Monday, March 25, 2013

Abortion in America

From a March 22 New York Times article:
North Dakota lawmakers passed a resolution on Friday to allow the public to decide whether the State Constitution should assert that life begins at conception, a move that would essentially ban all abortions in the state.
The measure, which will appear on next year’s ballot, comes a week after the Republican-controlled Legislature adopted a law that made abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
States have a myriad of restrictions and regulations on abortion. Parental consent, counseling recommendations, second opinions, conditions on health of the Mother are just a few. With North Dakota's push to pass a State Constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion in the state based upon a strict period of time after conception, it would appear that the time period in which a state allows abortion wields a significant impact on reproductive choice. 

The Guttmacher Institute tracks legislative data on how each state restricts abortion, including by weeks of pregnancy. Here are the results, when projected onto a U.S. Map:

The darker the green, the looser the restrictions on abortion by week. The lighter states restrict abortions earlier in the pregnancy.  It's interesting to see how diverse the laws are geographically. One might expect that the Northeast would allow for abortions to occur later (see New Jersey, Vermont, and New Hampshire's dark green), but New York and Massachusetts restrict abortions after 27 weeks. Conservative Alaska and West Virginia also break with expectations and  don't restrict abortion by the pregnancy's progression.

Certainly there are other restrictions that make it very difficult to get an abortion. Mississippi is a good example of this: last year the state attempted to ban abortion by heavily regulating where they could take place.

Below the frequencies are charted: Half of the states ban abortions after 27 weeks, while almost a fifth have no restriction at all.

One maternal health fact deserves to be noted here, however. Tests that detect potentially fatal birth defects and chromosomal abnormalities like Down Syndrome aren't conducted until between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy. So the 16% of states that ban abortion after 20 weeks allows for a very tight window for mothers who make their decision to abort a pregnancy based on those tests. If they miss that narrow two week window, states could be requiring women to carry a doomed pregnancy to term (imagine a mother who's been told by her doctor that her baby's lungs aren't developing properly, and will die as soon as it's born).

With states like North Dakota and Mississippi hosting only one facility providing abortions, and with 4 in 10 women who have abortions coming in below the poverty level, the post-20 week imposes an extreme restriction on poor women in those states. The notion that North Dakota and other states are moving to restrict that even further should cause alarm not just to advocates of reproductive choice, but also to anti-poverty and social justice advocates as well. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Going Interactive

Traditional GIS software has some very powerful tools. Three dimensional terrain maps, tools for remote sensing inputs, network analysis...there's no surprise that tomes of instructions are tutorials have been published.

But last fall, Google launched their Fusion Tables application. And for projecting policy data, it's a game changer.

Still an "experimental" application, Fusion Tables allows for "merging" of data tables onto their pre-loaded boundary files. Above, a survey of diabetes rates by county was merged onto Google's county boundary files. Some quick manipulation of the data, scales, color gradients, and voila. Unfortunately, what's become somewhat of a theme in this blog, Southern and Mid-Western states have some of the highest rates of Diabetes.

One of ArcMap's most significant flaws is its lack of interactive features. Each map published is static. The viewer can't explore the layer's features and attributes or zoom into areas of interest.

Suites like ArcMap aren't going anywhere. It still has an arsenal of tools that Google can't offer. But a goal of policy analysis is to inform and educate, and engaging the viewer with an interactive experience that satisfies any additional queries they might have, but also sparks curiosity into the data and the policy, is something far more exciting than a static map.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Update: March Madness Maps

College football is often criticized for its championship system. Not only does the BCS not allow for a decisive champion to be crowned, but oftentimes the same schools from the same conferences are selected for the big bowl games year after year. In 2011, LSU and Alabama were selected for the championship game, even though the two had already played during the regular season. SEC schools regularly dominate their opponents in their bowl games, and at times it seems there are two divisions in college football: The SEC and everyone else.

That's why the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament is so much fun: 64 teams (fine, 68, but purists like the original model) half of which are gone by the end of the second day, and down to 16 by the weekend, all compete from around the country from conferences you've never heard of. Sometimes you've never heard of the school either. You might have thought that Northwestern State was either in Chicago or the Pacific Northwest of the United States, not the northwestern corner of Louisiana, in a town called Nachitoches.

