BRA looks to create ‘friendlier’ census maps

Sandra Storey

Gazette Graphic by Eartha Harris
From 1967 until recently, the Boston Redevelopment Authority called the yellow area on this map “Jamaica Plain” for the purposes of compiling and disseminating census information to the public and other government agencies. For the 2010 census, the BRA’s goal is to present the data in a variety of ways, including using the standard definition of Jamaica Plain, shown here in blue. The entire city of Boston would be affected by the expanded reporting methods.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has a new goal of compiling and putting out census data about Boston in a variety of ways—including information grouped by commonly recognized neighborhoods—when the federal government starts releasing raw data for 2010 in a year or so.

The goal was articulated after a series of articles and an editorial in the Jamaica Plain Gazette pointed out much of the data and maps put out by the BRA intending to describe Boston neighborhoods were not really doing that.

Census information about Jamaica Plain residents, for example, may, for the first time, be mapped by the BRA to include Forest Hills and Woodbourne, Parkside and Brookside and without Mission Hill in it, according to BRA Director of Communications Susan Elsbree.

“We are committed to work on a more consumer-friendly, user-friendly way to issue 2010 data reports,” Elsbree said in an interview last week.

Beginning in 2010, the BRA is considering following the boundaries of the 23 Boston neighborhoods the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) uses as just one of many ways it may sort and disseminate census data to the public. “That is under consideration because those neighborhoods are the ones the community seems to consider a standard,” Elsbree said.

BRA and city officials—including JP residents BRA Director of Research Alvaro Lima, Digital Cartography/GIS Manager Carolyn Bennett, JP Neighborhood Services Coordinator and meeting facilitator Colleen Keller and Elsbree—have been meeting for several weeks among themselves and with others to discuss how they will deal with the 2010 census data.
“Users may even be able to identify their own area” they wish to study, Elsbree said.

She said everyone involved is particularly concerned that non-profits and other members of the public are able to easily access the exact information they need.

Researchers may continue to look at the old maps for comparison purposes under any new system. And they would be able to look at small amounts of data, even as small as blocks, Elsbree said. “With the advent of new [computer] applications” many things are possible, she added.

In previous decades, including for Census 2000, the BRA research department stuck strictly to special census maps it created in 1967 that used 17 neighborhood names with borders that did not reflect actual Boston neighborhoods. Among many problems, Mission Hill, the North End and Chinatown are not even recognized as neighborhoods in that system. Many city agencies have had to use data organized around those unusual maps to determine needs and plan services.

Information about Jamaica Plain people from the 2000 census was quite different in the BRA planning map compared to the ONS map of JP, for example. The Gazette first uncovered the discrepancy between the two maps and the entire BRA census “maps” problem in Boston when the Gazette incorrectly reported in 2001 that JP lost population and minorities between 1990 and 2000.

After then analyzing federal census data from what most people consider to be JP, the Gazette discovered that the population of JP remained about the same and minorities grew. Other discrepancies also emerged.
The Gazette ran an editorial on April 2 this year pointing out that any 2010 census data labeled with the BRA’s 1967 definition of Jamaica Plain would not really describe Jamaica Plain, adding that the agency would have similar problems with all Boston neighborhoods.

“We are continuing our conversations as we get closer to the census data being released,” Elsbree said. “We are not there yet, but we are motivated to achieve the goal” of issuing consumer-friendly neighborhood data reports based on information from the federal government.

Planning departments in some other cities, including Baltimore and Cleveland, give web site visitors and others an opportunity to look at a range of census data for their entire cities any number of ways—including by commonly accepted neighborhoods, subneighborhoods and blocks, as well as by some other government- and/or community-devised labels.

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