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Digital Mapping in Social Work
By Dava Stewart
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 3 P. 16

The technology has been making inroads as a valuable tool to help solve real-world problems, but can its use be extended even further?

Relative to other fields, social work has been slow to adopt geographic information systems (GIS) as a tool for research and practice. How can GIS benefit social work? Specifically, how can it identify community needs? How can it improve the delivery of social services? How does it help communities? What are the costs and challenges associated with deploying GIS in social work? What training is typically involved?

These aren’t new questions. In fact, academics and social workers who are interested in using digital tools have been asking these same questions, or similar ones, for more than a decade. Perhaps an important question is why the same questions are pertinent today when so many other professions have adopted GIS successfully. Another question that bears scrutiny may be what progress has been made, and can it be used to build momentum.

Early Adoption to the Present
One of the early adopters of GIS technology in social work is Tom Felke, PhD, MSW, chair and an associate professor in the department of social work at Florida Gulf Coast University, who became interested in using it during graduate school in the mid-1990s as part of his child welfare work with Catholic Charities. He used GIS, along with data from the departments of education, transportation, and public health, to make recommendations about where new childcare centers should be constructed.

The experience prompted him to continue learning about GIS, attending conferences, reading, and using the technology in any way he could think of. “Everything we do in social work has a geographical location,” he notes. “There isn’t a reason we shouldn't be looking at geography and the space.”

Claudia Coulton, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Lillian F. Harris Professor, and codirector of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, agrees that the potential for digital mapping within social work has become clearer with time. “When the capability of geocoding things and organizing data geographically came into being 25 years ago, what we were able to do was make maps. And right away that was helpful in letting social workers know where problems were and what they should focus on,” she says.

Coulton says that early use of GIS can be considered the first stage, where the technology was mostly used to describe the problems that social workers are trying to solve. Stage two is being able to act on more granular detail, while stage three entails using digital mapping as a prevention and intervention tool. Coulton says the social work profession is currently in stage three, and that “there is probably a stage four, but we aren’t sure what that will be yet.”

Using GIS to Solve Real-World Problems
As an example of how GIS can be used to intervene and prevent problems, Coulton describes a program in Cleveland designed to eliminate lead poisoning in children. Lead poisoning has been shown to have a lifelong impact on human development, and in 1978 lead paint was made illegal. Digital mapping made it easy to identify houses that are old, deteriorated, and not properly maintained.

“At one time, social workers used maps like that to do outreach to those neighborhoods and provide information to the families there,” Coulton says. “But that’s secondary prevention at best. The damage has occurred. It’s not a solution.”

She says using the mapping information to illustrate the systemic nature of the problem can lead to a true preventive solution. In Cleveland, and other cities, the solution is changing the laws around renting. Landlords are now required to get a lead-safe certificate before they can rent any given property. They must register every year, and every two years their lead-safe certificate must be updated. In order to update the certificate, the property must be inspected by a registered inspector.

“By having those laws in place, it does become a policy that really has the intention of removing lead from rental properties and preventing children from being exposed,” Coulton says. Another part of the legislation requires the city to hire a lead-safe auditor to monitor how the program is working. There are concerns that it could lead to increased evictions, landlords selling properties to corporations, or increased rental prices.

Addressing Homelessness
Another way that GIS is being used in the field with great success is in analyzing homelessness. According to Este Geraghty, MD, MS, MPH, GISP, chief medical officer with Esri, GIS has modernized the homeless point-in-time count, which she describes as “a census of people experiencing homelessness. One is done annually for sheltered homeless people, and every other year for unsheltered homeless people. It’s a point in time, so it’s representational across the country but not 100% accurate.”

The counts are traditionally performed by people using clipboards (pen and paper), but now many have advanced to a digital count. Felke says the data, often collected by students, are entered into cell phones. “They collect it right there, and upload it directly into the cloud,” he says, adding that the geographic coordinates are automatically gathered as well. “So you’re creating a map, and it’s very dynamic, powerful, and impactful at the end.”

Telling Impactful Stories
Lauri Goldkind, PhD, MSW, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Technology in Human Services, founding member of the Data Justice Collective, and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University, says many projects that employ GIS and other digital tools make it possible to use data to tell stories. Often, literal storytelling is more effective in changing opinions than using statistics and numbers. GIS allows for those two powerful tools—storytelling and data—to come together.

“I might argue that those two are complementary and using them together is the most effective way to move someone’s opinion,” Goldkind says.

For example, a project in San Francisco and New York uses eviction information to demonstrate which communities are in great need of rent relief. “There’s not necessarily anything surprising in those data sets or those maps, except it tells a story very clearly of how people are being gentrified out of their homes and neighborhoods,” Goldkind says.

The recent work of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, titled “In America,” is also a powerful example of how data visualization can tell a story. Firstenberg created an art installation over four acres that “brings a magnitude of visual art into a digital space” by using white flags to represent each life lost to COVID.

