Academic journal article Social Work

A Map for You? Geographic Information Systems in the Social Services

Academic journal article Social Work

A Map for You? Geographic Information Systems in the Social Services

Article excerpt

This article introduces social agency practitioners and administrators to geographic information systems (GIS). To illustrate the application of GIS to the social services, we describe how we used GIS recently to study the supply of child care services in Massachusetts and to examine issues related to welfare reform in Dade County (the Greater Miami area), Florida.

Our work using GIS was made possible by two multiyear grants from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and by additional funding and resources provided by the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services, the Florida Children's Forum, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Florida International University Foundation in Miami, Florida, and Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The ACF grant brings together researchers, state administrators of child care, and child care resource and referral (R&R) agencies from Massachusetts, Florida, and Alabama to carry out research that helps shape child care policy and improve child care services, particularly in low-income communities.

Geographic Information Systems

Geographic information systems (GIS) are computer systems for capturing, storing, manipulating, analyzing, displaying, and integrating spatial (that is, geographical, or locational) and nonspatial (that is, statistical, or attribution) information (Maguire, 1991). Although professionals in various technical fields (for example, geology, geography, and urban planning) have been using GIS since the 1960s, these techniques still are little known and used in social work.

The release of the 1990 census results, which included release of the U.S. Census Bureau's TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) files greatly expanded the possible uses of GIS in many fields (Sperling, 1995), including social work practice, administration, and research. The TIGER files, available in machine-readable, CD-ROM form that is fully compatible with all major GIS software, provide the spatial and administrative unit background against which the user can display administrative, census, and other databases.

GIS software allows a social agency to produce meaningful, attention-grabbing maps that visually show important administrative, policy, and practice issues. The software also makes it possible for administrators and practitioners to uncover new insights (for example, gaps in service delivery, areas of low service take-up rates, transportation problems, and location of areas of new demand for services). GIS software also can help social agencies communicate more effectively to clients the spectrum of choices available, an issue of increasing importance as the use of vouchers becomes more prevalent in the delivery of services. In short, GIS software gives social services agencies a powerful new way to analyze services in relation to clients and to the communities in which they operate.

Uses and Benefits of GIS in the Human Services

Being able to place agency records on a map gives management and staff a whole new way of looking at data that may reveal patterns never discovered before. Specifically, GIS can improve day-to-day practice and management decisions by providing tools

* to inventory, through maps, the agency's clientele, services, or any other information of interest

* to assess the sociodemographic characteristics of the neighborhoods served by the agency

* to assess whether the supply of services in a given community is adequate and appropriate for the target population

* to forecast need or demand for additional services, given changes in the policy environment, such as the vast changes now taking place under welfare reform (For example, by using GIS, an individual can locate on a map potential employers of welfare clients and the residential areas where welfare-to-work clients are concentrated. …

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