  • Employment estimates

The overall goal of the Civic Graph is to create a comprehensive tool to track the community of civic technology innovators worldwide. Local governments can utilize the graph to identify where civic tech is blossoming and where tech resources and opportunities are falling short. Then cities can pump resources and amenities into specific neighborhoods to spur future civic technology development and support economic growth.

Similarly, nonprofit organizations can harness the graph data to define civic strategies, while residents and businesses can use the tool to determine where key growth industries are booming globally. When organizations and individuals understand where innovators are brainstorming, funding and resources can be invested to participate in the growth and engage existing stakeholders. This encourages cross-sector collaboration to leverage the latest technologies to solve social and economic problems at the local level, GovTech reported.

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