Home Articles Geographic Information Systems: A planning tool for human service agencies

Geographic Information Systems: A planning tool for human service agencies

Gokul Mandayam

Gokul Mandayam
Ph.d Student
School of Social Work, College of Public Programs
Arizona State University
[email protected]

Human service organizations ultimately aim at evaluating, producing or delivering some type of goods or services to people in the community (Chisholm, 1995). Allocating human service resources to needy communities and populations in fast changing multi-cultural urban regions is becoming a major challenge for both public and private sector human service organizations. In order to achieve this objective of effective production and distribution of goods and services, it is necessary to have a detailed picture of the target population and access to appropriate and timely demographic and socio-economic data pertaining to that population. With this information, public and private sector human service organizations can make decisions in the best interests of the citizens/communities they serve.

Health and human service agencies today are faced with tough challenges in raising funds for program planning and service delivery. This is reflected in terms of government’s increasing focus on performance and outcome management requiring agencies to produce measurable program improvements, and in some cases even making a tangible change in the lives of their clients. Funding organizations and service beneficiaries increasingly require that policy decisions be backed by information indicating that such decisions result in efficient and effective distribution of human service resources.

Human service agencies are beginning to realize that better fundraising and well-informed policy decisions on health and human service needs of communities are possible through better information management that help them collect, analyze and display evidence of the need for resources in the community. Mapping communities is an important information management strategy, which results in a geographical organization of resources and assets of the community while being sensitive to the community’s needs as identified by agency exercises such as needs assessment.

This paper discusses the utility of G.I.S technology for the human service profession. A demonstration project on the use of G.I.S software, ArcView 3.2a, for assessing the social service needs of elderly individuals residing in Maricopa County, Arizona, is described as an example of the practical application of G.I.S technology for planning human services.

Importance of Spatial Context
An effective approach in human services planning for catering to the needs of the client community calls for comprehensive mapping of the community’s social reality (O’Looney, 1997). A multidimensional mapping of the communities that human service agencies serve in terms of their physical and social environments offers immense support to community development efforts. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) social ecology model stresses the importance of the environmental context in human development. His model focuses on the individual in a societal context. It includes the person, his/her environment and the evolving interaction between the person and the environment. In his theory of the ecology of human development, Bronfenbrenner postulates “enabling individuals in the society to function in an increasingly chaotic environment requires that the principles of human ecology be understood and incorporated into public policy.” (Henderson, 1995, P.17). The social ecology system as propounded by Bronfenbrenner is very useful in understanding the needs of human service clients within the context of their community’s physical and social environments.

Mapping communities is therefore an integral component of human services planning. While mapping communities, it is important to include not only the physical/surface geography of communities but also their social geography. Neighborhood maps as an example of social geography, is a very useful tool for human service planners for visualizing the impact of social and economic factors existing in a community. Dynamic mapping techniques are helpful for human service planners to understand the relationships between various factors in a community such as physical characteristics, socio-economic characteristics and primary language spoken etc., and strategically plan the optimal usage of resources to cater to the community’s needs. Thus mapping can transform the way social programs and services are designed and carried out, thereby contributing to effective social policy development.

Recent research has indicated that precursors to social problems are heavily concentrated in particular neighborhoods (Figuera-McDonough, 1995), which emphasizes the necessity for human service planners to recognize and focus on the importance of geographical location effects. Spatially differentiated social, economic and political processes have a major impact on the intensity of human capital and social capital development within communities. Therefore, spatial characteristics of a community are important considerations while assessing human service needs of that community. Territorially defined communities act as a container for and potentially provide critical incubators of diverse social, economic and political components and processes relevant to human capital formation. A geographic component in human service research endeavors such as needs assessment studies, has enormous intellectual potential to foster better understanding of the community’s needs in terms of social, economic, and political processes to facilitate successful interventions for improvements in human environments.


Needs assessment
A central decision for all organizations whether it be governmental agencies, school systems, social service agencies, business corporations, cities, hospitals or universities is what is the best way to apportion available resources, including time, money and organizational efforts to meet the needs of clients they serve. One of the most effective ways to decide on such issues is to conduct needs assessment studies. A needs assessment study is conducted to obtain information to guide policy and program decisions that will benefit specific groups of people (Witkin & Altschuld, 1995). Needs assessment studies use a rational and scientific approach to understand and describe specific areas of need while discovering factors that contribute to the perpetuation of such needs. Such studies also help in devising the criteria for plans to ameliorate the needs. By charting out problems and needs in a community, human service administrators can direct resources to those areas in the community where they would have the most impact.

