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Using GIS Mapping to Tell a Better Story

Social Workers and other nonprofit professionals are regularly called upon to improve transparency and prove that their work is having some effect on the communities that they serve. It is also important that nonprofit professionals understand the needs and influences of those communities. Gathering this data can be tedious ,and analyzing it can be even more of a challenge. Once you overcome those hurdles, it creates a pathway to reporting the information in a way that tells an effective story, and GIS mapping is one of the tools that can assist you with this process.

What is GIS Mapping?

Example of a GIS Map
Example of a GIS Map

GIS Mapping is a tool that many other disciplines use for a wide variety of purposes. Programmers use the software to develop maps for games or simulations. Ecologists use it to study plant and wildlife populations and migrations. Human service providers can use GIS maps to learn about the communities that they work with.

GIS Maps can show a great deal of data in a way that is easily recognizable and understood. You can track the number of people who live in a set radius that use your services. You can track demographics- age, race, gender, income, etc. You can even track other service providers in the area to identify assets and gaps. The picture posted with this article shows access to green spaces for minorities in LA. If it’s geographically based- you can track it and tell about it.

Where does the information come from?

Many nonprofits are already using database software, such as SalesForce or Raiser’s Edge, to track demographics and statistics of their clients, volunteers, and donors. Adding those numbers to a GIS Mapping software is as simple as exporting the file from a database (or creating your own using Excel) and uploading it. Sure, there’s more to it than that but essentially- that’s all it is. The file needs to be structured a certain way (e.g.: [street address], [city], [state], [zip]) and it has to be the right type (.csx). The SalesForce database I personally work with does this automatically. It’s likely that many others do as well.

Your agency’s personally gathered information is then layered onto a special geographical map file called a ‘shapefile’.  Shapefiles contain geocoded information including: GPS, streets, boundaries, and more. Those shapefiles are available on many government databases for free. For example, to find a shapefile for San Mateo County, a quick Google search of ‘san mateo county shapefile’ led me here. The Census hosts a large wealth of information broken down into just about any possible way you’d want it- and pretty much all of it is possible to export into a GIS Map. Data broken down into counties, cities, jurisdictional districts, and even neighborhoods is available for your use.

What Can Nonprofits Use This Information For?

GIS maps are able to show impacts, needs, and assets. They can help you answer questions such as:

  •  “What is the relationship between service provider’s locations and the population they serve?”
  • “What public transportation options are available for my service community?”
  • “Where have we lost consumers? What’s different about their locations?”
  • “What problems do people in this neighborhood report that the next one doesn’t?”

Maps are easy to understand and show more information. Showing someone a pie-chart of the cities you serve isn’t as powerful as being able to break it down by neighborhood. Readers can point to where they live and think- “Wow, people I live near need these services too”. Maps click with people in a way that graphs and charts can’t.

Where Can I Get GIS Mapping Software?

Probably the most popular and potentially most versatile platform is Esri’s ArcGIS.  You can use this on a computer or mobile device. It’s about $2,500 a year for what most nonprofits will use- discounts may be available for 501c3’s.

There are other Open Source projects that are free, and sometimes provides support through an online community of users. A popular Open Source GIS program is QGIS :

You can see a great comparison of popular GIS software on Wikipedia.

Shapefiles and data files are available all over the place. The Census has a wealth of information on demographics. Local (or not so local) universities collect data in their Urban Planning departments that they are usually generous in sharing. I can speak to the University of Michigan offering this information to non-students. You can usually find specific state or county shapefiles on their government websites. If the geographical file is too large, you can only find a state shapefile despite needing a county shapefile, you can cut out the parts you don’t need and use geocoded information such as census tracts.

What are the Downsides to GIS Mapping?

GIS mapping requires the ability to use a computer. It requires time and an understanding of the information you’re trying to display. Some people are turned off by having to learn newfangled things.

GIS Mapping is limited to geospatial data. If you’re trying to show an outcomes that isn’t somehow tied to a geographically based variable, GIS is not for you.

Esri has taken the time to write a little report specifically on the uses of GIS in human services. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest you check it out.

Written by Rachel Lendzion

Rachel Lendzion obtained her MSW from the University of Michigan where she studied Community Organizing and Nonprofit Management. She is strongly interested in the intersection of technology and social change. Her background includes work with transitional aged youth and persons without stable living conditions. She hopes to forward her career through nonprofit development and marketing. You can learn more on her website: For regular posts on the use of technology and social work, follow her on Twitter.