Understanding FEMA Disaster Declarations

Natural disasters are “in” right now. Hurricane season is picking up, people in New Orleans and across the globe are commemorating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and residents of the West Coast are growing increasingly anxious about the next big earthquake. A recent feature in the New York Times visualizes the physical and economic impact of natural disasters throughout the country.

We’ve added the locations of federally-declared disaster areas to PolicyMap, and we hope this new data makes it easier to look at natural and man-made disasters in a policy context. These designations are from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They are represented as polygons made up of clusters of counties and American Indian/Alaska Native Areas/Hawaiian Home Lands where state governments have requested and received federal aid for a disaster. Disasters from the past five years (2010 – 2014) are included on PolicyMap in the Quality of Life menu. The map below shows floods:

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Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Update

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program is a federal program that has been implemented over the last three decades to encourage the acquisition, rehabilitation, and new construction of rental housing targeted to lower-income households. Since its inception in 1986, LIHTC has contributed to the leveraging of nearly $100 billion in private investment capital, resulting in the financing of almost 2.8 million housing units. It is one of the nation’s most critical tools for creating and rehabilitating affordable housing.
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It’s a Papal Party in the USA

Philadelphia is abuzz in anticipation of Pope Francis I’s September visit to the United States. Pope Francis is visiting the city as part of a six-day trip to the United States, culminating in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on September 26th-27th. In recent months the news has been about the logistical aspects of the Pope’s visit as the estimated number of religious pilgrims to visit Philadelphia is expected to exceed almost 1.5 million people.


One notable logistical point is that many of the roads going in and out of Philadelphia’s Center City and the adjoining West Philadelphia areas will be shut down to incoming vehicular traffic prior to and during the Pope’s visit. These are the areas where most of the events surrounding the Pope’s visit will take place. City officials have created a “traffic box” aimed at preventing increased congestion on the area’s main throughways.

In order to better understand the potential impact of these restrictions, we used PolicyMap’s Tables tool to evaluate the two areas affected by the Papal visit. We found that 83,021 people live in the Center City area, with 10,475 denizens in the West Philadelphia area. Center City is served by seven hospitals, while three hospitals serve West Philadelphia. With the two areas being served by 31 grocery retail locations and 85 bank branches, access to these services could be significantly affected over the weekend. To get a sense of where these resources are located within Center City and West Philadelphia, zoom in further on the map below.

Hospitals in both areas are navigating issues surrounding accessibility for expectant mothers while local markets are addressing issues regarding food deliveries to cope with the traffic ban. The restriction on travel will have both a positive and potentially negative impact on the lives of local residents, yet this once-in-a-lifetime experience will be remembered by many for years to come.

Pope Francis bobblehead courtesy of Thomas Sprott
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Congratulations and Good Luck, Katie Nelson!

I cannot believe this is Katie’s last full week with us.  I cannot believe we won’t see her smiling, intelligent face every day here at PolicyMap.  I cannot believe I actually offered to write this blog post… 

Katie Nelson – one of our earliest hires at PolicyMap – is leaving us.  Sure, she is leaving us to attend Rutgers University’s Bloustein School to earn her PhD.  Sure, she received a full scholarship.  Sure, it is an amazing path for her future.  But we can’t help ourselves.  We behave like small children when we whine “what about us?” 

Katie has been instrumental in all things related to PolicyMap –  from analyzing data, to developing new product features, to managing groundbreaking projects like www.cultureblocks.com, to running our NSP work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to managing the installation of a city wide instance of PolicyMap for the City of Philadelphia.  But even more than all of this,  she has been part of an incredible team which has grown from 3 people to 11 people and will soon become 16 people. 

And, so, while we have convinced her to stay on with us as a Fellow, working with us on projects from time-to-time, it won’t be the same. 

Who will… 

–      Be late for work because she gave her toddler the car keys while standing on top of a sewer grate;

–      Sustain a hematoma on her leg while skiing and come into work the next day insisting everything is fine (really);

–      Have her mother drive her My Little Pony collection to Philly from Washington so that she could bomb Phil Vu’s office;

–      Debate the differences among Swedish Fish (large and small), gummy bears and Fruit Roll-ups; 

–      Analyze Sunday night’s episode of the Walking Dead with us on Monday mornings.  We are really going to feel this one. OMG. It won’t be the same. 

Okay, I should stop.  We are saying good-bye, but not forever.  She is going to rock Rutgers and we wish her much success with PhD.  She deserves every minute of it and we hope she’ll be back to us as Dr. Katharine Nelson.  She is a star. 

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Color Me Curious: Why PolicyMap Maps are Purple

Data visualization is a powerful tool—colors can provide very meaningful context, but they can just as easily make for a very misleading representation of your information. There are a few things to think about when choosing colors to symbolize your data, namely, color properties, connotations, and relationships to other objects or features on the ground.


Munsell’s cylindrical arrangement of colors: the horizontal line represents chroma (saturation), the vertical line represents value (lightness) and the circle represents hue.

The technical portion of color choice deals with how colors are interpreted by the human eye, and how they look on our computer screens. Colors have three distinct properties: hue (the name of the color), value (lightness or darkness), and saturation (brightness or dullness). Because colors have these intrinsic qualities, we are able to use variations on these properties to give meaning to our data. This means that rather than using a spectral (rainbow) color scheme to represent information, we can provide color gradients to allow people to see gradual changes. Rainbow colors are not necessarily bad when used for categorical data, such as types of program eligibility, but seem nonsensical when used to represent continuous data (i.e. temperature, or crime rates).

Some colors are more difficult to see and distinguish than others (yellow, for example), while other colors might seem to make a statement about your data (red, for instance, may imply something bad). It is also important to remain aware of relationships with other map features, which is why displaying data as blue or green (colors typically used for bodies of water or parks) could make it more difficult for someone to differentiate between said features.