Policy analysts and program evaluators involved in human services administration are constantly assessing the service needs of citizens in the community through needs assessment studies to formulate or alter their mix of services. Data from such studies can form the basis for guidelines and criteria for planning programs and services to respond to the needs of the community. Unless needs assessment data provide answers to the issue of where and how much of resources are needed in the community, human service planners would not be able to plan for an efficient and effective distribution of preventive services for a brighter future for the communities they serve.

Social service agencies exist within the broader context of a community as represented by their clients. For policy makers and administrators in human services, client population, their socio-economic characteristics and other related criteria pertaining to a community are important aspects for consideration. Therefore, while formulating needs assessment studies human service agencies need to be cognizant of the social and physical contexts of their client’s environment. It is helpful for human service planners to adopt an ecological perspective for assessing the needs of a community whereby clients in that community are viewed as interdependent within their social settings. Such an assessment for determining a community’s needs would contribute to an optimum usage and expansion of the community resources. Community mapping is a crucial part of needs assessment exercises in order to obtain an honest picture about the community. Technological applications provide human service agencies solutions for mapping clients and assessing their needs to plan for effective service delivery.

Technology in Human Service Applications
Human services have not kept pace with emerging information technologies and have traditionally been immune to changes in technological capabilities (O’Looney, 1997). Due to the time lag between the maiden appearance of new technologies in business applications and the period when they trickle down to human service applications, it is common to find human service personnel having limited experience with sophisticated software for analysis and information management purposes. As a result human service agencies today face a big challenge of managing information, such as the ability to easily find pertinent information among volumes of agency data. Consolidated information is critical to helping health and human service agencies successfully improve their service provision and the outcomes of their clients. Technological solutions assist human service agencies to make better-informed decisions, increase their ability to analyze and use information and ultimately improve program effectiveness.

The technological revolution in the last decade has created changes in data analysis and information management impacting research techniques for assessment of human service needs, commonly adopted by government and non-profits including social service agencies. New technologies facilitate rapid gathering and analysis of information from disparate groups of stakeholders involved in human service policy-making and program planning including citizens, human service providers, and funding organizations such as the government.

On the cutting edge of technology are software packages for data management and statistical analysis and new strategies for concept mapping. Easy access to demographical databases such as census and other large databases in conjunction with geographical/spatial analysis technologies such as mapping software help human service agencies better understand location and pattern of human service needs in the community. Technology also helps human service agencies to install management information systems in which data can be entered to furnish a basis for ongoing and future needs assessment studies. These studies enable agencies to spot trends in human service needs in a community. Such technological applications enabling trend analysis of human service needs, signal important changes in existing needs and emergence of new ones, calling for human service program planners to give a careful thought while defining current and future needs for effective service delivery.

There are several technological applications to assist human service organizations in their endeavor to plan and deliver services to the satisfaction of their clients, including Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S). G.I.S technology is useful for human service applications in several ways (Bracken and Webster, 1990) including analysis of social problems, program planning, community policy formulation and actual distribution of services such as transportation.


Geographic Information Systems (gis) Technology
Geographic Information Systems refers to a computer-based technology that combines geographic data (locations of manmade and natural features on the earth’s surface) and other types of information (names and addresses with streets and zipcodes) to generate visual maps and reports. G.I.S uses geographic or spatial characteristics to relate otherwise disparate data and provides a systematic way to collect, analyze, interpret and manage location based information crucial to any business or government organization. It evolved from the need to integrate graphical data with tabular data.

In the past, G.I.S data had to be modified for different kinds of applications. With the evolution of technology, resulting in the expansion of hardware and software infrastructure, capabilities that were once unique areas have been merged for incorporation into new multifaceted applications. Over the years, G.I.S technology has undergone metamorphosis to emerge as a robust technological application possessing the capabilities to process vast amounts of information, analyze and display results. G.I.S software performs a variety of functions including data input, database management, data analysis, graphic presentations, data query and transformation. The latest G.I.S software applications such as ArcView/ArcInfo include some or all of the following capabilities:

