Making Maps to Make an Impact

My coworkers keep telling me I picked a very exciting time to start working at the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), and it's not just because they started parking food trucks down the street from our office. In case you haven't heard, San Francisco is in the middle of one of the greatest housing crises in its history. As the department that supports the development and maintenance of affordable housing in one of the most notoriously expensive cities in the country, MOHCD is at the center of some of the most interesting (and often contentious) conversations in city government. As an intern tasked with data collection, management, and visualization using Geographic Information Systems software, I thought I would be quietly making maps far away from the political debates. However, I'm quickly learning that, when it comes to housing in SF, everything is political.

My day-to-day tasks as an intern deal primarily with data organization and visual interpretation. Essentially, I make large spreadsheets of words and numbers more understandable-- I make them into maps! Data is a powerful decision-making tool, and mapping data across space makes it even more powerful. For example, the publicly-available American Communities Survey results contain a wealth of information about different populations (ages, income levels, employment status, job type, etc.). By displaying certain characteristics visually on a map, one can see relationships and patterns. For example, one can map which areas of San Francisco have the largest population of individuals over the age of 65 whose income is below the federal poverty line. Overlay this map with the locations of the City's affordable housing units for seniors, it becomes clear which areas are well-served and which are under-served. Map where the highest concentrations of low-income 45 to 55 year-old reside currently, and one can see which areas will need the greatest investment in senior affordable housing in the next decade to allow these people to age in place.

I could play with different combinations of characteristics for hours, like I did in my Introduction to Geographic Information Systems class at Cal. However, in this job, I'm not playing. The maps I develop and their accompanying analyses are going directly to San Francisco Supervisors and their staffs so they can see what MOHCD brings to their districts and where additional support is needed. The goal is to ensure that, despite limited resources, Supervisors prioritize the growth of affordable housing. In a city where developers have a lot of power and affordable housing is expensive to produce, this data and how is is presented is part of a very political process. I guess I'll see just how political it is when I get away from the computer and head to City Hall with my boss for my first round of meetings with legislative staffers. Stay tuned...


Denim Ohmit is a UC Berkeley junior studying Urban Studies, Public Policy, and Geospatial Information Sciences & Technology. He is currently interning in the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.