Although ARCGIS is still the most popular tool for students and teachers interested in creating maps from digital data, a number of open-source tools have come along in recent years that have expanded access to digital mapping technologies to a wider audience. Additionally, the digitization of geographic information and the increasing prevalence of geographic data on the internet have created new resources for creating digital maps. For instance, researchers interested in mapping the geographic distribution of culture can turn to Twitter, which offers a set of tools that allow users to query a random sample of the content that is created on this social media platform every day. Alternatively, someone interested in visualizing the geographic distribution of popular restaurants could use the data extraction tools provided by the restaurant review site Yelp.

For this semester of the Visualizing Cities Lab Fellowship, my group instead chose to utilize the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), which provides users with access to several databases that contain demographic and social information obtained through national censuses. We focused in particular on one IPUM database, the National Historical Geographic Information System, which contains survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, along with geographic boundaries data (shapefiles) associated with geographic levels – metropolitan areas, counties, tracts, and block, for instance – that are included in Census publications. NHGIS data can be used to create shaded maps that show differences in U.S. demographic and social characteristics. For example, someone interested in county-level differences in mean income levels could use NHGIS income data to create a choropleth map, where counties are shaded different colors along a color gradient depending on their mean income levels.

In a presentation to the Visualizing Cities Lab, my group walked lab members through the process of downloading NHGIS data, loading it into a data visualization platform, and creating a map to visualize tract-level differences in the demographic and social characteristics of Census tracts located in Durham county. We used the R programming language to create these visualizations. R is a free and increasingly popular alternative to ARCGIS for creating digital maps. Over the past several years, developers have created several tools for manipulating and creating visualizations from geographic data using R. Our Visualizing Cities Lab presentation included an interactive tutorial in which lab members created their own maps in R. This tutorial demonstrated the ease with which R can be used to create highly customizable maps of Census data.

The Visualizing Cities Lab provides researchers at Duke with an opportunity to work with people from other academic departments who are interested in digital mapping. Beyond allowing researchers to gain new insights into the theory behind mapping, these interdisciplinary experiences expose researchers to new mapping tools. My hope is that my work with the Visualizing Cities Lab has allowed researchers who may have had little experience in the past with IPUMS or R to learn about how these resources can be utilized to visualize social and demographic phenomena in new and interesting ways.