Where exactly are teams like Gonzaga, Butler, Marquette, Davidson, and Creighton and how do they fit into the national distribution of teams in the tournament? Are the teams more evenly distributed throughout the country?

Take a look:

Certainly the NCAA has their concentrations of basketball schools: Tobacco Road in North Carolina (Duke, UNC, NC State all in the tournament, with Davidson just down the road). Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky are usually well represented (minus the bluegrass state this year).

But for the most part the geographic diversity of the tournament is impressive. Most regions are represented, with 32 states and the District of Columbia sending teams to the big dance. North Carolina and Pennsylvania have the most schools (5), but Indiana and California are right behind (4). New York, Florida, Ohio, Kansas are right up there too (3).

A few states with previous glories aren't represented this year: West Virginia, Arkansas, and Connecticut to name a few. The Mountain West, New England, and significant portions of the South came up short this year.

At the end of the day though this is a reasonably well-rounded tournament, with a diverse group of teams from around the country competing for the championship. It's no wonder it's one of the most profitable athletic entities in the world, with CBS paying $11 billion for the rights. It's a dynamic entertainment product that draws loyalties (and television eyeballs) from around the country.

Update: This post now includes the 64 teams scheduled to play on March 21-22

Friday, March 15, 2013

Coal in Decline

Analyzing energy policy is incredibly complicated. There are hundreds of variables to look at: Emissions, output, energy source, location, year commissioned, just to name a few. Figuring out what data you want to analyze depends on what questions you're trying to answer.

Electricity produced from coal is on a decline in this country. Experts point to cheap natural gas as the main cause, but a decline is easy to access seams and increased regulation play a role as well.

Looking at the graph below, notice the gap between the yellow(coal) and green (natural gas) lines back in 2003. The United States produced almost three times more electricity from coal than they did from natural gas.

But in the last year, natural gas electricity production has largely caught up with coal, even surpassing it for a month in April 2012.

(In case you're curious about the frequencies of this chart, the spikes represent winter and summer production, when demand is the highest. The valleys are spring and fall.) 

If this trend continues, more coal plants will shut down. Plants will age and not have the resources to upgrade, regulations will make it more difficult to build new plants, and other technologies and efficiencies will simply push coal out of the American electricity production market. As the industry continues to decline, which it almost certainly will, thousands of jobs will disappear. 

But the main question is: Where are these coal power plants, and what effect will their closure have on their communities?

The Department of Energy keeps detailed records of every power plant in the country, and the Annual Electric Generator Report has a lot of information on coal fired ones, all 1,405 of them. The rudimentary map above is just the number of each state's coal plants (frequencies calculated in SPSS then exported into an ArcMap state shape file), with arbitrary classifications. 

Clearly there is a concentration of plants in the Upper-Midwest and Appalachia. Are policy makers considering the effects of the transition away from coal (which is inevitable) on these areas? As we've seen in other maps, the Midwest and Appalachia already have plenty of problems. Will the jobs be replaced by new ones in the natural gas industry? Are policymakers considering transition and re-retraining programs for those left behind?

Areas for further analysis: (Almsot too many to go over, but here are a few)

Because DOE keeps the year each power plant was built, you could map where the nation's oldest (and usually the dirtiest) plants are.

DOE also keeps records on the locations of other fuel sources, such as wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas:

  • A simple map like the one above could be made for each energy source.
  • Nuclear plants could be examined by their proximity to metropolitan areas
  • Are natural gas plants being built where the coal plants are?
DOE also lists each plant by county. A more sophisticated analysis could be conducted, pinpointing exactly where the plants are, allowing for more detailed analysis of individual states or regions. At that point socio-economic data is even more relevant.

Sierra Club has geographic data on the dirtiest coal plants in the country. It might be interesting to see that compared with asthma rates, median income, etc.

What would you want to see?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Who Gets Food Stamps?

Claims about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were tossed around a lot during the previous Presidential election. Mitt Romney falsely claimed Obama suspended the work requirement to receive the assistance. Newt Gingrich called Obama a "Food Stamp President."

More recently, a new movie A Place at the Table, highlighting hunger in America, just hit the theaters.

But most importantly: Forty-seven million people receive the benefit monthly.

With all the talk of makers and takers, I thought it would be interesting to map, state-by-state, SNAP participation in America. There are many ways to graph this, so let's start simple.

Above is a map of the continental United States' SNAP usage. Perhaps not surprisingly, the country's most populous states have the highest participation. It's important to emphasize this because it illustrates that poverty isn't a red or blue state problem, or unique to a geographical area. Poverty is a national problem that leaves tens of millions of Americans unsure of where they're going to get their next meal. And generally, the more people there are, the more poor people there are too.

But while we have this data up, let's tweak it and see what participation looks like as a percentage of state population. This is a slightly different metric than state participants per national capita, that would look at each states' participation as a share of the national total. Instead, recipients by state divided by the state population should display which states have the highest concentrations of those dependent on food assistance programs.

Here we have a slightly different picture. California, with the third highest number of SNAP participants in the country, incredibly has the 2nd smallest percentage of use, just over 2%. Texas, who ranked first by total SNAP participants, has fallen to the middle of the pack.

With the exception of the two outliers in Oregon and Maine, we clearly see a trend of states moving from Michigan to the north, down through Ohio and the Appalachia  and into the deep South through Louisiana.

So What?
Not exactly policy breakthrough, but when deriding the country's "takers," one should remember that there are poor people everywhere in America, who rely on assistance programs like SNAP to feed their family. And the next time you hear a Congressperson talking about food stamps as emblematic of a society unduly reliant on government, check to see how reliant the state they represent is on assistance programs.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Context Matters

Take a look at the graphic below. What do you think it is? A modern art piece you might have caught at the Hirshorn? A network of power lines?

Of course this blog is about creative ways to display data, especially maps, that people can easily digest. It's impossible to figure out exactly what it is we're looking at, even if I did provide a scale bar and north orientation, without key pieces of context. 
Let's add another layer, in this case, just a basemap, and a few other key pieces of context.

So what was a basically worthless layer of lines, is now an interesting look at the network of walking trails maintained by the National Park Service. Another key piece of context: It's 60 degrees today. Go out and get some sunshine.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Community Gardens in Washington D.C.

One natural trade-off of urban living is the lack of private outdoor spaces. Rowhouses can be great for density and community, but the narrow strip of land in most lots is pretty tight. Outdoor furniture, grills, and of course cars compete for this space. Most of the rental units going online in the next few years are all one and two bedroom apartments in the sky.

Community gardens can provide a substitute for avid gardeners without a plot of their own. Washington D.C. has 38 of them. And they're fairly well spread throughout the city.

The shape file didn't organze the gardens by which ward they're in, but ArcMap makes it pretty easy to calculate the garden point features inside each ward polygon using the select by location feature.

The 2010 census found Ward 2 to have the largest population and yet only one commmunity garden is established there. Its expensive real estate in neighborhoods like Foggy Botton, Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter, Chinatown, and the West End undoubtedly make finding open spaces for community garden development difficult. 

Ward 3 has a respectable six gardens. This could be seen as a little ironic considering Ward 3 is one of the more suburban areas in the city, and is probably in the least need for public outdoor spaces. 

While the smallest in geographical area, Ward 1 is tied for the second most populous ward in the city, and its three gardens is surprising. But if we change the metric to gardens per square mile, Ward 1 is probably doing quite well.

Ward 6: On one hand, high-income, established neighborhood of Capitol Hill to the north. On the other, in-transition gentrification, with lots of reclaimed lots around the Navy Yard and baseball stadium. This is a plausible recipe for a lot of community gardens.

So What?
Policy analysts shouldn't just conduct this type of social research and leave it as is. Policy debates are conducted within a concrete political context. I think Michael Pollan in this quarter's Lucky Peach made a good argument for why should we care about community gardens:
We're sensorially deprived right now in modern life. Our eyes are engaged - sometimes out ears - but our bodies? Not so much. These aren't just bags of bones we're carrying around. When we cook, when we garden, when we make things with our hands, we're engaging all of our senses and that has - in ways we don't really know how to quantify - deeply positive effects on our mental and physical health. 
Opportunities for future analysis: 

-Create a half-mile buffer around each garden to determine which areas are underserved

-Create a new attribute field of gardens-per-capita, calculate for each ward, graphed on a color ramp.

Thanks to the District of Columbia Data Catalogue (great source of free .xml, .kml, and .shp files) for providing a shape file updated October 2012.