Explaining Baltimore's vacant houses with data visualizations


Data visualization? I’ve always thought it is very interesting but a bit out of reach for my limited technical abilities. I learned a bit about SPSS and ArcGIS in graduate school but rarely use them professionally. I have made the occasional bar chart in Excel but I almost never feel the need to make a chart or graph to accompany my work.

My recent research on vacant housing, however, has pushed me to recognize the value of data-driven analysis and interpretation to explain issues related to the economy and population that are difficult to understand with narrative tools alone.

Please note: I’m planning to update this post throughout the week as I continue to develop materials for my November 21 workshop at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Stay tuned for updates! Suggestions or questions are both welcome. Find me @elipousson.

What questions am I trying to answer?

Although I may be a novice at data visualization, I know enough to realize that I need clear goals for what I want the visualization to accomplish (rather than letting an sense of gee-wiz wonder take over). I’m trying to answer these questions both for myself and for Baltimore area residents who likely have less familiarity with the specifics of the city’s historical development:

  • How has the regional distribution of Baltimore’s population changed over time?
  • How has the regional distribution of Baltimore’s employers (particularly industrial firms) changed over time?
  • How did the city’s borders change through annexation during the 19th and early 20th century?
  • When were Baltimore’s houses built? How has the pace and character of home-building responded to broader changes in the economy and society?
  • What are the broad factors (and specific triggers) that contribute to the abandonment of housing? How have those changed over time?

What tools am I using?

What am I reading?

  • Bringing Buildings Back (2006), Alan Mallach
  • Preservation and Rightsizing Report, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
  • U.S. Civil Rights Commission Reports

What have I made so far?