In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Adele Birkenes, Vassar College ‘20, and Siennah Yang, Vassar College ‘18, created an interactive ArcGIS Online web map of community resources and businesses in Dutchess County, New York. The map currently includes food pantries, meal programs, school meal distribution sites, health services (including coronavirus testing facilities), shelters, grocery stores (with senior hours), farms/farmers markets, emergency childcare programs, and bike shops. The mapping project is ongoing, with a team of collaborators updating the map frequently as more information becomes available, as services open, close, and modify their hours, and as we receive feedback from different community partners. In this blog post, Adele and Siennah outline the project’s objectives, their process of collaborating with community partners to develop the project, and how they used ArcGIS Online and Google Sheets to make the project happen.
Image of interactive ArcGIS online map with locations of compiled community resources
Project motivations and objectives
Siennah: Two weeks ago, Adele emailed members of Hudson Valley Mappers, Vassar’s member chapter of USAID’s YouthMappers network, to start a conversation about how Vassar students, faculty, and staff, as well as Poughkeepsie community members, might use their GIS interests and background to meaningfully engage in COVID-19 response efforts. At the time, it seemed that most collective mapping efforts related to COVID-19 were primarily dedicated to mapping healthcare-related facilities on a national or international scale, such as the Global Healthsites Mapping Project hosted on healthsites.io (YouthMappers' #Map4COVID19 initiative).
Adele and I started talking about ways we could possibly create a map that was specifically focused on Dutchess County. Since mid-March, a variety of community efforts have started in response to COVID-19. At the same time, there is a lot of information on various news sites and social media about the different types of community resources available in Dutchess County. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to lose track of what services are available, especially when much of the information is constantly updating and changing. We thought that making a web map might be useful to pull together the wealth of community resources and services, that currently live on disparate websites or on social media. Our hope is that the map will provide people with access to essential information in one place and will also provide a spatial component for people to easily visualize where resources are located. It has been more than one week since this project started, and we have received a lot of comments and requests to duplicate similar mapping efforts in other places/Counties. Below we walk through our process of creating the web map.
1. Gather initial recommendations from community partners
Adele: Our first step was to contact our community partners in the City of Poughkeepsie: nonprofit staff, city government officials, and school district administrators. Siennah and I identified these contacts in organizations that we have worked with over the past few years. We asked them if they thought that creating a web map would be useful and what information would be most important to include in the map. We immediately received a positive response from a few community partners, including City of Poughkeepsie Council member-at-Large, Sarah Salem, who provided a list of categories of resources to prioritize.
2. Design prototype web map
Based on these initial recommendations, Siennah and I designed a prototype web map. First, we created a Google Sheets file with tabs for services including food pantries, meal programs, school meal distribution sites, grocery stores, bike shops, and health services. We populated the spreadsheets with information from news articles (e.g., articles announcing senior hours for grocery stores and the openings of mobile coronavirus testing clinics), webpages (e.g., nonprofit sites listing food pantries and meal programs), and Google Maps (for local hospitals and pharmacies). Then, we published each spreadsheet to the web as a CSV. We opened a new map on ArcGIS Online and added the CSVs as layers from the web. (Note: Check out this walkthrough for more details. A key tip for linking Google Sheets to ArcGIS Online is that you must include columns for latitude and longitude in your spreadsheet; if you just include addresses, the map will not automatically update as you add new points/information, and you will have to manually re-add the CSV. We used the website latlong.net to manually convert addresses to coordinates.) After adding the layers, we modified their symbology and pop-ups and published the map publicly.
3. Circulate the prototype web map to other community partners for feedback
Siennah and I began circulating the map to our community partners with the assistance of Dr. Lisa Kaul, Director of Vassar’s Office of Community-Engaged Learning. Since the web map is linked to a Google Sheets file, any changes that are made to the spreadsheet are automatically reflected in the map. This has enabled our community partners, including those without prior experience with GIS, to update the map with information related to their areas of expertise/familiarity. Our community partners responded with their enthusiastic approval of the map and suggestions for improvement. We decided to publish the map as a web app, which would allow for a more user-friendly interface. We used the Custom Web AppBuilder on ArcGIS Online and included four interactive widgets: two informational windows with tips for using the map and links to important resources, a bookmarks widget, and a sharing widget. The informational window with map tips is especially important, because it orients first-time visitors without GIS experience to the layout of the web app interface.
