It’s impossible to track the many investment programs in disinvested Chicago neighborhoods

An article in the Chicago Tribune that announces Chase bank’s increase in the amount of grants it is offering in Chicago goes on to detail myriad existing grant, loan, and donation programs from public and private sources for neighborhoods that have few jobs, few resources, no privilege, and lots of quality of life problems.

But not all of the programs. There are more, but I don’t even know how many more, nor do I know all of their names. I just know that I’ve read about them before.

The article is where I learned that Benefit Chicago – a $100 million investment fund  operated by the Chicago Community Trust, MacArthur Foundation, and Calvert Foundation, but hasn’t finished raising all the money – has started giving out loans and grants to Chicago recipients, including Garfield Produce Company.

Calvert Foundation has a brokerage (I think that’s the best name for it) through which regular Chicagoans can invest $20 minimum and earn 1.0% interest on that investment after 1 year. Longer periods net higher returns.

Anyway, back to my point…

If I were a business owner in Chicago, and I wanted financial assistance to expand my business – say, buy more kitchen equipment to be able to produce more food – where would I start looking?

Is there a list somewhere? Will my alder know? Is there a group in my neighborhood that can help me track down a funder? Is this more complicated than getting a VC to fund a “Bodega killer“?

One of the things I’ve tried to do with the tens of thousands of maps on Chicago Cityscape is highlight when a business or property owner could be eligible for financial assistance based purely on their geography.

Map of areas where you, as a business or property owner, can get funding assistance from publicly-funded programs.

These geographers where government funding is available are marked with a green icon of a dollar bill that links to a Resources page I adapted from a pamphlet the city’s planning department used to produce. These include:

  • TIF (tax increment financing) districts, including whether the district participates in the Small Business Improvement Fund
  • MMRP (micro market recovery program)
  • Enterprise Zone (a state of Illinois program)
  • Industrial Growth Zone (expedited approval processes + environmental remediation money)
  • Special Service Area (SSA; business improvement district)
  • Chicago landmark and National Register of Historic Places districts
  • Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMD), although I forget what assistance is available here
  • Neighborhood Opportunity Fund zones (an interesting policy that charges developers for additional density and grants that money to small business owners on the South and West Sides)

Not every area within the above categories is in a disinvested neighborhood because not every program was designed for that. 

Green dollar bill signs on Chicago Cityscape

Once you know this, I guess you can target your research. But there’s still a lot more to do. To start: Where the heck is Chase investing? Where the heck is Benefit Chicago investing? They don’t publish maps, as far as I can tell.

Actually, thinking about this more, as I reach nearly 400 words in this blog post, I’ve got another idea: Show up at Rahm’s new Small Business Center at City Hall and ask them.

This is why we need more people editing OpenStreetMap

Unmapped homes in the Irving Park community area

These homes were built after the City of Chicago’s building footprints dataset was created (2010?). Ian Dees imported the dataset in 2012. Many of the buildings that you can now see on Bing Maps have not been present on Bing’s satellite imagery since at least 2012.

1. OpenStreetMap is the world’s most complete free map, to which anyone can contribute their “ground truth” data (the location of wells and convenience stores, road names, and whether Lula Café at 2537 N Kedzie Boulevard in Logan Square has outdoor seating).

2. OpenStreetMap is used by thousands of non-profit and non-governmental organizations, corporations, apps, and people daily to locate themselves, locate others, get directions, and find places.

3. Nearly every map is out of date the moment it is published, including online, “current” maps like Google Maps, Bing Maps, their competitors, and OpenStreetMap.

4. Bing Maps provides its satellite imagery to OpenStreetMap editors – you and me – so that we can trace (copy) things on the planet to be things on the map. Google Maps doesn’t allow tracing (copying).

5. Bing updated its satellite imagery for Chicago (and probably a lot of other places) within the last six weeks…and there are hundreds of objects that aren’t yet mapped in OpenStreetMap. In Chicago most of these buildings are newly constructed houses.

