07 May 2010

Mapping Out the Big Picture

In December, I had a district level administrator tell me his wish for the ability to overlay his student achievement data with a Google Map. At the time, I thought it was a very intriguing idea, but I was unaware of any tool which would automate that process. It seemed unlikely that anyone would actually take the time to build a map in Google Maps, student-by-student. I had seen visitor maps on websites that somehow captured IP addresses and then pulled them into a map displayed on the sidebar, but I was sure that required way more code than I was interested in dealing with.

And then, a few weeks ago, the link for MapAList appeared in my Twitter stream. MapAList is "a wizard for creating and managing customized maps of address lists." Hmmm...

I pulled some public data off the state website and stripped off what I needed (name of school, address, score on 5th grade 2009 science WASL) in Excel. I then uploaded the spreadsheet into GoogleDocs and logged into MapAList. After fussing a bit with the settings, this is the result (or click this link):

What you're looking at is a map representing nearly every elementary school in the state. Be sure to zoom in so you can have a better view of things. Looking back on the process, I probably should have used a smaller data set to begin with (there are over 1000 pins in that puppy), but I do so enjoy a challenge. My divisions by percent meeting standard are arbitrary. Perhaps other pieces of data would be more valuable to show. But for proof of concept, it's a start.

I do find it interesting to see just how much the Cascades really divide our state. The map also gives an interesting view of population. While not every elementary school is the same size, the effect of clustered pins provides a different way to think about distribution. The yellow and green "outliers" definitely grab your attention. What's happening in those schools that are all by themselves (in terms of geography) and are doing all right?

Right now, you are limited to two pieces of data/information showing in the pop-up for each pin. This is a bit of a limitation---I would like to show school district name or % free/reduced lunch or size of school or ethnicity data in addition to school name and score. The tool is also clunky if you want to go back and change any settings---for the most part, you just have to start over. The map will autoupdate if your spreadsheet changes, you're just stuck with the labels and appearance of the things.

As an educator, what are the uses for a tool like this? Might I want to mash my district achievement data (however that's defined) with a map? Would I see intriguing things as the neighbourhoods changed or gain other insights? I do believe that one would have to be very careful of running afoul of FERPA. I'd want to leave student names off the spreadsheet---they're unnecessary in some ways if the goal is just to visualize the interaction between geography and achievement.

I wonder how many other interesting ideas for data mashups are out there. What else is on the wish list for teachers and administrators in terms of data visualization?


Jenny said...

The possibilities here are fascinating. I'd love to see this broken down for the kids in our schools (by SOL score or DRA score or some other assessment tool). I think we would find some clear geographic lines between our low income housing complexes and our townhouse complexes and our handful of mini-mansions. Interesting...

The Science Goddess said...

Interesting idea---makes me wonder about how you could use a map like that to then partner with social services or others who might provide targeted assistance. Perhaps the community center offers more "story time" options...or the bookmobile (if those are still around) spends more time in these neighbourhoods. Or information about food stamps, WIC, and/or access to free meals for little ones is increased.

I think a map like this, especially one focused locally, could be a very powerful tool in securing resources and ensuring they get to those who need them most.

Jason Buell said...

I like the idea of finding the outliers. You'd expect achievement scores to largely cluster by SES and ELL but a green pin in a sea of red would be a good thing to know (or the opposite pattern). You could then go into say, Ahtanum Valley Elementary or Green Gables and figure out what they're doing differently.

On a more prosaic level, I try to visit a few schools every year who are performing well and it'd help me plan my trips.

If there was a feature where I could change the pin color based on selected criteria I would marry it. Like a "Color pins by"...feature. Click on %ELL, Science scores, ELA scores, met AYP..etc...

The Science Goddess said...

Agreed about the wished for feature. As it is now, you could use a single spreadsheet in Google Docs and then build separate maps for various criteria. Not as nice as having a pull-down menu that would allow you to automatically alter things, but a stop-gap until the application improves.

I have to think that development of this particular tool will continue. There seems to be a lot of interest in it.

Jason Buell said...

Made <A HREF="http://mapalist.com/Public/pm.aspx?mapid=102769>one</A> as a tester. Same concept as yours but for schools in San Jose. I used overall API score instead of just science though. Pinned my own school slightly differently (with a dot, but color coded the same).

After trying it I agree with everything you've said.It's definitely clunky to revise. It's nice that you can update the data but if you want to change pretty much anything else you've got to start over.

I didn't really understand how to do the pin color thing so I tried to do conditional formatting types (using > and < for values) but realized if I just included a Pin Color column it'd just read off that.

Need to CONCATENATE to add more info to the popup. It's fairly trivial to do in the spreadsheet, it just would have been nice to have mapalist let me choose multiple columns to display.

Somewhere there has to be a Google maps layer with SES info on it. You could probably use median home prices as a proxy. Using that layer along with this would be really nice.

I have no idea how to use the CENTER option.

I'd recommend you use the Zoom Level when you start.

The Science Goddess said...

I definitely need to change the Zoom level---didn't see how (but wanted to) when I first built the map. I'll have to go back in and muck around.

For "center," I just picked a point that looked center, clicked "Zoom in!" on the pop-up, then pasted the lat/lon address into the box for MapAList. Crude, but it worked.

Here's hoping we'll get a lot more features soon!

hschinske said...

So now you could have MAP maps? :-)

Jason Buell said...

If you go to edit your map under the Manage tab, it's under zoom level. I think smaller numbers are closer zoom bu I can't remember. Mine is set for 10 if that helps.

On my manage tab the Center option is just a blank box. Maybe I'm supposed to type in lat/long or something.

Can't really complain though for a free service.

Catfish said...

Just out of curiosity - is the score an average score, percentage of kids passing, or something else?

The Science Goddess said...

Hschinske: Indeed! Just think of the acronym possibilities. The mind boggles.

Catfish: the score is the percent of 5th grade students who met the standard.

ZeeMaps said...

Great idea. You can also try out ZeeMaps (http://www.zeemaps.com) for your mapping requirements.

The Science Goddess said...

Thank for the suggestion! I don't normally publish comments from companies, but I think your site is well worth a shout out and further investigation.