GIS for Equity and Social Justice

Last month I went to a half-day workshop offered by the King County GIS Center on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for Equity and Social Justice. I’ve been using GIS for years, both for scientific research and for policy analysis, but have never used it explicitly for equity work. When I read about this workshop in our fabulous equity newsletter, I thought it was a great opportunity to build my skills in a way that would benefit my work here at the Agency.

The course was taught by Nicole Franklin, Chief Equity Officer for the King County Information Technology Department, and Greg Babinski, Marketing Manager for the King County GIS Center. Right away, I was impressed by the fact that King County IT has an equity officer – I thought that illustrated the thoroughness of the County’s commitment to equity across all of their departments. The course provided a broad overview of why equity and social justice is important in mapping and how to incorporate equity into your own mapping work.

One of the most interesting and eye-opening parts of the course for me was seeing examples of maps being used to perpetuate racism and injustice, including the federal government mapping out land grants to white settlers on Native American land, real estate maps that list minority communities as hazardous and unworthy of mortgages, and political district maps that divide up racial groups to dilute their political power. It’s easy to think of maps as valueless portrayals of geography rather than documents that reflect the biases of the people who created them, but these maps made the latter point very clear. For example, the instructors showed the map of Seattle below that describes lower Wallingford as a “blighted area” and the Central District as “the Negro area of Seattle.” Although this map is decades old, it’s still jarring to see such blatantly racist language used to describe the city.


Most of the course wasn’t focused on the injustices of the past, but rather on ways to lead with equity in mapping projects going forward. I wanted to share three of my key lessons learned, all of which I think can be useful to any GIS user within our Agency:

  • The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, the professional association of GIS practitioners has a code of ethics for GIS professionals. It outlines a range of obligations—to employers, colleagues, individuals, and most importantly, to society—such as to contribute to the community to the extent possible and to speak out about issues. King County GIS has its own set of GIS for Equity and Social Justice Best Practices that give more detailed guidance on how to consider equity at each step of any GIS project. I plan to follow both sets of guidance in all of my GIS projects going forward.
  • King County is in the process of publishing a lot of useful GIS datasets for anyone interested in doing GIS for equity and social justice. Some of these are simple demographic information such as Asian Population in the US, while others are more focused on social disadvantage, such as income distribution, changes in homeownership trends, and educational attainment. Datasets like these lend themselves to useful public policy insights. For example, King County found that those in the lowest income quintile in Seattle also have the lowest tree coverage in their neighborhoods. These same neighborhoods have received among the lowest levels of investment in urban tree planting. This insight led the County to change how it prioritizes its urban forestry budget.
  • By publishing a set of equity-focused GIS datasets, King County hopes to set an example of how to standardize GIS analysis for equity and social justice and make it easy for everyone to do. Not many organizations are leading in this area, so having a large organization like King County lead by example is important. Although we are not new to incorporating equity into our GIS work at PSCAA, we can certainly benefit from following King County’s lead and use their datasets to aid in our analysis.

I am already applying what I learned at the workshop in my GIS work at the Agency and looking forward to doing more in the future. 

by Joel Creswell, Ph.D, Air Resource Specialist, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency