Open Data, GIS, and Nonprofits

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The idea behind “open data” is that accessible data promotes government transparency, civic engagement, and the ability of community members to create solutions to problems within their communities. In this way, open data can be a rich resource for nonprofits.

Open data is part of an ongoing initiative for states and cities to enact policies that make data available for public use. Frequently used data includes the locations of public services, data from school districts, city and state budgets, and often, even the shapefiles used for mapping purposes.

In Philadelphia, the open data portal is accessed through OpenDataPhilly.

This portal is a repository of data that is specific to Philadelphia. Currently more than 300 datasets from 55 different organizations are available. The data can be searched by category, agency, and file type. The most common types of data are spreadsheets (.csv), shapefiles for mapping in GIS (.shp), RSS feeds, API documentation, and links to websites (HTML). In many cases, the data appears in multiple formats.

So what are real-world examples of data that nonprofits can access from OpenDataPhilly?

Geography: Building footprints; Congressional district boundaries; Land use; Police service areas; Political wards; Redevelopment certified areas; Rivers and water; Street centerline files; and zoning districts.

Services: Bike share locations; Childcare locations; City health centers; Healthy corner store locations; Hospice locations; Hospital locations; KeySpot locations; Libraries; Older adult centers; Public pools and playgrounds; Recreation facilities; Regional trails (biking and walking); Ryan White treatment providers (HIV clinics); and WIC office locations.

Statistics: Birth and death statistics by Census tract and zip code; city budgets; PSSA test scores; public school statistics; school district budgets; and voter turnout information.

GIS mapping can also be a powerful storytelling tool for nonprofits. While many of the datasets above have spreadsheets (.csv), many also have associated shapefiles. A shapefile (.shp). is geographic data that can be imported into mapping software or online. Spatial information can help nonprofits identify areas of need, areas of opportunity, and areas of change. In addition to OpenDataPhilly, the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access portal is a great resource to find shapefiles specific to Pennsylvania.

More standardized shapefiles can be found through the TIGER/ Line Shapefile portal from the U.S. Census Bureau. Here nonprofits can find census tract boundaries, ZIP codes, school districts, and more for the entire U.S. Nonprofits can use this spatial information to glean insights about questions such as:

  • How close is a location to the nearest elementary school in our service area?
  • How far will a location be from the nearest bus line?
  • How many vacant lots are in a specfic neighborhood?
  • Which watershed does pollution in this area eventually lead into?

In conjunction with census data (also freely available), nonprofits can also map the survey results for each census tract and identify areas where household income is the lowest, or the highest, and see the distribution of this data across the city.

A note on software:

Many nonprofits are facing stretched financial resources. Unfortunately, the industry standard for mapping, ArcGIS, is expensive. A great open source contender that nonprofits can use instead is the mapping software Quantum GIS, or QGIS for short. This program features a large online community and is constantly updated and improved. For nonprofits interested in learning more about GIS, a great introduction resource can be found in Anita Graser’s Learning QGIS.

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