4. Build a working group and get additional support to improve the web map
Meanwhile, we worked with Vassar students and faculty and our community partners to add additional information to the map. We designated a point person for each dataset who would keep track of the spreadsheet’s data sources, status, and remaining tasks. We also created a Slack channel and added main collaborators to it. The student employees at the Office of Community-Engaged Learning, Jamie Greer, Zsa Zsa Toms, Claire Kendrick, Anik Parayil, and Thomas Tomikawa, as well as the office’s administrative assistant, Amanda Goodman, very generously dedicated time to adding more data to the spreadsheet.
The process of creating the resource map, from designing the prototype web map to putting the finishing touches on the web app interface, took one week, and throughout that time, Siennah and I scheduled video call check-ins with Dr. Kaul and Hudson Valley Mappers’ faculty advisors, Professors of Geography Mary Ann Cunningham and Neil Curri. We’re very grateful for the technical support Mary Ann and Neil have provided throughout the project. We’re also grateful to Lydia Hatfield at Hudson River Housing and Ezra Weissman at Vassar for their help with the map.
5. Distribute the map
Siennah: After we finished building the web app and adding information to all key categories, we emailed it to our community partners and requested that they include a link to it on their websites and informational handouts. We also shared the map with Vassar students via Facebook and with faculty, staff, and administrators via email. Most significantly, the City of Poughkeepsie included a link to the map in their weekly e-newsletter, The Buzz, on Friday, March 27, and has listed it on their Coronavirus Resource Guide. In order to connect with additional members of the City of Poughkeepsie community and other Dutchess County municipalities ,who may wish to supply data or edit our spreadsheet, we created a Google Form that we have included in the informational window of our web map.
Example from Facebook of community support from City of Poughkeepsie Council member
6. Next steps
Adele and I have identified several priorities for the upcoming weeks. First, the bulk of our mapping has concentrated on resources in the City of Poughkeepsie, and we would like to expand our datasets to cover all of Dutchess County. We have already made significant progress with making our food pantry, meal program, and farm market datasets county-wide using information collected by Dutchess Outreach and Cornell Cooperative Extension. We are collaborating with a team of students and faculty at Bard College to add data for northern Dutchess County. Second, we will be mapping restaurants that offer takeout and delivery services. We are working with Vassar Professor of Geography Yu Zhou on surveying Asian restaurants by phone and are also collaborating with the PK Is Open team to add restaurants listed on their website to our spreadsheet. We may create a separate map dedicated to restaurants and farms/farmers markets/farm stands, and combine both the community resources map and the restaurant/farm map in a single story map (similar to the format of the Ulster County COVID-19 story map).
Adele: Siennah and I hope that this blog post has helped you think about how you might provide GIS support to your community during COVID-19. If you are interested in undertaking a similar project, please contact us at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would also like to make a note about the software that we used. To the best of our knowledge, if your school does not have an ArcGIS Online organizational account, you can still make a map like ours using a free public account. However, one alternative is Google Maps. For example, check out Ulster County’s emergency food resources map. An advantage of Google Maps is that map visitors can immediately view directions to the points listed on the map, whereas ArcGIS Online map users would have to copy and paste addresses into a separate navigational application. We chose to work with ArcGIS Online because we have more familiarity with the software and prefer its user interface over Google Maps’ interface.
Adele Birkenes is a senior at Vassar College majoring in Geography and minoring in Biology and Hispanic Studies. She is the president and co-founder of Hudson Valley Mappers. She is also the Community Geographer at Vassar's Office of Community Engaged Learning. Siennah Yang graduated from Vassar College in 2018, majored in Geography and minored in Urban Studies. She is currently the Planning & Policy Assistant at Susan G. Blickstein, LLC, a planning, policy, and public engagement firm that specializes in sustainable land use and transportation planning in New York and New Jersey.