GIS – and Citizen Science – are leading the fight against COVID-19

Hello Backyard Geographers!

        As the COVID-19 pandemic shakes the world, GIS finds itself at the forefront of this fight. Geographic Information Systems – GIS for short – is a primary way to map data and disseminate information to keep tabs on this pandemic as it spreads and evolves. The power of GIS is not just being realized, however; since first being coined in 1968 by Roger Tomlinson, it has been known to have applications in nearly every field, from public safety to sustainability to healthcare and beyond. The power of GIS is becoming more apparent to the general public as it is being utilized to document how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. GIS allows for different layers of data to be shown in a singular map, creating the opportunity to visualize COVID-19 data atop data on race, socioeconomic status, population density, etc. to see any instances of correlation.

        This ability to collect data and map it in an effort to disseminate information on COVID-19 is not limited to cartographers and those fluent in GIS. We see many doing what they can to help others at this time, as evidenced by droves of people crafting handmade masks or delivering groceries for others. But for those with GIS skills, there are opportunities to help various organizations via public participation GIS, including Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, GIS Corps, MapSwipe and more (read about their work here). Esri, a leader in the GIS field, has delineated a 5-step plan for citizen scientists to respond to the pandemic, according to its website:

  1. Map the Cases – Map confirmed and active cases, deaths, and recoveries to identify where COVID-19 infections exist and have occurred.
  2. Map the Spread – Time-enabled maps can reveal how infections spread over time and where you may want to target interventions.
  3. Map Vulnerable Populations – COVID‑19 disproportionally impacts certain demographics such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Mapping social vulnerability, age, and other factors helps you monitor at-risk groups and regions you serve.
  4. Map your Capacity – Map facilities, employees or citizens, medical resources, equipment, goods, and services to understand and respond to current and potential impacts of COVID‑19.
  5. Communicate with Maps – Use interactive web maps, dashboard apps, and story maps to help rapidly communicate your situation so everyone stays aware.”

        This increase in citizen science is visible on ArcGIS Online, the online version of Esri’s ArcGIS suite of GIS software. When searching “COVID-19” on ArcGIS Online, more than 10,000 results show up, indicating that the public has already taken to the job of mapping the pandemic. Some of the maps are from universities, hospitals, and other institutions, with Johns Hopkins University leading the pack (its COVID-19 map on ArcGIS Online currently has over 52,000,000 views). With this being said, there is always more mapping to be done; there tends to be an emphasis on mapping large cities, leaving smaller towns unmapped. If everyone pitches in and maps what they can using the public participation GIS resources presented here, it would be to the benefit of not only one’s town and state, but to the nation and the world. For more information on how you can engage in public participation GIS and put your skills to use, click here.


For a worldwide map from Esri’s COVID-19 Overview, click here.

For a United States-specific map from Johns Hopkins University, click here.

For an Illinois-specific map from of Western Illinois University, click here.


Wishing you peace and health,


The GSC’s Geography Career Fair

Hello Backyard Geographers!

          The Geographic Society of Chicago is excited to invite you to its inaugural geography career fair, Career Opportunities in Geography, in conjunction with DePaul University, the Illinois Geographical Society and the Illinois GIS Association. Please join us at this FREE event on February 25th from 5-8pm at DePaul University’s Student Center in room 314. Present at the fair will be employers from the geography field, including Esri, CMAP, MapCorps, Ecolab, Urban GIS, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Walgreens, and HERE Technologies. Additionally, there will be a panel of geographers with experience in the field, ready to answer questions and give advice. Panelists include, but are not limited to:

  • Lucy Stanfield

Lucy Stanfield is a GIS Specialist at the US Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago. She creates maps and trains staff on visualizing data and graphics in presentations. Lucy graduated from the University of Chicago (BA) and the University of Arizona (MA), both in Geography. At one time, she planned to be an archeologist, but now focuses on the art and science of maps and how they can best communicate environmental science and information.

  • Judy Bock

Judy Bock is Director of Online Geospatial Programs at Elmhurst College.  In her capacity as director, students often inquire about potential jobs and careers in geography and/or GIS.  She helps students consider the direction they would like to pursue, based on the multiple aspects of students’ interests and skills.  Judy will share a variety of potential job and career opportunities.

