Mapping Social Inequities with Ann Moss Joyner

Published on
July 14, 2010

Investigative journalist-turned-GIS expert Ann Moss Joyner has made some pretty persuasive maps in her time. There was the map showing how an Ohio community's water plant just couldn't seem to serve a historically black neighborhood just hundreds of feet away, even as the plant's water lines snaked miles to other, white neighborhoods. Another map showed a poor, mostly Latino neighborhood in the center of Modesto had far fewer streetlights than adjacent neighborhoods. Still another revealed how environmentally harsh hog-farming practices exacerbated flood damage in one community.  

Joyner, president of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities, makes maps to expose social inequities, mostly for attorneys filing civil rights cases. She has shown how some minority neighborhoods, particularly in the South and in California's Central Valley are surrounded by cities but "unannexed," often leaving them without sewer pipes, trash pickup, water service and police and fire protection. The lack of these services can harm the health of these neighborhoods' residents, she said.

Today, she shared her work and advice with the USC/California Endowment National Health Journalism Fellows meeting in Los Angeles this week. You can see her very informative PowerPoint presentation here.

Using mapping to research health and urban planning stories and convey their conclusions isn't easy, she acknowledged. Journalists may need to hire a professional or public health graduate student with experience in GIS mapping to help.

But the results are worth it, she said.

"A lot of times, the message you want to get out is not the message people want to hear," Joyner said. Statistics about social inequities "can make people's eyes glaze over, but maps can help them engage. Maps have this way of bringing you in psychologically. We find it's especially powerful in community organizing. If it works for that, then it's going to work equally well for bringing people into a news story."

For more on this topic, check out David Herzog's ReportingonHealth essay on using GIS mapping in health stories and ReportingonHealth member Jeff Kelly Lowenstein's interactive mapping project offering a wealth of data on Chicago nursing homes .