Since the technology was developed in the 1960s, geographic information systems (GIS) have been used by corporations, urban planners and public health officials to determine new business locations, make infrastructure decisions and pinpoint the spread of disease.
But the sophisticated mapping software � which organizes and displays geospatial, demographic, socioeconomic and other data � is just beginning to be widely embraced by the social work profession as a powerful tool for research, planning and effective delivery of services to those in need.
The USC School of Social Work remains an early leader in using the technology and in developing curriculum centered on the benefits and applications of GIS for analyzing needs and gaps in a community, and for policymaking, research and service provision.
“If Pizza Hut can use GIS to figure out the best route to deliver pizza, why not use it as a tool for social justice?” said Gokul Mandayam, assistant clinical professor at the USC School of Social Work, who has developed a new elective on the topic.
He and Ph.D. candidate Dennis Kao gave a presentation on GIS applications in the profession at the Council for Social Work Education Annual Program Meeting in October. Since 2005, Mandayam also has included a segment on GIS in his evaluation research course and has coordinated annual brown-bag lunch discussions in conjunction with international GIS Day on Nov. 14.
“GIS empowers people with information,” Kao added. “It identifies community assets and needs and whether the delivery of services is having an impact.”
Mandayam noted that social workers such as Jane Addams helped pioneer the social survey movement � which documented and mapped the living conditions of the poor in the inner cities at the turn of the 19th century � and that utilizing GIS technology is just an extension of that early work.
One factor in why GIS has not been widely used in social work to date is because the collection of the necessary data for social work applications tends to be complex and from more disparate sources than in other fields. As with any information-driven program, “the analysis is only as good as the data,” Mandayam cautioned.
Today, information increasingly available for GIS analysis is collected at the block level � rather than the less precise ZIP code level, which limited the kind of research and mapping that could be done, said Jacquelyn McCroskey, the John Milner Professor of Child Welfare and a leading activist for child and family services.
McCroskey has been using GIS to identify and fill gaps in services and to help change policymaking and budgeting of countywide resources since the early 1990s through her work with the Children’s Planning Council and more recently with First 5 L.A., the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council and the Healthy City Project.
Others at the School of Social Work, including Bruce Jansson � the Margaret W. Driscoll/Louise M. Clevenger Professor of Social Policy and Administration � and associate professor Ramon Salcido have incorporated GIS into their work. And clinical associate professor Esther Gillies plans to use the tool in the school’s field-placement program.
GIS has proven particularly effective in Los Angeles, with the county’s large and diverse population, McCroskey said.
“Services in Los Angeles are often so fragmented and uncoordinated, and the systems are huge,” she explained.
Exacerbating the challenges are the size of the county, which covers 4,000 square miles; the number of political jurisdictions, including 88 cities, more than 20 county departments and 81 school districts; a large number of agencies and other entities all with different service boundaries; and the vast disparity in types of need and available resources in various locations.
A one-size-fits-all solution simply would not work here, and that’s what makes GIS so valuable, she said.
McCroskey was one of the founders of the Children’s Planning Council, created in 1991 to promote, coordinate and evaluate the effectiveness of programs for children countywide. Since its inception, the council has used GIS mapping as a tool to achieve a more equitable distribution of resources for children and families.
Her more recent work with Healthy City has become a national model of how an interactive data platform can support the social-service needs of a community. Social workers, clients, policymakers and others can use Healthy City’s online portal to find a wide range of services � from day care and housing to health care and job training � and locate the providers closest to them.
When $500 million in preschool funding became available, Healthy City was able to identify the specific ZIP codes with large concentrations of preschool-age children without access � these areas got the highest priority for initial funding.
“GIS is a very powerful concept in a big county like Los Angeles,” she said. “You can look at the intersection of need, existing supports and resources, location of families and children, and the implications of a mismatch in terms of funding, planning and evaluation.”
It also makes for more informed decision-making on resource allocation, she noted.
“It’s been a 15-year journey,” she said of how GIS mapping has helped change the county’s approach to service delivery for children and families. “We’re continuing to deepen the understanding for the potential of this tool. I’ve been pleased and amazed at how it has helped us reach common ground in decision-making. You have to be concerned about equity and access for everyone, especially if you’re in government. Funding processes are political.”
The old approach used to be “divide by five,” she said, referring to the five districts within the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. But today, funding takes into consideration the specific needs and existing resources, or lack thereof, in each area.
“It’s a balancing act,” McCroskey said. “The more data you have � such as the number of children, the poverty rates, single-family home rates � the more informed the decision-making. We’re looking at the county as a whole.”