As we all know, technology can often be an enormous pain. Just ask the President of the United States how our government’s health care website is doing this month. But there are also times when technology opens the world in ways that create debate, surprise, anger, disagreement, and sometimes even change.
A great example of this could be found in a classroom on the campus of Stanford University earlier this week. At a presentation hosted by the school’s Department of Urban Studies, guest lecturer Amy Hillier offered her groundbreaking and provocative research that is based on a simple premise: if technology now allows us to easily map the migratory patterns of blue billed firefinches or the location of every Starbucks within five square miles of our home, then why not a more important subject such as the lack of stores to buy healthy food in poor neighborhoods? “Maps are propositions,” said Hillier. “They are really arguments about the world.”
Hillier, a professor at the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice in Philadelphia, characterizes herself as a social worker trained in the rapidly expanding field of “GIS” or geographic information systems. It’s a technical field, spurred by a growing number of new tools that allow researchers to mesh geographic features with gathered data and visually picture the result.
Hillier has made a nice career out of it too, slyly referring to GIS as “guaranteed income security.” She claims she would not have her prestigious faculty position today if she was not trained in this highly specialized field.
The Penn professor initially drew a great deal of attention to her work in 2011 when she delivered a powerful presentation at the TED Conference. In that 20 minute talk, Hillier described her work in creating maps around issues such as housing discrimination, physical activities in urban parks, and public health. Since then, Hillier’s mapping projects have led to some interesting changes in the heavily urbanized East Coast.
Her presentation at Stanford focused on more recent health-related work involving inner city neighborhoods in Philadelphia and poor areas outside of the city. In one project, Hillier’s students collected GPS data on outdoor advertising strewn among local neighborhoods where kids hung out. Not surprisingly, they found that the vast majority of signs advertised liquor, tobacco, and unhealthy sodas.
Working with the Philadelphia City Council, Hillier and her team managed to secure passage of new regulations that restricted the size of ads in shop windows and building fronts. While enforcement of the new laws may be difficult, Hillier is now working on an app where the law and sign violations can be easily displayed on a tablet or smartphone that would be shown to offending merchants. “Luckily, the data I’ve collected has become part of the discussion,” said Hillier.
In another project, Hiller and her students interviewed residents in Chester, a low-income community just south of Philadelphia, about their food shopping habits. In most urban towns, there is at least one grocery store. But Chester had been without a store since 2001.
Hillier’s team found that not only was there no grocery store, but that residents were driving vast distances to shop for their “unhealthy” meats and processed snacks. All of this was neatly captured in powerful mapping visuals that reflected the data she had gathered. As Hillier points out, “With GIS, we find that human behavior is not as simple as we were thinking it was.”
The outcome was the recent opening by a regional food bank of a non-profit store in Chester called Fair & Square, which specializes in carrying healthy food.
Hillier believes that her work in the GIS field is playing an important role in answering a key question: why do our cities look like this and what are we going to do about it? Thanks to her team’s research and use of technology at Penn, some local residents are finally getting those questions answered.