Visualizing Immunization Rates in California Schools

Earlier this summer Governor Brown signed a law that will ban most vaccine exemptions in the State. Past time if you ask me. Vaccinations are a simple and safe way of keeping our kids, and society, safe from diseases that used to routinely kill and debilitate thousands each year.

I’d read the reports about vaccine rates being low in otherwise educated areas – take Marin for instance. But I was surprised when I looked at the data and found that rates in the small, liberal, educated town of Albany where I have two kids at elementary school are hovering right around 70 per cent. That’s far below the 90+ rate that we need if we are to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for valid medical reasons — my kids’ care giver is one. She’s deathly allergic to eggs.

The datasets I saw were all tabular — page after page of data. It had me thinking, with a little GIS could I make them more accessible? Turns out the answer was yes!

Check out the map below to see Kindergarten immunization rates in your community. You can search by school, or city. If you zoom out to a region, or the state, you can see the darker red spots where immunization rates are lower. Hit the full-screen button to see more of the data.  I found the data illuminating – it still doesn’t answer the question of why otherwise educated communities who trust in science fail to heed its advice in this case. It will be interesting to track rates over time and see what impact the new law has on the health of our communities and kids.

So how did I do this? I pulled the data from the Department of Education web-site and Department of Public Health.  School locations were located by their lat-long coordinates and then linked to the immunization rate data.  All that was done in ArcGIS Pro (thank you ESRI for introducing your $100 home license!). Unfortunately, their online mapping service appears to be limited to 1,000 records and there are many more Kindergarten schools in California! So I imported it all into CartoDB where it was straightforward (and free) to produce the map above.

Bringing spatial decision making to the masses

Geography is everywhere.  Of course, being a geographer I would say that. But for many people geography means a list of state capitals and perhaps the atlas published by the National Geographic.  I’ve just come back from the 2015 Esri user conference in San Diego and saw first hand that this is changing quickly. While much of the discussion was about new software and tools, the most exciting change is the way these tools are deployed.

Just as Google maps has transformed the way we navigate our world (when was the last time you used a paper map?!), spatial decision support tools are transforming the way we understand the world around us and how we make collective decisions. GIS – geographic information systems – is the tool enabling this transformation.

GIS is not a new technology. It’s at least 40 years old in its modern incarnation and I’ve been using it for about half this time. Having just spent a few days at the Esri user conference, it is clear that the power of GIS as a decision support tool is on the verge of being brought into the heart of the public domain. It’s exciting and has the potential to transform the way we live, work, and govern.

A number of trends are converging to make this possible.

  • Data is being collected in real time and near real-time. Our GPS enabled smart phones are at the front line of this data collection revolution. They are being rapidly joined by an army of drones, and matched up with unprecedented satellite images being updated on a daily basis.
  • Data is shared and available 24/7 on the cloud rather than being hoarded on hard drivesFrom the latest Landsat image, to a live twitter feed, to projections of sea-level rise, we all have access to curated and constantly updated datasets.  Served up through a geoportal, you can quickly find what you’re looking for and know that you’re accessing current data.
  • Powerful GIS analysis and publishing tools are available online. I no longer need a UNIX workstation,  thousands of dollars of software, and an expensive plotter to conduct and share an analysis.  Using ArcGIS online, or one of the other freely available online tools, I can quickly publish and share work.

Bring these three threads together and real-time analysis is available to anyone. In the classic production cycle, experts would take weeks to conduct a static analysis that was shared with the decision makers as a printed map. There was no way quick or easy way to interact with the results. Most of your time was spent preparing the data, rather than conducing the analysis. In the end, the decision maker had to accept what the map said – or risk another lengthy cycle to change things up. It was the classic top-down approach.

Now, I can throw the data up a on a web-site — pulling data feeds from many different places — and give the users simple ways to explore and visualize the data. They can dig in and draw their own conclusions. Or I can walk them through a story map to help them understand what is going on.