At PolicyMap, we use purple as the default setting for our maps. This isn’t due to branding, or to our love for singer-songwriter Prince, rather, we use purple because it is an attractive and non-deceptive way to represent a broad range of datasets. We can also use supplementary colors to strengthen our visualizations; here at PolicyMap we often use the color orange to display negative values.

Use the map below to take a look at how we represent population change in purple and orange. In this case, the saturation of each color reflects the estimated percent rise or decline of population.

There are myriad ways to display information on a map, and we hope that this brief introduction to color and visualizations has provided some helpful pointers to help you choose how best to represent your own data! For a more complete discussion, check out our Mapchat: The Art of Making Maps.


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It’s a SNAP… Affordable, Farm-Fresh Produce!

It’s National Farmers’ Market Week! To us here at PolicyMap, farmers’ markets are more than a place to pick the perfect summer tomato. As direct farm-to-consumer sales locations, farmers’ markets connect shoppers to the agricultural systems that grow our fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

Farmers MarketsIncreasingly, farmers’ markets are growing more accessible to low-income consumers. As of 2015, 27 percent of farmers’ markets accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP is a federal program that allows low-income and unemployed persons to purchase food. Though most supermarkets accept SNAP, many of the locations accepting benefits are corner stores, mini-marts, and other small locations not known for their fresh produce. In areas where food options are limited, farmers’ markets can be an important source of nutrition for low-income people. The map below shows the rate of SNAP-Authorized stores per person, with the locations of farmers markets accepting SNAP:

Farmers’ markets present many challenges to low-income shoppers. They are often open only one day per week, and some may not be transit accessible. Additionally, the cost of farm-fresh food can be high, and is sometimes out of reach for those on a tight budget. Many farmers’ markets and other food retail locations are now able provide financial incentives that increase the value of SNAP benefits, thanks to Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants, a new USDA program. This program allows SNAP recipients to supplement their food budget with additional fruits and vegetables.

Data on SNAP benefits and farmers’ markets are also updated on the Healthy Food Access Portal Research Your Community interactive mapping tool, where you can learn more about how farmers’ markets fit into local food access strategies.

Market photo by flickr user Phil Roeder
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Mapchats – The Art of Maps

The Art of Maps

Data is the key to maps. But show that data in a confusing, unattractive, or misleading way, and the power of your data is lost. Normally, Mapchats focus on using good data, but this time we focus on the nuts and bolts of making good maps.

PolicyMap’s popular Mapchats series continued 7/28/15 with a panel of leaders in online mapping, including Robert Cheetham from Azavea, Jake Garcia from Foundation Center, and PolicyMap’s own Bernie Langer. The topics of discussion include picking the right colors for a map, choosing the right map for the right data, and how to make a good map show change over time.
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Winner of the First #DataWiz Contest!

We just wrapped up our first DataWiz contest and wow, the responses definitely set the bar high. We received submissions in the form of tweets, emails, Census FIPS codes, and even original maps. It was, in a word, impressive.

In case you didn’t catch the quiz question, we asked, “What are the most racially diverse places in the U.S.?” Granted, this was an open-ended question and that was intentional on our part. We know that diversity and place can be interpreted in a number of different ways: is diversity most meaningfully measured at the scale of a neighborhood? County? City? The responses definitely reflected this variety. Some people gave the name of a neighborhood, a Census tract ID, or the name of a county.

We defined the answer as: the county containing the Census tract with the highest diversity index value and we used race and ethnicity data from the American Community Survey 2009-2013 5-year averages. The correct answer turned out to be Anchorage, Alaska, meaning that there were actually two winners: Philly’s own Jake Riley and Twitter user @bomberterp. Congratulations to you both!

Both winners will receive some classy PolicyMap swag. Extra nerd points go out to Jake for also submitting a map of the top 10 most diverse tracts and for describing his methodology. Well done!

In case you’re curious, the Census FIPS code of the most diverse tract is: 02020000901. Not far behind were tracts in Queens, NY, Pierce County, WA and Honolulu, HI.

Stay tuned for the next #DataWiz contest!

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Looking for the Local Boundaries?

You might have noticed that our Map Boundaries menu has been cleaned up a bit. We have removed the Local Boundaries menu. As the name implies, these boundaries are mainly localize boundaries and can only be seen if you are in the city or state that they represent which was why we have removed them for all users.

Local Boundaries

We have only removed them from display so don’t worry, they are still there and can be added to your account easily. Below is the list of available Local Boundaries (in alphabetical order) that can be added to your account;
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Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 25

This upcoming Sunday, July 26th marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by President George H.W. Bush.  Since its signing into law, the ADA has enabled millions of Americans with disabilities to participate in the workforce by removing legal barriers to employment. This landmark piece of legislation prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities within the workplace as well as in receiving services from federal, state, and local governments.

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2010, there were 56.7 million Americans with disabilities, representing 19 percent of the civilian non-institutionalized population.  Median earning for individuals with disabilities in the past 12 months is $20,885, amounting to 68 percent of overall median earnings, $30,928.

In 2014, 17.1 percent of individuals with a disability were employed and the unemployment rate for individuals with a disability decreased by 12.5 percent from 2013 to 2014. The United States Department of Labor Statistics notes most individuals with disabilities were employed in the education and health services, retail trade, professional and business services, and manufacturing industries.

PolicyMap has several indicators in the Demographics menu about individuals with disabilities. Featured below is the data by employment, displaying state-level data for individuals with disabilities who are employed in the workforce. Zoom in further to see the data displayed at more local levels.

Data mapped by PolicyMap, an online GIS mapping tool.
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