  • Spatial statistical analysis – ability to generate statistics based on user-defined geographic regions (for example, to compute average income for residents within a certain neighborhood in a community)
  • Network analysis – ability to pinpoint distances such as the most efficient routes for transporting elderly clients from their homes to their medical centers
  • Geo-coding and global positioning systems – ability to pinpoint a particular location with standard map coordinates such as pinpointing the exact location of senior centers in Maricopa County, Arizona
  • Database management systems (DBMS) – standard database manipulation functions such as sorting, querying, joining, appending, updating, restructuring and relating tables and fields
  • Spatial decision support systems – ability to analyze spatial data to support decisions (for example, to identify all low income households within 5 miles from downtown Phoenix to plan human service programs specifically targeted at them)
  • Multimedia, hypertext and hotlinks – ability to use sound, video and images and provide interactive links among various types of media (e.g., linking text describing a location to an image and a sound file from that location)

GIS technology enables displays, i.e., maps, which provide visual approximations of the real world. They can be customized to individual interests and particular audiences, examined at different levels of detail or from different conceptual perspectives and shown in various formats. G.I.S has helped answer a continuum of questions ranging from the simple to complex – from pure location and inventory queries to policy analysis and planning and complex modeling (O’Looney, 1997). G.I.S technology is thus an invaluable management tool for information processing, multidisciplinary problem solving, and policy decision-making. It is a technological application, which can be used across various disciplines. With improvements in the capabilities of G.I.S technology and the power of G.I.S displays, the number and types of G.I.S uses have expanded exponentially from purely infrastructure and engineering applications to program planning applications pertaining to social and public policy issues.

Human Services and GIS Technology
G.I.S has been widely used by professionals in fields including health, urban planning and criminal justice but the use of G.I.S by human service professionals is comparatively less. There is little documentation in published literature on the use of G.I.S technology in the field of human services. Existing evidence on the usage of G.I.S technology in human services highlight its usage for research related purposes as opposed to administration or direct practice dealing with the provision of services (Queralt and Witte, 1998).

Historically, the founders of Hull-House, one of the earliest Settlement Houses in the United States established in 1889, adopted mapping technology to assess the well -being of communities on a variety of social and economic indicators (Tompkins and Southward, 1998). They used maps to highlight information on the social and economic injustices related to child labor in the 19th ward of Chicago. Community maps enabled them to obtain a clear picture of neighborhood demographics. The community mapping technology started by Hull-House human service workers has evolved from a rudimentary assessment technique to a state-of-the-art technology today and has immense potential implications for the field of human services in terms of practice, policy, administration, education and research.

It was not until the 1980s that G.I.S was widely used for examining relationships between people and the environment (Goodchild, 1995). The National Science Foundation (NSF) through its initiative in 1995 highlighted six areas of research to improve public policy regarding the social, economic and cultural dimensions of people’s lives in the United States including workplace, education, families, neighborhoods, disadvantage and poverty. Each of these areas, integral to the human service profession has a geographic component (Calkins and Eagle, 1995). With this initiative, NSF emphasized the importance of using G.I.S technology for human services research purposes. By linking research on the above mentioned six areas with the macro practice of policy and planning, G.I.S has emerged as a powerful tool in advancing research, practice and policy decisions within the field of human services.

With more and more human service agencies beginning to realize the advantages of G.I.S applications not only for research purposes but also for program planning and efficient service delivery, the usage of G.I.S technology in human services has increased substantially in recent years. A growing number of human service practitioners across the United States are discovering in G.I.S a new way to help people understand social problems, to explain to policy makers and constituents the wide discrepancies between needs and resources and to effectively place those resources in communities.


Topologically Integrated Geographic and Encoding Reference (TIGER) Line files, which are location based files developed by the U.S Census Bureau have created avenues for applied social scientists such as human service planners to address-match data from administrative record systems with TIGER files and provide spatial support decision on human service management issues (Rushton and Frank, 1995). The availability of digital databases of population census as well as up-to-date and detailed information on the location of infrastructure and administrative boundaries of cities and towns through location based TIGER files whose data are commonly geo-referenced by street addresses and zip codes, have opened doors for human service administrators to use G.I.S technological applications like ArcView and ArcInfo for planning and management of human service delivery. G.I.S technological applications together with census and other digital database information enable human service agencies, both public and private to monitor the effects of policy, planning and delivery of human services that depend on geographically distributed resources organized to meet the needs of geographically dispersed clients.