This will fundamentally remake the way decisions are made. The environmental review process for development and land use projects can become interactive. Companies can understand spatial trends in real time. In essence, decision making will become democratized as everyone has access to relevant data and analysis.

Does this mean GIS professionals will whither away? Far from it! Rather than just being the folks you go to to make a map, they’ll be at the core of how we collaborate and make shared decisions. Sounds like fun to me!


Red Oak Victory anchors Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park

Did you know there’s a National Park on the waterfront in Richmond, California?  This city, which makes the news for all the wrong reasons — think the Chevron Refinery catching on fire or gun violence in the iron triangle — is also home to Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Historic Park (quite possibly the longest park name in the nation).

It’s fascinating park both for the story it tells, and also how it tells it. Unlike a classic national park where the Government owns the land and the buildings, this is an innovative partnership between the city, the park service and various non-profit partners. During World War II, Richmond was home to some of the largest ship yards in the world. It was also home to countless women — “Rosie’s” —  who picked up welding gloves and heavy equipment to build the machinery that liberated Europe and defeated Japan. It was also in these Kaiser shipyards that the concept of health coverage and insurance and workers was popularized.

At it’s height, these shipyards turned out three ships a day. And in one frenzy of activity, they assembled a liberty ship in five days. Most of these ships are now just a memory. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, berthed in San Francisco was actually assembled in Maine. So this makes the Red Oak Victory all the more special. It’s one of the few remaining ships built in these ship-yards that remains afloat today.  It’s actually in the care of the Richmond Museum who have been working since 1998 to restore it and fire up the boilers. That’s time consuming and expensive work. But without it, the National Historic Park is just a collection of signs showing old photos of what was.

The Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining ships built at the Richmond, CA shipyards during World War II.
The Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining ships built at the Richmond, CA shipyards during World War II.

You may have seen the recent report that estimated our National Park System has a $11.5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. That’s a big number. But it doesn’t include the money needed to restore other critical pieces of our national heritage — like the Red Oak Victory. That responsibility is falling to the volunteers and supporters of the Richmond Museum.

It’s time for the National Park Service to step up and help the volunteers of the Richmond Museum finish this effort. That would be a great way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the city of Richmond.  And with the boilers lit the historic park will finally come to life.  That’s a day I want to see.

Young mariners boarding the SS Red Oak Victory
Young mariners boarding the SS Red Oak Victory

Is it time to make the initiative process more transparent?

I was just reading an article about the Plastic Bag initiative that recently qualified for the 2016 election. My interest is more than passing, as securing a state-wide ban was a major success while I was at Heal the Bay. It had taken years of work, resulting in a political compromise that was signed into law by Governor Brown last year.

Now it’s on hold after the plastic bag manufacturers put up $3 million – 98% from out-of-state money – to collect the signatures to put it to a vote of the electorate.  The crazy part is that by simply qualifying the initiative the ban is now on hold. By some estimate, every additional year they can sell single-use plastic bags in California generates another $15 million in profit to the manufactures. In other words, for a payment of $3 million they will earn a five-fold return each year. I wish I could get that type of return on my savings account! In fact, the industry will have won handsomely even if they lose in 2016.

I’m not going to rehash the merits of banning plastic bags — that story has been told. And in fact, about half of all Californians live in municipalities that have already banned bags.  But it does again raise the whole question of the initiative process. To me what is most egregious is the misleading way that signatures were gathered. I know because I was asked for mine outside a local Trader Joe. Inside the store the vast majority of people were bringing their re-usable bags, while outside they were being asked whether they could “spare a minute to save jobs.”  I bet most people didn’t know what they were signing or that the person collecting signatures was likely being paid a dollar or more per signature gathered. Or that the jobs issue had been dealt with in the bill that was signed in to law and that it would create new green jobs in California.

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about money in politics as almost limitless amounts slosh around. Much as there’s a desperate need for transparency at the top, I feel it’s past time for transparency in the initiative process. By all means go and collect your signatures. Just make it clear at the point of signing who is behind the initiative and how much the signature gatherer is being paid for you to sign.