       This event is not limited to DePaul students or those studying geography; it is open to the public, and students from all disciplines and universities are welcome. This event will provide fair-goers with information on not only potential jobs in the field, but also internships, graduate programs, and other programs. Students, please consider bringing a copy of your resume. Additionally, there will be snacks! Please reach out with any questions, and be sure to register before the event here.


See you at the fair!



COOL Summer Learning Experience Reflections

Hi Backyard Geographers, Julie here!

This summer, I was the Geographic Society of Chicago’s intern for the COOL Summer Learning Experience (CLE) in Waukegan, Illinois. Never having heard of Waukegan or CLE, I thought it would be a great chance to explore a new area, learn how to ride the Metra, and keep my GIS skills sharp. Little did I know, I’d leave at the end of the summer having met some amazing students who, might I add, were more proficient in GIS in eighth grade than I was as a freshman in college.

Each year since 2008, this summer education program has provided students with science-oriented experiential learning opportunities, and since 2012, the Geographic Society of Chicago (GSC) has been a part of that mission. In working together, CLE and the GSC are able to provide students with opportunities including field trips, GIS, and this year, improvisational comedy.

I was assigned to help the eighth and ninth grade students, and our main task was to create Story Maps (an interactive presentation-style technology from Esri) to display how Waukegan’s harbor has changed through the years. Story Maps are great tool to bring GIS and mapping to a broader audience beyond those already familiar with these technologies. With this in mind, our final product was three separate Story Maps on the past, present, and future of the harbor. We did this by gathering waypoints of local businesses near the harbor with our GPS units, and conducting interviews with the owners. We uploaded not only our data, but also photos and the information from the interviews to our Story Maps. The Story Maps were also made possible by a technology guru who went by the name of Turtle as well as a helpful volunteer named Dave.

 There are many teachers, staff members, and volunteers behind this operation, but the leader of the pack is the caring and benevolent Ms. Coyote (Barbara Waller), who insists that everyone at the camp, including both staff and students, goes by a “nature name.” The concept of nature names had a way of bringing everyone together, and I was excited to be dubbed “Otter.”

At one point, the students were to give presentations on potential career they would like to pursue. As the students were practicing their presentations, their teacher Ms. Butterfly (Kimberly Waller) and I noticed that some of them could use a confidence boost. Once Ms. Butterfly found out that I enjoy doing and teaching improvisational comedy in my spare time, she decided that we could use this to help the students relax and feel confident in what they were saying. I watched their confidence blossom each time we did improv, which translated to them feeling more capable in their speech-giving as well as in their GIS skills. 

The community engagement that CLE fosters is unlike anything I’ve seen before; with these students being knowledgeable on their community’s history, it supports them in paving the way for their community’s future. If you are interested in learning more about COOL Summer Learning Experience and its mission, find its website linked here:



Undesign the Redline


Hello Backyard Geographers!

I come to you today to share the “Undesign the Redline” exhibit, which is currently being displayed in Evanston at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center. I heard about this exhibit through word of mouth, so I mistakenly thought that it was about the CTA’s Red Line. Instead, it delved into Chicago’s history with redlining, a practice used by banks to deny loans to minorities and devalue areas based on the presence of people of color (POC), especially Black folks, via color-coded maps. It is necessary to note that, while redlining and its effects are highly visible and impactful in Chicago, it is a ubiquitous problem, and has been since the conception of redlining maps in the 1930s.

A primary takeaway of the exhibit was the way in which racism became purposefully encoded into everyday structures and systems through redlining. “Redlining embodies a process that transformed explicit racism into structural racism […] The structural situation created by these programs largely remains the same” (Undesign the Redline, 2019). And indeed, these structures and their impacts continue on; the exhibit included four superb maps that centered on mobility, education, economic security, and health & wellbeing. The connection between redlined areas and these categories became apparent as the redlined maps were layered over present day data on these categories, allowing the viewer to see that, for example, mobility is incredibly low in previously redlined areas (see map gallery above).