Those hundreds of houses now need to be added to OpenStreetMap, with addresses, to complete the buildings collection in Chicago, and to expand the gazetteer (an address book) of places in Chicago.

I’m glad you want to help me do it! Here are two helpful things you can do:

  1. Start tracing the buildings yourself (here’s how new mappers can get started), or
  2. Leave notes at buildings which aren’t yet mapped so that map editors like myself know where to look to trace buildings.

Update: There’s a bonus third thing you can do, and that’s come to the next MaptimeCHI event on Thursday, February 26th, at the Chicago Community Trust (225 N Michigan, 22nd floor). RSVP for Anatomy of a Web Map. The Trust will also provide food and beverages. I’ll be there to teach new mappers and assist generally.

Adding notes is extremely helpful

You can contribute without editing by adding notes describing new things, or identifying problems with existing things. Click the “Add a note” button on OpenStreetMap.org.

How I created a map of Illinois Amtrak routes in TileMill in less than 30 minutes

This interactive map was created for a Grid Chicago article to show the cities and Amtrak routes mentioned. Click and drag it around or hover your mouse on the red train station markers. 

Want to create a map like that and publish it on your own website? It’s easy. I’ll show you how to do it in less than 30 minutes. First, download the following files:

All shapefiles are from the United States Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics’s National Transportation Atlas 2012 edition except for Illinois places, which comes from the Census Bureau’s TIGER project.

At the end of this tutorial, you’ll have a good introduction on how to find geographic data, build a map with TileMill, style the map, and publish it for the public. Your map will not look like mine as this tutorial doesn’t describe how to add labels or use the hover/info feature.

Tutorial to make Amtrak Illinois map

  1. Unzip the four ZIP files you downloaded and move their contents into a folder, like /Documents/GIS/Amtrak Illinois/shapefiles. This is your project folder.
  2. Install TileMill and open it.
  3. Set up a project. In the Projects pane, click “New Project”. In the filename field, title it “amtrak_illinois”. Ensure that the checkbox next to “Default data” is checked – this shows a world map and helps you get your bearings (but it’s not absolutely necessary).
  4. Get familiar with TileMill’s layout. Your new project will open with the map on the left side and your Carto style code on the right side. There are four buttons aligning the left edge of your map. From top to bottom they are: Templates, Font list, Carto guide, and Layers.
  5. Add a layer. We’re going to add the four shapefile layers you downloaded. Click the “Layers” button and then click “Add layer”. In the ID field, type in “amtrak_routes”. For Datasource, browse to your project folder and find “amtrak.shp” – this file has the Amtrak route lines. Then click “Done”. Click “Save & Style”.
  6. Style that layer. When you click “Save & Style” after adding a layer, your attention will be called to the Carto style code on the right side of TileMill. A section of code with the “amtrak_routes” #selector will have been inserted with some default colors and styles. If you know CSS, you will be familiar with how to change the Amtrak routes line styles. Change the “line-color” to “#000”. After “line-color”, add a new line and insert “line-opacity: 0.5;”. This will add some transparency to the line. Press the “Save” button above the code.
  7. Add remaining layers. Repeat Step 5 and add 3 more layers: “amtrk_sta.shp” (ID field: “amtrak_stations”), “state.shp” (ID field: “states”), and “tl_2012_17_place.shp” (ID field: “illinois_cities”).
  8. Hide bus stations. The Amtrak stations layer shows bus and ferry stations as part of Amtrak’s Thruway connections. You probably don’t want to show these. In your Carto style code, rename the #selector from “#amtrak_stations” to “#amtrak_stations[STNTYPE=’RAIL’]”. That makes the following style code only apply to stations with the “rail” type. Since there’s no style definition for things that aren’t of that type, they won’t appear.

Screenshot of my map.