Relevance of GIS Technology for Human Services
G.I.S technology provides a visually powerful opportunity for human service agencies to analyze social services in relation to its clients and to the communities in which they operate. Knowledge of where people live and work and its relationship with other community parameters such as socio-economic profile, existence of health facilities and schools, language spoken etc., is a powerful analytical tool for planning human service delivery to needy clients. By mapping the location of problems of concern in specific localities, human service agencies can develop service strategies that are sensitive to community needs. G.I.S helps human service agencies to produce meaningful, and attention-grabbing maps, which visually highlight important administrative, policy and practice issues and uncover new insights such as gaps in service delivery and location of facilities in an area of new demand for services.

In the day-to-day practice and management of human service agencies, G.I.S technology serves as a useful tool for:

  • obtaining an inventory of the agency’s clientele, services or any other pertinent information
  • assessing the demographic profile of its clients
  • determining whether the supply of human services in a given community is appropriate and adequate for the target population
  • forecasting need/demand for services, given policy changes such as those pertaining to welfare reform
  • monitoring emerging trends with respect to demand for services and growth in clientele
  • helping agencies with fundraising through visually appealing evidence of need for resources
  • determining the locations of new offices for human service agencies, new client groups to be targeted and new services to be offered
  • mapping the flow of clients to and from various community services, for example to compute travel times and distance from areas with large concentrations of elderly people to the closest geriatric hospital
  • mapping the geographical distribution of various health and social problems to identify areas with greater than expected incidences and their possible relationship to demographic and other factors in the surrounding area and
  • making the agency’s services more attractive and useful to clients and also ensuring efficient allocation of agency resources

G.I.S technology is extremely relevant for human service applications as human service agencies can use it to forecast need or demand for services by mapping the geographical distribution of various health and social problems, identifying areas in the community with greater expected human service needs and their possible relationship to demographic and other factors in the surrounding area. Using G.I.S technology in conjunction with needs assessment exercises enables visualization of clients’ needs and ensures better program planning for effective service delivery. For instance, G.I.S technology can be useful for caseload management to display geographical locations of target populations including welfare clients, single mothers and elderly individuals living in the community and plan human service programs for them accordingly.

G.I.S technology can be applied for an inventory of neighborhoods with multiple social risk indicators and for locating facilities to provide services designed to address these risks. This software application can be used for an analysis of the match between existing service facilities in the neighborhood and the human service needs and capacities of the residents. Such an analysis with visual displays can be used for guiding location of a facility, public transportation routes, program planning and location based intervention. For example, with maps drawn using G.I.S applications, human service agencies serving welfare clients and the elderly population can plan on efficiently routing welfare clients from their homes to work places and elderly individuals from their homes to hospitals for routine medical appointments.

G.I.S is useful for human service researchers and administrators as it has opened up the possibility of studying small geographic areas such as census tracts or blocks and aggregating them to identify neighborhoods and communities for analysis of human service needs and ensuring better delivery of services. This technology has improved the ability of human service practitioners, planners and researchers to analyze the social environment with a spatial dimension and organize and link datasets (for example by using geocoded addresses or geographic boundaries) to enable provision of cost-effective services to needy clients.

G.I.S mapping is useful in advancing public policy priorities. Regardless of ideology, professionals working in the area of provision of public sector services have a common ground to see literally where a government program is or is not working. Another policy priority that G.I.S technology enables human service professionals to advocate for is the popular push to bring decision-making down the policy hierarchy to the local/community level. A third priority is the empowerment of communities so that a neighborhood with a better grasp of its problems is in a better position to solve them.


Community level human services can be substantially improved by G.I.S technology with the help of detailed and dynamic maps that are generated with relative speed and ease. G.I.S technology facilitates easy and sensitive solutions to community problems or concerns. It also encourages the formation of data partnerships and data sharing at the community level. For instance, human service agencies dealing with elderly clients could develop data partnerships with the transportation authorities (for information about routes), and hospitals located in the geographic location (for information about the elderly clients’ health problems and medical appointments) to develop maps for enabling the elderly clients to utilize medical services in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

