PolicyMap named a Philadelphia Social Innovation

PolicyMap: An Innovative Data Collection and Analysis Tool for all Sectors
Written by Linshuang Lu, Christina Miller and Sarah Singer Quast

“PolicyMap. Good Data. Good Decisions.” That tagline captures both the purpose of PolicyMap and what drives the team behind this innovative new tool. Everyone—from funders to the general public—is placing increasing pressure on public and nonprofit sector programs to make “data-driven” decisions. Good data, however, can be costly and time-consuming to gather, not to mention difficult to analyze and interpret.

Data-mapping software has emerged as a critical tool for helping everyone from large government agencies to small nonprofits analyze and present place-based data more effectively. Until recently, however, mapping data required significant expertise and software investment.

Enter PolicyMap. Launched in 2007 with seed funding from The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a Philadelphia-based organization committed to community investment, PolicyMap offers datasets combined with powerful mapping technology, without expensive software or training. Through PolicyMap, users have access to customizable data and tools that can help them map their own data. PolicyMap aims to provide and present information in ways that help users make better and timelier decisions.

The Problem: Cumbersome Data Analysis and Dissemination
The policy world is flooded with information from a seemingly endless array of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), and the Internal Revenue Service. In the past, answering questions like, “Where should I invest next?”, “What programs and services already exist in this community?” and “Who are the people in this neighborhood?” meant embarking on the time-consuming task of compiling information from such sources, using specialized software to map data, and then sharing results with others either in printed copy or via a computer disk.

In TRF’s experience, this process too often resulted in data that had taken immeasurable hours to compile sitting untouched on a client’s desk or, worse, becoming outdated before someone got around to using them. It was this issue that prompted TRF to wonder how the power of the Internet could be harnessed to make the collection and analysis of data both easier and more accessible.

The Solution: Create a Dynamic Web-Based Data Platform
TRF’s expertise in working with place-based data combined with its core business of investing in community development positioned the organization well for developing a new online mapping tool targeting public policy and program stakeholders. However, TRF leadership recognized early on that they would need to bring on additional technical expertise. TRF chose to partner with Placebase, a West Coast company that offers mapping services to both nonprofit and corporate clients, to launch PolicyMap.

Initially, TRF believed that Placebase would help PolicyMap build the service, and then the PolicyMap team would turn their attention to marketing—in other words, that tool development and marketing would happen in sequential phases. However, PolicyMap and Placebase quickly realized that a static online mapping application would not last long, particularly in light of rapidly-changing technology and possible competition from giants like Google. Just as they saw static maps on a CD become obsolete, a web-based tool that did not continue to evolve would also become obsolete. As such, tool development and marketing are ongoing processes, rather than one-time events, working in tandem with one another. PolicyMap constantly adds new datasets and new capabilities to its application. Recently, PolicyMap added a data loader that allows subscribers to map their own datasets, overlay those with pre-populated data, and produce custom maps to share with others.

Read the rest of this great article by Linshuang Lu, Christina Miller and Sarah Singer Quast on the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal website.