Visitors personalized flags for their loved ones. The installation defined the reality of the loss, created a place of national mourning, and humanized what would otherwise be just a number. For example, when a person sees the number 500,000, it doesn’t impart the magnitude of loss.

Although the connection between social work and an art installation may not be immediately apparent, consider the fact that, at least to some degree, social work involves telling the stories of people who are disadvantaged or underrepresented. Tools that make those stories “more real” to the people with the power to change policies are important.

Vaccinations and Efficient Workflows
The process of getting COVID vaccinations to those who are homebound, are in underserved communities, or are otherwise hard to reach could benefit from GIS tools. Geraghty explains that GIS can be used to identify vaccination gaps in specific populations. Once gaps are localized, outreach can be prioritized to support greater equity. Furthermore, operations can be streamlined for efficiency.

“We can create routes and optimize them for particular needs like language preferences, allowing staff to see as many people as possible. Field staff can use mobile digital tools to record vaccine data and provide real-time updates to monitoring dashboards,” Geraghty says.

The same type of process could be used in all kinds of workflows. “Social workers do inspections of all sorts, like for foster care or of schools to check lead content in the water. Creating an inspection workflow would be very similar to a mobile vaccination workflow and can be very impactful,” Geraghty says.

Why Is Adoption Slow?
Given the many successful ways GIS is being used, why doesn’t social work make better use of these technological tools to advocate for clients? It turns out that the answer is complex and involves a plethora of factors ranging from cost to perception.

At the most basic level, there is a perception that GIS technology is expensive and requires skills that many social workers don’t possess. “Not a lot of schools are training social workers to use GIS technology,” Felke says. “Students who go to work in nonprofits or in therapeutic settings will find the technology won’t be there.”

Goldkind agrees, adding that in many cases, contracts for social work services are getting leaner. “The budget is so constrained and we are so contract-based,” she says.

Another, and arguably more nebulous, reason digital mapping isn’t used more is the perception of what effective social work looks like. “We get bogged down in the idea that this is a relational field and the currency is the ability to engage clients and to have a relationship. If that’s the basis that you’re founding your value on, it’s hard to develop other skill sets,” Goldkind says.

Geraghty agrees that social workers largely do not “want to be turned into bean counters.” To get around that concept, she suggests more widespread implementation of technology such as natural language processing. Geraghty notes that social workers often don’t collect individual data points; they write reports. Those reports contain plenty of data, they’re just not immediately useful for analyses.

“Technology is evolving to support the inclusion of contextual information,” Geraghty says. That means technology will be able to parse those reports and pull out the relevant data points. Still, the data are being captured in a different way than in the past, which requires social workers to “acknowledge ‘stories’ as a relevant part of the social work data store,” Geraghty says.

Lack of training is an important factor as well. Few people are qualified to teach about the intersection of GIS and social work at the college level. In discussing the scarcity of qualified teachers, Goldkind says, “Those instructors, people like Tom Felke and Amy Hillier at Penn, have done great work bringing GIS technologies to their students.”

However, she says generally the curricula don’t include teaching students how to go out into the field to perform data visualization.

“Technology training is a challenge,” Geraghty says. “The pace of technology advancement is faster than ever. To gain skills and stay up to date, a regular cadence of training is needed.”

There may be resistance to regular technology training; change management programs may be necessary to help show its value and inspire social workers to jump on board, she says. “On the positive side,” Geraghty notes, “many software tools are becoming much more intuitive and easy to use, including GIS.”

What Does the Future Hold?
Even with all the challenges and barriers that still surround the topic, all of the experts are enthusiastic about the future of mapping technology in social work. Particularly when GIS is used in conjunction with other emerging tools, such as machine learning and natural language processing, the potential for helping disadvantaged and underserved communities is huge.

Coulton says that for projects such as the lead elimination initiative in Cleveland, “you can get 100% of all that data. You don’t have to go knock on doors. You can do risk models.” She says that combining data collection with big data analysis makes mapping technology more useful today than it ever has been.

The type of cross-training provided will be a determining factor on whether digital tools gain widespread acceptance, according to Goldkind. For example, connecting with geography and anthropology students who are using modern technological tools will give those in the social work field new ideas for applying GIS. “Social work has a long history of surveys and mapping, and GIS does that, but it’s automated,” she says. “Something gets lost when we talk about social work history and skill development,” Goldkind says, adding that it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are pitfalls moving into the future that should be addressed now, though. For example, Coulton says that with cameras everywhere, there’s an understanding that images can be mined “for good or for evil.”

Artificial intelligence and machine learning use algorithms, which may seem as equitable a construction as possible. Unfortunately, algorithms contain bias. “Black faces are more often mistaken and misread by algorithms,” Coulton notes. “The promise of artificial intelligence to discover and understand social phenomena and develop solutions to problems has the downside of errors and biases that are undoubtedly present.”

To help remedy this conundrum, Coulton suggests initiating discussions about professional and even legal regulations about these powerful technologies in order to develop ethical standards.

— Dava Stewart is a freelance writer based in Tennessee.