Erin Coleman, Dao Doan, Sarah Peters and Madeline Wander, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
In the spring of 2011, UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning offered a unique course on web-based GIS applications tailored to the needs of planning students. Professor Yoh Kawano, who initiated and taught the course, designed the program to bring out the “coder” in the non-coding planner; ultimately Kawano trained students to create interactive and widely accessible mapping websites for planning problems.
The course taught students to incorporate active data feeds from several websites that have made their APIs publicly available. Using Yelp’s API, for example, students programmed their sites to query restaurants, hospitals, grocery stores, and entertainment options. Many student teams also used the API from Metro, the transit provider for Los Angeles County, to display transit facilities and real-time bus information on their sites.
While APIs offer revolutionary possibilities for online mapping, most have some limitations and it remains difficult to guarantee accurate results. While APIs from for-profit entities often come with data caps and branding requirements, even nonprofit APIs presented challenges. The Metro API, which was released just weeks before the course began, stopped working one weekend when a combination of student users and independent developers overwhelmed Metro’s servers.
To overcome these limitations, students incorporated desktop GIS within their web-based maps. Students added shapefiles from ESRI’s ArcGIS suited to their sites, creating more reliable platforms and adding deeper levels of analysis. Once students had uploaded their shapefiles on the university’s ArcGIS server, they programmed calls to those shapefiles into the code and created intuitive user interfaces to allow users to access and display the data. One student-created website, which investigated potential high-speed rail station areas, allowed users to view current and projected demographics for Census tracts near each proposed station simply by clicking on the map.
The course was structured as a studio with students working in teams, simulating real-world work environments. Some teams devised sites that map transportation infrastructure and needs; others created sites that help tourists explore new locations; a few teams designed sites to help restaurant lovers find good places to eat. Our team, called CloudWhirled, created an innovative mapping tool designed to serve specific needs of affordable housing developers in Los Angeles.
The premise of the project is based on a specific source of federal funding for affordable housing development called the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. Federal tax credits are an essential component in funding affordable housing construction. In turn, to qualify for this funding key criteria include the development’s proximity to various amenities: schools, transit, grocery stores, etc. On the competitive California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC) application, each site amenity is scored differently based on distance parameters from the location. With this in mind, our team, created an online tool to automatically generate the scores for each amenity type based upon a user-generated site location in the City of Los Angeles.
While the site, in its current state, is narrow in scope, it has great potential to assist affordable housing developers by streamlining site feasibility and assisting with funding applications on a larger scale. Our team is currently working with the UCLA Lewis Center to incorporate the website into the existing CALOTS web application. The creation of this online tool would not have been possible without Kawano’s timely and well-designed course, which reflects UCLA’s understanding that web-based GIS may very well become the norm for all GIS users.
The authors can be reached through corresponding author Madeline Wander at firstname.lastname@example.org.