A more radical idea is to accept the concept that you can put almost anything on the ballot if you have enough money to spend (or invest as this case shows). As an alternative to the signature gathering process, let’s just have a limited number of slots on each ballot and sell them to the highest bidder. The funds collected could then go to fund voter education programs. Perhaps over time an educated electorate who turned out to vote would slow this craziness.

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch at the conference announcing the Bag Ban.

Let’s stick to old-style geoengineering

A couple of news articles recently caught my eye as once again they show that nature is far ahead of our technology.  Or to put it another way, the new thing over the horizon gives us an excuse to continue polluting today.

First came a study from Oxford University scientists that determined that trees really are the best way to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — both when alive, and when cooked as biochar.  Second, the esteemed US National Academy of Sciences released a report that says geoengineering — basically a technical fix to our screwing up the atmosphere — wasn’t quite ready for prime time but that more research is needed.

How much more research do we need to convince people that we should save existing forests and plant more where we can? I know it’s not as sexy as exotic proposals to modify the albedo of the planet by injecting sulphur into the atmosphere, or hanging mirrors in space. But it does have immediate benefits.  Forests don’t just store carbon dioxide, they clean our water, provide habitat for plants and animals, are an untapped reservoir of future medicines, and oh they are beautiful too.

And then there’s biochar. An ancient technology that is poised to make a comeback. Biochar is carbonized plant material. When added to soil it locks carbon away for an age. It also increases soil productivity, helps soil retain water, and in doing so can increase crop yields and enhance food security.  It’s been known for centuries in the Amazon as “terra pretta.” Perhaps its hard to patent it and make a buck, but it’s ready to deploy and can help solve several of the world’s problems right now.

So what are we waiting for? Perhaps geoengeering is ready for prime time after all – just old school.

Massive old trees, such as they coast redwoods, store carbon for centuries.
Massive old trees, such as they coast redwoods, store carbon for centuries.

Is it time to map and scale-up our rain gardens?

This past weekend’s storm here in the Bay Area brought a second “first flush” to the Bay.  It was at least six weeks since the last storm, so plenty of time for a new layer of gunk and trash to coat our streets waiting for the rain to wash it into the bay.

In a few places, the rain is now being slowed down and infiltrated back into the ground in “rain gardens” that are starting to pop up around the region as building codes require “low impact development” for new construction or grants are made available to retrofit streets. My new local Whole Foods is one example. The rain gardens there takes runoff from the surrounding streets and the parking lot and  runs it through the rain gardens. before it hits the storm drain system.  They work.   A 2012 report by the San Francisco Estuary Institute of two projects in El Cerrito demonstrated that water quality is greatly improved as a result.

As more of these start to be built, its time to start mapping their location so we can understand how they work together.  Knowing where they are going in – whether in a private garden or in a public street – is the starting point of getting strategic and intentional about where they need to be installed to improve water quality in our urban creeks and Bay.

I did a quick search and couldn’t find a resource like this for the Bay Area. A few cities, like Madison and their 1000 rain gardens challenge, have started to make some progress. Now its time for the Bay Area to step up!

Want to find 30 great parks near you?

Want to get outside this weekend and enjoy some time in the park? Perhaps to ride some single track, or take the dog for a walk? Well unless you know your parks pretty well, you can spend as much time visiting different web-sites to figure out where you can go to do what as you do actually in the park. That’s where this great new web-site — — comes in.

Take the Bay Area as an example. We have National Parks, State Parks, Regional Parks, City Parks, and more.  Lots to choose from, but it can quickly get confusing.  At this new web-site, just click on what you’re interested in, enter your address, and you’ll quickly get a list of up to 30 local parks, along with a map, and links to social media feeds about the park.

It’s a great resource for anyone who’d prefer to spend more time on the trail, and less time figuring out where to go. Thanks to the team who put this together. Especially the Parks Forward Commission and my friends at GreenInfo Network who provided the mapping data that lies at the core of this great new site!

