Tag Archives: mapmaking

GIS in the City: Toronto on the Map

Map of Toronto school nutrition program distributionBy Naomi Bloch

This Wednesday, November 18, marks the 16th annual GIS Day. Throughout the week, Geothink will present a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which our collaborators, partners, and friends around the world are critically examining and using GIS as a tool for civic engagement and understanding.
The community snapshots presented this week highlight diverse perspectives and uses for GIS. 

If you make your way to Toronto’s City Hall on Wednesday, you’ll discover that the City is displaying a slideshow of some pretty interesting maps, just above the 3D model of the downtown core. The big-screen projection, set up for Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day, showcases some of the ways that Toronto’s municipal divisions are using GIS to tackle urban issues.

These same projects can also be perused at your leisure via a new City of Toronto GIS Day landing page. The City of Toronto is one of Geothink’s municipal partners.

City of Toronto's Ventilation Index map. All images © City of Toronto 1998-2015. Used with permission.

City of Toronto’s Ventilation Index map. All images © City of Toronto 1998-2015. Used with permission.

The breadth of projects may surprise Toronto residents. Take the Environment and Energy Division’s (EED) Ventilation Index. The EED is mapping the city to get a full spatial understanding of areas known as “urban canyons,” narrow open spaces confined between built spaces that contribute to ground-level pollution — a problem most noticeable to pedestrians in the city. The higher the ventilation index, the greater the level of pollution. The Ventilation Index researchers’ goal is to try to identify “how the City’s changing building profile may have growing adverse effects at ground level and how to mitigate and adapt to the rapidly growing City.”

The City’s uses of GIS extend beyond urban planning or trying to understand how urban design impacts the environment. The Department of Public Health, for example, is employing GIS to better understand the distribution and funding of school nutrition programs. In 2014, 160,000 Toronto students participated in breakfast, snack and lunch programs, provided in schools and community sites throughout the city. Public Health has mapped the locations where student nutrition programs were in effect in 2014, with each site categorized based on the funding source behind the program. Incorporating census data such as the Low Income Measure, they’ve identified where meal programs are located relative to the City’s designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. This spatial mapping of school nutrition programs helps the City to understand which communities remain under-served and where additional funding should be allocated.

Want to know more about how the City of Toronto is using GIS? Head to Metro Hall on Friday, Nov. 20, anytime between 8:00 am and 3:00 pm. A few staff members from the City’s Geospatial Competency Centre will be on hand to answer questions.

For more of Geothink’s GIS Day coverage, see:

If you have thoughts or questions about this story, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.


An Emergent Field: Making Better Maps By Applying Geographical Science to the Human Brain


Monitoring the human brain. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tabsinthe)

By Drew Bush

City planners often use socioeconomic data collected in surveys to determine neighbourhoods that might benefit from improved services. Yet such types of data can have a significant margin of error, especially when they’re collected from a relatively small group.

“Especially if you want to look at a small subset of the population—say, kids under 5 who are living in poverty—the uncertainty level is just huge,” Amy Griffin, a senior lecturer in the School of Physical, Environmental, and Mathematical Sciences at Australia’s University of New South Wales told CityLab’s Laura Bliss last November. “A lot of times, people are making decisions based on highly uncertain census data.”

Her research looks at how different kinds of visualizations can affect decision-making, with an emphasis on understanding the cognitive processes behind the use of maps. Still others in her field are engaged in understanding how the human brain engages with maps in order to improve map-making and the role it plays in municipal governance.

Some in the field study neuroscience from the uniquely geographical perspective of how the human brain reacts to maps with differing standards, visual cues and rules. Sara Irina Fabrikant, head of the Geography Department at the University of Zurich, dedicates her time to understanding how users make inferences from the design elements on a map, and how mapmakers might then design maps that convey data more clearly.

For example, in experiments she conducted to compare a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) mass-media weather map versus one of her own design, she found design elements could be used to simplify confusing variables and help users better understand characteristics like wind pressure. Her map included well-defined contour lines for wind pressure and less emphasis on temperature colors.

“Are our rules really good ones?” Fabrikant told CityLab. “If so, how? If they’re not, how can we improve them?”

Amy Lobben, head of the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon, asks a different question. She wants to know what neurological processes are at play as individual brains perform map-related tasks. Her possible goal: to create a map that plays off a given person’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

“You could potentially design a map that works with individuals’ innate abilities,” she told CityLab.

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.