G.I.S technology has its limitations when applied to the field of human services. The field of human services is relatively an untapped market for G.I.S technology implementation, which explains its limited usage. Considerable room remains for development in G.I.S software for human service applications. For instance, G.I.S technology could be linked with research tools such as community needs assessment and planning tools to help human service researchers, administrators and practitioners to effectively research, plan and provide services/interventions at the community level. The cost of G.I.S applications including their maintenance and upgrades can be substantial for human service agencies operating on tight budgets. Also the time required for training human service agency staff can be a severe challenge for these organizations in which demands on personnel are already high. Finally, confidentiality of information on individual clients and their households is a major challenge when G.I.S technology is applied for analysis of human service client data. As human service agencies and government organizations are involved in collecting information about individuals, their databases most often contain some sort of identification information pertaining to the client such as their name or social security number which serves as a barrier in ensuring complete anonymity and confidentiality in public sector or human services research. However, social scientists over the years have adopted alternate forms of client identification such as removing names, addresses and identification numbers from the master list and assigning a post code for each record or rounding all addresses at the block level or password protect the electronic version of the data to ensure confidentiality of client information in research studies.

Despite these limitations, the potential rewards that human service agencies can benefit from using G.I.S technology for agency planning, data analysis, policy-making, fundraising, forecasting, client information, outreach, and other management and direct practice functions, can be astonishing. With a capability to yield accurate answers to research questions resulting in better delivery of human services and thereby ensuring that agency resources are managed well and their programs and services serve all areas of the community adequately, G.I.S serves as an important tool for human service professionals.

The following section elaborates on the practical utility of a G.I.S software application, ArcView 3.2a, for assessment of human service needs among elderly individuals residing in Maricopa County, Arizona.

GIS In Human Services Research – Demonstration Project

This project discusses the application of G.I.S technology for analyzing needs assessment data pertaining to senior services, collected by the Area Agency on Aging, Region One, in Phoenix, Arizona during November 1999. This agency is the administrative office responsible for planning, developing, funding, administering and delivering home and community based services to individuals living in Maricopa County who are 60 years and older, adults between 18 to 59 years who have disabilities and long term care needs, and individuals of all ages who are HIV positive. Despite the agency’s diverse clientele, its primary service population is the elderly.

In order to determine appropriate goals and objectives, the agency performs a needs assessment study every alternate year, which includes collection of primary data from service recipients and service providers apart from review of secondary data such as reports from service providers and the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Primary data is collected through a survey developed jointly by the agency and the state office of aging and adult administration. The agency then determines what issues need attention and what alternative solutions are available given the amount of resources available. The outcome of the needs assessment study is the establishment of an area plan, which details the goals and objectives of the agency for the forthcoming years.

The sample for the 1999 needs assessment study consisted of 4,150 elderly residents who represented 1% of the total elderly population in Maricopa County. Surveys were distributed at senior centers throughout the county and to local municipal governments, family caregivers and churches working with the elderly population. The survey was also available on the agency website. Surveys were available in both English and Spanish, given the large Hispanic population in the county.

The author was part of the research team at the agency for conducting data analysis and interpretation for the 1999 needs assessment study. A spatial analysis of the needs assessment data with G.I.S software was part of the illustration project for his G.I.S related coursework at Arizona State University. An important advantage for the author in partnering with the agency was that it provided the much-needed access to agency data, required to complete the application of G.I.S software to real world data. Working with the needs assessment data also helped the author to understand the software’s potential and realize the implications for its usage in the field of human services.


ArcView 3.2a
The software application used in the G.I.S coursework was ArcView 3.2a, a desktop mapping software package developed by the Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), one of the leading companies in the information management industry. ArcView allows for data input, data manipulation, data management, data analysis and presentation in graphic and other forms and data query and transformation. For example, the software allows for layering of geographically referenced data over a map for the purpose of identifying geographically, the multiple characteristics of specific locations or for finding locations, which meet specific geographic criteria. The application of ArcView 3.2a to the 1999 needs assessment study data comprised of three main components namely, data, management of data, and manipulation, analysis and visualization of data as discussed in the following pages.

Data: An important step in the process of using this software for analysis of social science data is to make sure that the data to be mapped is up-to-date, accurate and complete. It is crucial to spend time updating agency records and cleaning up or cross checking survey data to ensure its accuracy. Human service agency data is largely socio-economic, political and location based. For example, with the 1999 needs assessment study data, an important step was to ensure that respondent details were complete in the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) spreadsheet into which they were coded. More importantly, it was necessary to ensure that the respondents’ addresses, zip codes and telephone numbers were as accurate and current as possible and those respondents whose addresses were incorrect were deleted from the spreadsheet.

