Google Maps to Create a Census Finding Aid

Yikes! It’s been quite awhile since my last post (the past couple months have been a little tough for me), but I just finished an interesting project that I can share.

I constantly get questions from students who are interested in getting recent demographic and socio-economic profiles for neighborhoods in New York City. The problem is that neighborhoods are not officially defined, so we have to look for a surrogate. The City has created neighborhood-like areas out of census tracts called community districts and they publish profiles for them, but this data is from the decennial census  and not current enough for their needs.  ZIP code data is also only available from the decennial census.

We can use PUMAs (Public Use Microdata Areas) to approximate neighborhoods in large cities, and they are published as part of the 3 year estimates of the American Community Survey. The problem is, in order to look up the data from the census you need to search by PUMA number – there are no qualitative place names. The city and the census have worked together to assign names to neighborhoods as part of the NYC Housing and Vacancy Survey, but this is the only place (I’ve found) that uses these names. You need to look in several places to figure out what the PUMA number and boundaries for an area are and then navigate through the census site to find it. Too much for the average student who visits me at the reference desk or emails me looking for data.

My solution was to create a finding aid in Google maps that tied everything together:

View Larger Map

I downloaded PUMA boundaries from the Census TIGER file site in a shapefile format. I opened them up in ArcGIS and used an excellent script that I downloaded called Export to KML. ArcGIS 9.3 does support KML exports via the toolbox, and there are a number of other scripts and stand-alone programs that can do this (I tried several) but Export to KML was best (assuming you have access to ArcGIS) in terms of the level of customization and the thoroughness of the user documentation. I symbolized the PUMAs in ArcGIS using the colors and line thickness that I wanted and fired up the tool. It allows you to automatically group and color features based on the layer’s symbology. I was able to add a “snippet” to each feature to help identify it (I used the PUMA number as the attribute name and the neighborhood name as my snippet, so both appear in the legend) and added a description that would appear in the pop up window when that feature is clicked. In that description, I added the URL from the ACS census profile page for a particular PUMA – the cool part here is that the URL is consistent and contains the PUMA number. So, I replaced the specific number and inserted the [field] name from the PUMAs attribute table that contained the number. When I did the export, the URLs for each individual feature were created with their PUMA number inserted into the link.

There were a few quirks – I discovered that you can’t automatically display labels on a Google Map without subterfuge, like creating the labels as images and not text. Google Earth (but not Maps) supports labels if you create multi-geometry where you have a point for a label and a polygon for the feature. If you select a labeling attribute on the initial options screen of the Export to KML tool, you create an icon in the middle of each polygon that has a different description pop-up (which I didn’t want so I left it to none and lived without labels). I made my features 75% transparent (a handy feature of Export to KML) so that you could see the underlying Google Map features through the PUMA, but this made the fill AND the lines transparent, making the features too difficult to see. After the export I opened the KML in a text editor and changed the color values for the lines / boundaries by hand, which was easy since the styles are saved by feature group (boroughs) and not by individual feature (pumas). I also manually changed the value of the folder open element (from 0 to 1) so that the feature and feature groups (pumas and boroughs) are expanded by default when someone opens the map.

After making the manual edits, I uploaded the KML to my webserver and pasted the url for it into the Google Maps search box, which overlayed my KML on the map. Then I was able to get a persistent link to the map and code for embedding it into websites via the Google Map Interface. No need to add it to Google My Maps, as I have my own space. One big quirk – it’s difficult to make changes to an existing KML once you’ve uploaded and displayed it. After I uploaded what I thought would be my final version I noticed a typo. So I fixed it locally, uploaded the KML and overwrote the old one. But – the changes I made didn’t appear. I tried reloading and clearing the cache in my browser, but no good – once the KML is uploaded and Google caches it, you won’t see any of your changes until Google re-caches. The conventional wisdom is to change the name of the file every single time – which is pretty dumb as you’ll never be able to have a persistent link to anything. There are ways to circumvent the problem, or you can just wait it out. I waited one day and by the next the file was updated; good enough for me, as I’ll only need to update it once a year.

I’m hosting the map, along with some static PDF maps and a spreadsheet of PUMA names and neighborhood numbers, from the NYC Data LibGuide I created (part of my college’s collection of research guides). If you’re looking for neighborhood names to associate with PUMA numbers for your city, you’ll have to hunt around and see if a local planning agency or non-profit has created them for a project or research study (as the Census Bureau does not create them). For example, the County of Los Angeles Department of Mental Health uses pumas in a large study they did where they associated local place names with each puma.

If you’re interested in dabbling in some KML, there’s Google’s KML tutorial. I’d also recommend The KML Handbook by Josie Wernecke. The catch for any guide to KML is that while all KML elements are supported by Google Earth, there’s only partial support for Google Maps.

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