Food Access Research Atlas

Just after yesterdays data visualization of the average commute time in the U.S., now we get another powerful data visualization tool courtesy of USDA, this one mapping the food deserts and average time we commute to get to our food.

Food and Commute

Food Access Research AtlasI am grateful to have grown up in a family which continues to produce quite a bit of its own fruits and vegetables in addition to my dad’s beekeeping, back in the Bulgarian village where my parents live and where I spent every weekeend and vacation as a child. Here, in the U.S. it is a very different story for the majority of people.

For a vast country as the U.S., it is not surprising that there are massive areas where getting to food requires long commute. The problem I am sure is multi-dimensional and is partially rooted in the way cities in this country are built but also in the frontier culture which pushes many people to sacrifice the convenient proximity to food and work for the independence of living on your own piece of land.

I am personally lucky to live within walking distance from Giant, Harris Teeter and, most importantly, Trader Joe’s groceries stores. Occasionally  I would drive to Costco for some big purchases but as a whole if I needed to, I could walk or bite for my groceries every day — just like I did early this morning when I needed yogurt and bananas.

Just as the Slow Food movement and Michael Pollan’s call to know where our food comes from, there are more and more people who demand to know the origin of their food and the way it travels to their tables. Thus the emergence of search engines like BuyLocal.com.

The new Food Access Research Atlas should help with this noble endeavor as well!

Data Is Contextual, Powerful and Beautiful

When Kate Crawford of Microsoft Research presented at the 2013 Strata Conference, she gave powerful examples of how big data analysis and visualization can be skewed unless coupled with depth and context.

As NPR reported about the Food Access Research Atlas:

The atlas, which is a big upgrade from the USDA’s two-year-old Food Desert Locator, is intended as a tool for state policymakers, local planners, and nonprofit groups concerned about food access.

The team working on the Atlas have made this powerful data visualization tool doubly more useful by mashing data on the distance to food sources with data about car ownership. They admit regretting not being able to add information about public transportation which would have made the tool even greater by providing contextual depth but such data is apparently not available on a national level.

Accessible Data is Usable Data

Just as many of the presenters at the Strata Conference illustrated, when data is beautiful, we are more willing and able to consume it — not unlike healthy, organic food: if it is accessible and affordable, we will gladly opt to take advantage of it.

I wish the Atlas were not Flash-based. I wish it were built on a more open, flexible platform — Google Maps perhaps? I would have loved to be able to move from address to address quicker. But these are minimal complains. The Food Access Research Atlas is a welcome and powerful tool and its authors should be proud!

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