Prepare your map for uploading

TileMill has many exporting options. You can save it as MBTiles and publish the map for free using MapBox (TileMill’s parent), or you can export it as image files (but it won’t be interactive), or you can display the map using the Leaflet JavaScript map library (which I use for the Chicago Bike Map app). This tutorial will explain how to export MBTiles and upload to MapBox, the server I’m using to display the map at the top of this page.

  1. Change project settings. To upload to MapBox, you’ll have to export your project as MBTiles, a proprietary format. Click the “Export” button above your Carto style code and click “MBTiles”. You’ll be asked to provide a name, description, attribution, and version. Input appropriate text for all but version.
  2. Adjust the zoom levels. Adjust the number of zoom levels you want (the more you have the longer it takes to export and upload your project, and you might exceed MapBox’s free 50 MB account limit). My map has zoom levels 8-11.
  3. Adjust the bounds. You’ll then want to draw your bounds: how much of the map’s geographic extents you want to export. Zoom to a level where you can see the entire state of Illinois in your map. Hold down the Shift key and drag a box around the state, plus a buffer (so viewers don’t fall of your map when they pan to the edges).
  4. Export your map. Click Export and watch the progress! On a four-year-old MacBook it took less than one minute to export the project.
  5. Bring the export to your project folder. When export finishes, click the “Save” button and browse to your project folder. Click the file browser’s save button.
  6. Upload to MapBox. Login to MapBox’s website and click “Upload Layer”. Browse to your project folder, select the .mbtiles folder, and click “Upload file”. Upon a successful upload, your map will display.
  7. Embed it in your website. Click the “Share” button in the upper left corner of your map and copy the embed code. Paste this into the HTML source code of a webpage (or in a WordPress post) and save that (I’m not going to provide instructions on how to do that).

Now you know how to find geographic data, build a custom map using the TileMill application, begin to understand how to style it, and embed your map for the public on a website or blog.

N.B. I was originally going to use QGIS to build a map and then publish a static image before I realized that TileMill + MapBox (the website) can build a map but publish an interactive feature instead of a static image. I’m happy I went that route. However, I did use QGIS to verify the data and even create a new shapefile of just a few of the key train stations on the Lincoln Service (the centerpiece of my Grid Chicago article).

Cycle mapping

A screenshot of Critical Map: Milano. 

What are the sites that will let you either draw or upload a bike route to share with others?

And what are the sites or mobile apps that give you cycle routing?

A screenshot of Bike Share Map: London, UK.

And other bike-related maps?

I’m just simply researching and collecting links to cycling-related map mashups and apps.

Using Google Fusion Tables to create individual Chicago Ward maps

I wanted to create a map of the 35th Ward boundaries using Google My Maps for a story on Grid Chicago. I planned to create this by taking the Chicago Wards boundary shapefile and exporting just the 35th Ward using QGIS into a KML file. I ran into many problems and ended up using Google Fusion Tables as the final solution.

The problems

First, QGIS creates invalid KML files. Google Earth will tell you this. I opened the KML file in a text editor and removed the offending parts (Google Earth mildly tells you what these are; you can use this validator to get more information).

Second, Google My Maps would not import the KML file. I tried a different browser and a different KML file; a friend ran into the same issue. I reported this problem to Google.

The solution

I uploaded to Google Fusion Tables a KML file containing all wards. I did this instead of uploading the single Ward because, like a database, I can filter values in the column, selecting only the row I want with “ward=35”.

After applying the filter, the map will show the boundary for just that ward. I grab the HTML code for an embeddable map and voila, the article now displays an interactive map of the 35th Ward.

Whenever I want to create a map for a different ward, I go back to this Fusion Table, make a new filter and copy the new HTML code.

A screenshot of the embedded map, showing just 1 of 50 wards, in the Grid Chicago article. 


I had the same problems with QGIS exporting and uploading the KML files to My Maps the other day when I was creating maps for the abandoned railroads for Monday’s Grid Chicago article. Not thinking about Fusion Tables, I drew on the map with my mouse the lines.