After records to be mapped have been checked for accuracy, the next step is to save them in a database format compatible with ArcView. As ArcView handles dBase files easily it is better that data are converted to dBase files. If human service agency records are kept in spreadsheet formats such as Excel or Quattro Pro it can be converted to other database formats such as dBase by saving the files and selecting the appropriate format from the drop down list of choices offered by the spreadsheet program. However, if the agency records are kept in any other format such as SPSS or Microsoft ACCESS it may be necessary to convert them to dBase files using special software such as Stat Transfer or Data Base Management Systems (DBMS). In the case of the needs assessment project, data was entered in a SPSS spreadsheet and was converted to dBase format through the Stat Transfer program.

Having entered the survey records in the appropriate database format for the G.I.S software program, ArcView 3.2a, the user is then ready to create maps for his/her analytical purposes. At this stage the user is ready to bring in a set of information providing data layers already available in the G.I.S format such as the U.S. Census data currently available in a digital format on CD-ROM. These provide information on streets, zip codes and city boundaries, neighborhoods, census tracts and block groups. These are sometimes available along with the G.I.S software or from universities, city or county planning department, government census bureau and the Internet. It is necessary to isolate parts of these large layers of information to address the scope of the project. Accordingly, relevant layers of geographical information need to be brought into the G.I.S software.


With the needs assessment project, data layers available at Arizona State University G.I.S Laboratory pertaining to boundary, highways, interstate expressways and cities of Maricopa County were brought into ArcView software for spatially analyzing human service needs of elderly residents of Maricopa County. The map in the following page (figure 1) indicates the cities within Maricopa County identified by the zip code and shaded yellow along with interstate highways I-10, I-17 and U.S. 60 and highways including SR 85, SR87, SR88 and Salome Highway.

Data representing a spatial location such as street, river, park or municipality is always referenced by a unique identification code, which locates it three dimensionally in the earth’s coordinate system. These can be a census block or tract number or zip code, city or state code, which will allow it to be linked with the appropriate spatial area. In the needs assessment survey, zip code was selected as the unique identification code. However, only the five-digit zip code instead of the nine-digit zip code could be obtained from the survey. With no other information available about the respondent’s address in terms of cross streets and their plot number, zip code was the only choice for a unique identifier for spatial analysis of the needs assessment data.

The preferred location identifier is the street address with the name of the city and a nine-digit zip code (5 + 4). Address geocoding in ArcView enables the user to create a point theme based on address locations, which allows for each address point to be mapped. Although a 100 percent match of street addresses against a geocoded theme is rare, there are ways to improve the chances of obtaining a match close to perfection. With human service agency records, it is crucial to document accurate demographic information pertaining to clients in order to ensure a high rate of success in mapping clients. Manual checking of records and usage of United States Postal Services Internet site could help in obtaining an accurate address match.

In the case of the 1999 needs assessment data, a visual picture of all the individual respondents for the study could not be obtained as geocoding or pin mapping respondent records in terms of their street addresses was not possible due to respondent data being limited to zip codes. However as complete street addresses of senior centers in Maricopa County were available from the agency, it made geocoding senior centers for visual representation easier as highlighted by the map in the following page (Figure 2). This map describes the location of senior centers in Maricopa County. It indicates that most of the senior centers are located within the urban areas of Maricopa County except for four centers located in the rural areas of the county.

Data Management: With G.I.S software, the focus often shifts to visual analysis overlooking the fact that many important G.I.S operations revolve not around the graphical part but around tabular data management. Those who manage the data must be adept at handling and manipulating large databases. Strong tabular database knowledge such as dBase or Microsoft Access is a complement to a strong geographic background.

The ability to join tables on the basis of a common item (i.e., the unique identifier) is one of the most important functions in database management. It helps the user with database maintenance and allows for non-redundant data storage. ArcView’s ‘join tables’ function is robust as it allows tabular data from dissimilar sources to be joined and stored as a virtual table for purposes of graphical display.

In the case of the needs assessment data, the source table was the dBase formatted SPSS survey data file and the destination table was the attribute table (data layer already available in the G.I.S format) of the zip code map for cities in Maricopa County. A common field in both the tables was the unique identifier, i.e., zip code, which was used to join the tables for further spatial analysis of tabular data. As the zip code in the needs assessment survey data had only five-digits as opposed to nine-digits, the spatial analysis of data by cities within the county could not clearly visualize the analysis in the generated maps due to zip code boundaries conflicting with city boundaries. For instance, this occurred in the case of zip codes for border areas of the cities of Tempe and Scottsdale.

