Site Review: Food Desert Locator

The USDA Food Desert Locator provides a nationwide map of census tracts defined as “low-income and low-access” food deserts.  See Image 1.


This mapping tool has very limited function.  Instead of allowing users to choose and manipulate data sets according to their interests, users can only click on a census tract and pull up a dialog box with a standardized list of statistics relating to population, housing, vehicle ownership, and food access.  This interface leaves customization and data analysis completely out of the mapping equation, which, to me, seems like a huge waste of a tech opportunity.  See Image 2.


All info about the map and the site is on the “About the Locator” page, which, on a positive note, links to video and audio tutorials about the map.  Otherwise, it is a fairly boring Web 1.0 text overview of what food deserts are and some limited info on USDA programs to improve food access.  Possibly both the best AND worst feature of this page is that, at the very bottom, it mentions a more extensive website and project on food deserts called “Food Environment Atlas” that USDA also runs.  You’d think they would provide a link here, right?  Nope.  I had to go back to the homepage and find a (small and easy to miss) link there.  See Image 3.

Site Review: Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections

Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections


The Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections uses aggregated address data to map criminal justice information by state, county, and zip code. Map data includes the number of people admitted to and released from prison, the number of people on probation or parole, and the costs associated with activities.  The project was created with funding by the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute. Unfortunately, it only has data for 22 states.


Overall, this site has a very easy to use interface and its representation is data is simple and straightforward. Visually, its consistent use of a single color scheme and minimal text outside of tables and maps allows the user to focus easily on the data without distraction. I found nothing buggy and it responds almost instantaneously to my manipulation of the tables and maps. However, its major drawback is that the frames are slightly off.  This should really be a minor drawback, but what makes it stand out, at least in my mind, is that it should be such a simple feature to fix!  It also stands in stark contrast to the overall utility of the site.  See Image 1.


I like that all navigation on the site happens within the same main frame.  The most important info about the site is accessible by clicking on the  “Atlas”, “Data”, “Use”, “Documents” links in the top left hand corner, which then open dialog boxes in the center of the screen.  See Image 2.


The only exception to this main-frame navigation are seven tutorial videos located in two gray boxes along the left hand information frame of the site, which open in separate windows.  These videos are quite helpful and explain to users in lay terms what the data in the maps and tables mean and include step-by-step guides to finding certain types of data.  See Image 3.


Within the mapping tool itself, the bulk of the data is contained within one menu, which shows a breakdown by sub-location of the chosen data category.  At first glance, it’s not entirely clear what the calculations in each column mean, but clicking on the column header pulls up a one-sentence explanation.  Beneath this main table is a second data window, which allows the user to view census data for each sub-location listed above.  See Image 4.