Now time to find a great place to enjoy in the rain!

Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational
Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational

National Park Concessionaires seek to Shake Things Up (with apologies to Taylor Swift)

I think there may have been a recent bout of collective insanity washing across the States. What else could explain Taylor Swift, Delaware North and Xanterra filing trademark for common terms?

Delaware North has operated the concessions in Yosemite for the last 20 years or so. They are seeking trademark protections for the iconic Ahwahnee lodge and Camp Curry Village.  When the concession goes out to bid, they want the next concessionaire to pay them handsomely for the names that predate their operation by decades. Perhaps Delaware North should pay any remaining descendants of the tribes who lived in the area for their use of the name for the past 20 years — it is derived from their name for the valley, “Owwoni” or “large mouth — after all.

Not to be outdone, Xanterra who operates El Tovar at the Grand Canyon is now in one the act too. They are seeking trademark protection for El Tovar, Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch. There claim is at least based upon their operating the lodges for most of the past century.  Presumably, their claims are being filed largely because today’s lawyers see gaps in contracts written decades ago.

And to top it off, Taylor Swift is seeking to trademark such common terms as “1989” and “I Am an American Citizen.”  Will I have to put a penny in a jar every time I tell someone, no despite my British accent, “I Am an American Citizen?”

While the Taylor Swift push is a side-show, the push by the concessionaires to claim these trademarks disturbs me.  They are being allowed to operate with public parks as they offer a valuable service to the visiting public. It would be a loss to the public if these storied names went away because of a legal spat designed to increase their chances of retaining a lucrative concession.  Rather than take a short-term view, driven by clever attorneys, why not take a long-term view more in-keeping with the park ethic. Even if they lose the concession for a period, they will be better off in the long-term if these names and brands are maintained and strengthened. To me it’s clear that  regardless of what the lawyers may say, these names belong to the public as much as the parks they are allowed to operate in do.

Embed from Getty Images

Time to move Parks Forward

After months of work, dozens of hearings, and reams of data crunched, the Parks Forward Commission released their final report on Friday.  The report makes six basic recommendations to move California State Parks beyond permanent crisis, to a brighter future.

  • Create a dedicated transformation team.
  • Open pathways to leadership.
  • Create a statewide nonprofit strategic partner with resources not currently available from existing park partners to undertake projects in coordination with the Department .
  • Prioritize necessary support to protect the system’s natural and cultural resources for future generations .
  • Expand park access for California’s underserved communities and urban populations and engage California’s younger generations .
  • Establish a stable funding structure for California parks that includes a robust revenue generation strategy and a dedicated, reliable source of public funding .

It’s not the first report to make many of these recommendations, but hopefully the last as the time has come to focus on implementation.

It was no accident that the Commission put the issue of opening up multiple pathways to leadership up front. To me it’s the central issue that State Parks is facing and without change in this area, the park system will continue to fall short.  Over the past 30 years, leadership in parks has narrowed and been focused on law enforcement and peace officer training. Don’t get me wrong, public safety in parks is critical. But securing and maintaining a peace officer certification is costly and takes hours each year. It also narrows the pool of people drawn to park leadership. Opening up leadership to those with backgrounds in natural resources, recreation and the like, will strengthen parks and be the key to unlocking the other changes.

Too often when I have camped at a State Park, the only time I see the Ranger is when they drive around in their police vehicle a the end of the day. I will know the Commission Report has been successful when the Ranger walks around and invites me to the campfire talk they’re giving later that evening.

Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

Has spring arrived already?

It gets me every year. January is barely started and California is already flirting with Spring.

Last weekend, out in the redwoods in west Marin, the California Bay trees were blooming. When the weak sun filtered through the canopy and hit their branches, the diminutive cream colored flowers shone like little jewels. As the day wore on and the leaves heated up, that classic smell of the woods permeated the air — the peppery smell of this beautiful tree.

Have you seen the signs of Spring yet? Let me know!

One of the early signs of spring by the Bay.
One of the early signs of spring by the Bay.