Screenshot of the map of abandoned railroads. 

Using Google Refine to get the stories out of your data

Let’s say you’re perusing the 309,425 crash reports for automobile crashes in Chicago from 2007 to 2009 and you want to know a few things quickly.

Like how many REAR END crashes there were in January 2007 that had more than 1 injury in the report. With Google Refine, you could do that in about 60 seconds. You just need to know which “facets” to setup.

By the way, there are 90 crash reports meeting those criteria. Look at the screenshot below for how to set that up.

Facets to choose to filter the data

  1. Get your January facet
  2. Add your 2007 facet
  3. Select the collision type of “REAR END” facet
  4. Choose to include all the reports where injury is greater than 1 (click “include” next to each number higher than 1)

After we do this, we can quickly create a map using another Google tool, Fusion Tables.

Make a map

  1. Click Export… and select “Comma-separated value.” The file will download. (Make sure your latitude and longitude columns are called latitude and longitude instead of XCOORD and YCOORD or sometimes Fusion Tables will choke on the location and try to geocode your records, which is redundant.)
  2. Go to Google Fusion Tables and click New Table>Import Table and select your file.
  3. Give the new table a descriptive title, like “January 2007 rear end crashes with more than 1 injury”
  4. In the table view, click Visualize>Map.
  5. BAM!

I completed all the tasks on this page in under 5 minutes and then spent 5 more minutes writing this blog. “The power of Google.”

Free online GIS tools: An introduction to GeoCommons

Read my tutorial on how I created the pedestrian map with GeoCommons. Read on for an introduction to GeoCommons and online GIS tools.

GeoCommons, like Google My Maps and Earth, is part of the “poor man’s GIS package.” It’s another tool that provides (few) of the functions that desktop GIS software offers. But it excels at making simple and somewhat complex maps.

I first used GeoCommons over a year ago. I started using it because it would convert whatever data you uploaded into another format that was probably more useful. I mentioned it in this article about converting files. For example, if you have a KML file, you can upload it and export it as a shapefile for GIS programs, or a CSV file to load into a table editor or spreadsheet application.

After creating the Chicago bike crash maps using Google Fusion Tables, I wanted to try out another map-making web application, one that provided more customization and prettier maps.

I found that web application and created a version of the bike crash maps, with several other data layers, in GeoCommons. I overlaid bike counts and bikeways so you can observe some relationships between each visual dataset. My latest map (screenshot below), created Wednesday, shows pedestrian counts in downtown Chicago overlaid with CTA and downtown Metra stations, as well as the 48 intersections with the most pedestrian collisions (from this UNC study, PDF).

Screenshot of pedestrian count map described above.

How these online GIS tools can be useful to you

I bet there’s a way you can use Google Fusion Tables and GeoCommons for your job or project. They’re extremely simple to use: they can take in data from the spreadsheets you’re already working on and turn them into themed reference maps. With mapping, you can do simple, visual analysis that doesn’t require statistical software or knowledge.

Imagine plotting your client list on a map and grouping them by age to see if perhaps your younger clients tend to live in the same neighborhoods of town, or if they’re more diverse (should you do this, keep the map private, something that you can’t do in GeoCommons – yet).

You may also find it useful if you want to create a route for your salespeople or for visiting church members at their homes. Plot all the addresses on a map, then manually filter them into different groups based on the clusters you see. With Google Fusion Tables, you can easily add a new column with the GROUP information and apply a numbered or lettered group and then re-sort.

Other things you can do in GeoCommons

  • Merge tables with geography – I uploaded two datasets: a table containing census tract IDs and demographic information for Cook County I downloaded from the American FactFinder 2; and a shapefile containing Cook County census tracts boundary information. After merging them, I could download a NEW shapefile that contained both datasets.
  • Make multi-layer maps
  • Symbolize based on frequency/rate
  • Convert data – This is by far the most useful feature. It imports “shapefiles (SHP), comma separated values (CSV), Keyhole Markup Language (KML), and GeoRSS” and exports “Shapefile, CSV, KML, GeoRSS Atom, Spatialite, and JSON” (from the GeoCommons user manual).