Manipulation, Analysis and Visualization of Data: After joining the tables, the next step is to manipulate and transform the dataset for analytical purposes to enable visualization of the results of the desired analysis through maps. It is important to ensure that all spatial data employed for analysis are in the same map projection scale such as UTM projections or State Plan Coordinate System.


In the case of the demonstration project, the following three maps visually indicate the socio-economic profile of seniors in Maricopa County who are part of the study sample and also portray their human service needs. Figure 3 indicates a profile of the elderly individuals living in Maricopa County, in terms of their annual income. An income of $20,000 per annum is defined as medium and high income. This income classification was decided by the agency for the purpose of statistical analysis. It is evident from the map that there are many seniors living in metropolitan Phoenix with an annual income below $20,000.

Figure 4 visualizes the County seniors’ health insurance (Arizona Long Term Care System – ALTCS) coverage classified by income, indicating that a high proportion of low-income seniors residing in metropolitan Phoenix do not have health insurance coverage.

Analysis of human service data using G.I.S technology is not limited to producing static geographic maps as demonstrated with the needs assessment data but also performing other kinds of spatial analysis such as proximity/neighborhood analysis, buffering and three-dimensional analysis. Buffering involves the ability to create distance buffers around selected features such as points, lines or areas. Similarly visualization of data also includes incorporation of texts, charts, graphs and photographs and various multimedia into G.I.S presentations through hotlinking, which in turn extends the functionality of data visualization. Buffering and hotlinking techniques were not experimented with in the needs assessment project due to data limitations.

Learning from Application of ArcView 3.2a to the Needs Assessment Project: The demonstration project provided an understanding of the usage of G.I.S technology in human service applications such as assessment of clients’ needs for planning efficient delivery of human services.

The exercise taught lessons on the importance of collecting comprehensive and detailed human service data such as complete addresses of clients with cross streets and proper zip codes for performing effective G.I.S analysis on human service data. The inability to conduct certain types of spatial analysis with the needs assessment data pointed to the need for high precision in collecting demographic data and mapping addresses of survey respondents (including that of the zip code with 9 digits as opposed to 5 digits only) while using zip code as the unique identifier.

The demonstration project also threw light on the drawbacks pertaining to the design of the survey questionnaire. As a majority of the variables in the needs assessment survey could not be coded at the interval level and instead were coded at the nominal and ordinal levels because of poor survey design strategies, it was difficult to perform advanced statistical analysis on the data with SPSS software. This is a common phenomenon at human service agencies where staff needs to have technical inputs and training before venturing into application of G.I.S software such as ArcView for human service research and practice.


The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true for G.I.S applications in the field of human services as visual maps on client communities and their needs as an alternative to tables of numbers, charts or anecdotes not only make information easier to grasp but also provide more dimensions to studying human service data (Wier and Roberston, 1998). Customized maps created using G.I.S software can help human service professionals to gain a better understanding of the client communities they serve, as illustrated by the needs assessment project. The visual presentation of data is also a powerful tool for influencing public policy and conveying information in a non-technical way to a variety of policy stakeholders. As developments in G.I.S software permit such systems to run on standard desktop computers and facilitate usage by individuals with modest computer and quantitative analysis skills, its usage in social sciences including the field of human services, for program evaluation and policy analysis purposes is likely to increase (DeLorenzo, 2000).

For human service agencies especially, G.I.S technology has significant potential for visualizing clients’ needs and matching them with available resources and thereby ensuring effective service integration as demonstrated by the research project on assessing the human service needs of the elderly in Maricopa County, Arizona. By combining traditional statistical data analysis with spatial data, human service professionals can see relationships that could not otherwise be apparent. Understanding the elderly client population’s service needs in a spatial context helps human service agencies such as the Area Agency on Aging to allocate resources efficiently and focus service/intervention efforts based on fact and not perception.

With its spatial analysis capabilities, G.I.S technology can play an important role in human services research thereby ensuring better service delivery for clients. Along with other computer applications including word processors, spreadsheets, databases, statistical packages and the Internet, G.I.S is thus a versatile tool for human service professionals providing a competitive edge particularly in the areas of planning and evaluation and community development. The usage and responsible application of G.I.S technology skills for human services can provide potential rewards to the human services profession for ensuring social and economic justice in the new millennium.


  • Bracken & Webster. (1990). Information Technology in Geography and Planning:
  • