Everyone likes pretty pictures

Map of Ex-Offender Employment Options, from http://www.spatialinformationdesignlab.org

So it’s been established that I am very spatially challenged. Still true. My oldest son spends practically the entire time that we’re at our local petting zoo just looking at the map that shows the place, and he calls from his carseat in the back of our van, “Mommy, why are we turning around again?” whenever Mommy is trying to go to a new place.

And he’s only three. Sigh.

But, I can certainly appreciate a great map, and how this kind of visual presentation can help people to connect with data in new ways, and, most importantly, expose new patterns and new insights that can transform what we do with data, too.

That’s why I’m so excited about NonprofitMapping. It’s a project that is collecting data about the impact of the current recession on the nonprofit landscape across the country, and, interestingly, actually rating states based on the quality of their information about the nonprofit sector. When states can see themselves on a map as being deficient in what they collect and disseminate about the existence (and, hopefully, soon, the effectiveness) of nonprofits in their state, it should lead to a more systematic examination of the sector, that can only serve our interests of better defining our value and articulating our impact. I don’t totally agree with the premise that the loss of nonprofits in a given area is necessarily a bad thing, and I even have hope that some of the reduction in numbers of nonprofits during this recession is a sign that less-effective ones are fading away and that good programs are finding ways to consolidate and grow to scale, but I am completely on board with their open-source strategy and ambitious goal of changing how we think about and look at nonprofit organizations nationwide. For social work advocates, who have such compelling stories to tell and, increasingly, even good data at our fingertips, the next challenge is to figure out how to tell those stories in powerful and visual ways, in order to resonate with today’s audience.

One of my favorite parts about NonprofitMapping, then, is not even their own work but their “blog roll”, of sorts, where they list other awesome mapping projects, like the Justice Mapping Center (criminal justice and policy information), and the completely awesome Map4Change (‘discover’ injustice by looking at maps like this one, and then click on their site to take action and find groups of others concerned about the same issues!!!).

The folks at MapTogether will definitely be hearing from me–they provide free map-related training and tools for nonprofit and community groups. They have a free guide to GIS and online mapping tools that even I can understand. They’re also working to make maps more accessible, including braille and audio features.

In today’s crowded information environment, social justice advocates need every advantage to help our appeals receive the attention they deserve. This is especially true in the context of the transparency movement, which will (assuming it succeeds) increase the amount of information available and increase, therefore, the importance of finding ways to make sense of the data. We may never be into orienteering like my husband and son, but we can rely on these outstanding partners to help us better use the rapidly-evolving tools at our disposable to, pardon the pun, put our issues on the map.

And, while you’re at it, there’s this neighborhood where my son’s friend lives that I ALWAYS get lost in…

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