Read my tutorial on how I created the pedestrian map with GeoCommons.

Interview with Bay Citizen on bike crash map

Thank you, Tasmeen, for asking about my bike crash map that your newspaper inspired me to create.

Read the interview.

Read about the bike crash map for Chicago.

View the bike crash map for Chicago (2007-2009).

It’s not this sunny yet, but today it was 49°F in Chicago. This photo was taken on Milwaukee Avenue, where the most people bike, and where the most people have bike crashes.

Converting Google My Maps to KML and GPX

Convert your routes that you made in Google My Maps to GPX so that you can view them on Garmin GPS devices, or upload them to MapMyRide.

  1. Access your My Map. Your My Map must have lines or routes in it. It appears that a My Map with only points doesn’t convert correctly.
  2. Click on View in Google Earth. Your web browser will download a KML file. It may automatically open in Google Earth, but this is not necessary.
  3. Visit GPS Visualizer to convert your KML file to GPX
  4. Select GPX as your output.
  5. For the input, choose the KML file you just downloaded from Google My Maps.
  6. Click Convert. Your file will be uploaded and your GPX file will be presented for download on the next page.
  7. Download your GPX file from the link on the page.

You can now transfer the GPX file to your GPS device, or upload it to MapMyRide. I confirmed that MapMyRide successfully imports the Google My Map I converted following these instructions.

Trying out uDig, a free, multi-platform GIS application

ArcGIS is the standard in geographic information system applications. I don’t like that it’s expensive, unwieldy to install and update, and its user interface is stymying and slow*. I also use Mac OS X most of the time and ArcGIS is not available for Mac. It doesn’t have to be the standard.

I’ve tried my hand at Cartographica and QGIS. I really like QGIS because there’re many plugins, it’s open source, there’s a diverse community supporting it, and best of all, it’s free. I’ve written about Cartographica once – I’m not a fan right now.

My project

  • The data: Bicycle crashes in the City of Chicago as reported to IDOT for 2007-2009
  • Goal: Publish an interactive map of this data using Google Fusion Tables and its instant mapping feature.
  • Visualizing it: Added streets (prepared beforehand to exclude highways), water features, and city boundary (get that here)
  • Process: Combine bike crash data; reproject to WGS84 for Google; remove extraneous information; add latitude/longitude coordinates; export as CSV; upload to Google Fusion Tables; map it!
  • View the final product

Trying out uDig

In reaching my goal I had a task that I couldn’t figure out how to complete with QGIS: I needed to combine three shapefiles with identical table schemes into one shapefile – this one shapefile would eventually be published as one map. The join feature in fTools wasn’t working so I looked for a new solution, uDig, or “User-friendly Desktop Internet GIS.”

The solution was very easy. Highlight all the records in the attribute table of one shapefile, click Edit>Copy, then select the destination table and click Edit>Paste. The new records were added within a couple seconds. I could then bring this data back into QGIS to finish the process (outlined above under Project). I did use fTools later in the process to add lat/long coordinates to my single shapefile.

After adding more data to better visualize the crashes in Chicago, I noticed that uDig renders maps to look smoother and slightly prettier than QGIS or ArcGIS. See the screenshot below.

A screenshot of the three bicycle crash datasets (2007, 2008, 2009) with the visualization data added.

The end product: three years of police reported bicycle crashes in the City of Chicago on an interactive map powered by Google Fusion Tables, another product in Google’s arsenal of GIS for the poor man. View the final product.

*I haven’t used ArcGIS version 10 yet, which I see and read has an improved user interface; it’s unclear to me and other users if the program’s been updated to take advantage of multi-core processors. ESRI has a roundabout way of describing their support.

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