The second photo shown in the gallery above is a 1939 map of the “Homeowners’ Loan Corporation Residential Security Map,” which shows small yellow push pins. These pins are placed by visitors to indicate where they or someone they know lives. This exhibit greatly encouraged visitor participation, from providing sticky notes and pens to post questions and comments on the panels, to asking thought-provoking questions of its audience. One of the questions was “How might redlining play a role in shaping the experiences of people in your community?” This question correctly assumes that redlining continues to shape the experiences of people in their communities, and leaves it to the audience to use the information they’ve gleaned from the exhibit to give their answer.

On one wall, there was an in-depth timeline of racism in the United States, which showed how the U.S. moved from chattel slavery into current manifestations of structural racism. These panels, shown in the gallery above, give necessary context to see those present day manifestations of racism, like the racial wealth gap. In the past, it’s been said that this wealth gap is due to differences in education, employment, and income. These factors have some bearing, but do not affect the wealth gap with as much gravity as intergenerational wealth, something that non-white communities have been deprived of. This disparity resulting from intergenerational wealth (or lack thereof) leads to the following: “[…] Whites have a median net worth ($111,740) nearly 16 times that of Blacks ($7,113), and over 13 times that of Latinx people ($8,113)” (Undesign the Redline, 2019).

In the present day, redlining has morphed from its original shape; this is not to say, however, that redlining in its original form has been completely eradicated. A current example of redlining’s presence can be seen in recent days as Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of the United States House Financial Services Committee. He was being questioned by Joyce Beatty (D – OH) when Beatty commented on Facebook’s practice of withholding certain information from particular communities based on redlined maps. “[…] You are redlining or using zip codes to eliminate people from getting information,” (Webb, 2019). Beatty’s comment manifests a present-day use of redlining that is more covertly racist than denying people home loans based on race.

This exhibit had a wealth of information on practices beyond redlining used to systematically oppress minorities, including blockbusting, predatory banking, contract buying, and speculative investment, all of which are shown and explained in the gallery above. These policies are explicitly racist and were intended to be so from the beginning; when classifying neighborhoods, words like “Foreign Born,” “Relief,” and “Negro” would be used to describe the residents and subsequently redline them, causing disinvestment. “Any threat of foreign born, negro, or lower population? If so, indicate these by nationality and rate of infiltration like this: ‘Negro – rapid’” (Undesign the Redline, 2019).  Aside from the overtly racist language used, surveyors were instructed to describe the “rate of infiltration” as though people of color were the enemy, and committing a crime by simply residing in certain neighborhoods.

Although this exhibit mainly focused on presenting and outlining the history of redlining and other discriminatory practices, there were also suggestions to remedy it. “Redistributing, regenerating, and recirculating needed resources” (Undesign the Redline, 2019) were all listed as ways to un-design redlining, as the title of the exhibit stated, and reinvest in disenfranchised communities. It is possible that the suggested solutions were kept vague in order for viewers to engage with the concepts and potentially think of their own solutions, as the exhibit provided space to write suggestions on a provided space at the end.

The only thing that I would change about this exhibit is its accessibility; it was so well done that I would love to see it in schools and libraries all over Chicago, rather than being tucked away on the third floor of Evanston’s civic center. In fact, my friend and I were looking for the exhibit and asked multiple people if they knew where the exhibit was, only to find out that most people didn’t know it existed. This being said, I absolutely recommend taking a day trip to visit. As a practice in thinking geographically, take notice of who is occupying certain spaces while in Evanston, and conversely, who is not occupying them. In thinking like a geographer, perhaps you can use some of the information from this blog and WE’s Undesign the Redline exhibit to contextualize your findings.


Enjoy your visit!



Undesign the Redline was produced by WE, a social impact design studio. Check out their website for more information on their work and projects.



Works Cited

“Undesign the Redline.” 4 Oct. 2019, Evanston, IL, Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.

Webb, Kevin. “Ohio Congresswoman Rips into Mark Zuckerberg, Calling It ‘Appalling and Disgusting’ That He Failed to Answer Questions about Facebook’s Civil Rights and DiversityProblems.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 23 Oct. 2019,