Charting a New Course

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

With an ambitious mapping project, researchers are learning about health on the South Side and building a new community asset.

LAST SUMMER, A GROUP OF UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO STUDENTS went out in two person teams, walking each city block in six South Side communities and marking down every business, social service organization, public agency, church and health care facility. The intensive project was the first step in creating detailed maps to assess the current and future state of the health of the neighborhoods' residents. The project's planners, however, hope that the benefits don't stop there.

The Resource Mapping Project is one part of a larger effort, the South Side Health and Vitality Studies. Coordinated by researchers at the University of Chicago in close conjunction with South Side leaders and community residents, the studies are aimed at improving health in the communities. The mapping project is focusing first on the East Side, Grand Boulevard, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Washington Park and Woodlawn communities—later the survey will expand to cover all 34 neighborhoods on the South Side.

"These maps will give us a way to compare health trends and disparities with the environment where people live," says project co-director Colleen Grogan, an associate professor at SSA. "We can also discover the assets and barriers to good health in each community and help the residents determine what to build on. People have assumptions of deprivation in a community like Washington Park, but there's strength in any community. You can see a lot of energy on these maps."

Staff from the map working group plan to work with local residents and students in the Graduate Program for Health Administration and Policy (GPHAP) to continuously update the data. With the information, researchers can increase understanding of how environmental and social factors are a factor in the health of local residents. "We want to provide, to the best of our ability, an up-to-date mapping resource for community residents, community planners and researchers," Grogan says.

Vanessa Fabbre, a doctoral student at SSA who was the project coordinator for the mapping over the summer, says that the teams found more local businesses than expected. "There were commercial strips that we didn't have on record, and a lot of businesses in private homes—such as licensed day care and consulting businesses," she says.

The survey teams worked with handheld devices that updated the mapping software in real-time. An interactive mapping tool is now online (, giving residents a comprehensive view of their community. Researchers might be interested in a local auto repair shop because it shows jobs in the community, but for locals, it's useful to know where they can go to get their car fixed. Community advocates can also use information from the maps to improve their community, from economic development planning to lobbying for more clinics or better grocery stores.

In the future, a wiki model of the maps will go online, which will allow users to add much more detailed information about the local institutions, including hours of operation and services offered at the site, and to update changes. The hope is to bring in funding for continuous updating through the project, as well. With the growth of hyperlocal information on the Web, such as reviews on Yelp! and data on EveryBlock, the Resource Mapping Project is part of a groundswell of Internet-based detailed local data.

"When you see a list of community agencies or businesses, it goes out of date very quickly. And if you're looking for, say a childcare center, that's not very useful," Grogan says. "This information is publicly available and free, and we're hoping that with consistent updating, it will be a resource for the communities. We've worked hard on the public engagement part of this project, and that's very important."

—Carl Vogel