Mapping the Census and the Sincerest Form of Flattery

by Brian Timoney

The life of an IPO-less entrepreneur is a curiosity, especially in difficult economic times. So when well-meaning folks ask “what is it like?”, I answer that while there’s great freedom in working on one’s own ideas, that’s counterbalanced by the realization that most of one’s ideas range from the merely unworkable to laughably money-losing. But failure can be a more effective teacher than success: stay in the game long enough one develops a bit of judgment in distinguishing wheat from chaff.

So when Steve Romalewski and his team at CUNY’s Center for Urban Research released their block-by-block race/ethnicity maps for 15 major cities, my immediate thought was “this is an extremely cool way to understand important patterns in a very bulky data set.”

My second thought?  “I need to steal this.”

    This CUNY map of racial/ethnic change using 2000/2010 Census inspired thieve


(If you believe the famous Picasso quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, then ponder to what depths of mendacity a work-a-day web mapper willingly lowers himself.)

Working on the decennial redistricting process in Denver, we applied CUNY’s mapping technique to our own data and found a fascinating mix of gentrification, edge growth, and ethnic-group displacement that will have a substantial impact on the city’s politics in the next decade. So I thought making a web map covering Colorado’s Front Range (roughly Pueblo to Fort Collins) would be both intellectually interesting as well as a chance to work with some newer tools.

Map: Race/Ethnicity Along Colorado’s Front Range: Block-by-Block, 2000-2010

Like the CUNY map, we’re using the Bing basemap for its thorough neighborhood-scale labeling as well as easy REST tile access. Using a custom slim build of the latest OpenLayers dev release, we get the new touch support. Throw in a touch of CSS magic from Tobin Bradley’s GeoPortal project, and we get a decent-looking map that works on touch phones and tablets with little extra work. The tiles themselves were created in the TileMill cartographic studio: a true pleasure to use and a tool that will merit its own post next week.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that FOSS4G will have OpenLayers guys, Tobin Bradley of GeoPortal, and the Development Seed crew who created TileMill.)

iPad goodness with little extra effort

    New OpenLayers touch features + GeoPortal CSS give us iPad support the way we like it: out of the box


From a developer’s perspective, the map doesn’t “do much”: a couple of tile layers, a slider, and zoom-to buttons. No round-trips to a database, no drill down information. While unpaid side work definitely puts one in the mood to simplify, it’s also out of respect to the intended audience of non-technical users in Colorado. Because chances are they surf like you and I surf: with a bit of ADD and very low tolerance for anything that confuses and may require reading the Help. So the goal here was to create a pleasant 40-second experience: play with the slider, click a few buttons, and then on to the next thing. The 1% of the audience that is really into can get in touch for more.

It’s an exciting time for web mapping and cartographic design: roll up your sleeves and start stealing.


—Brian Timoney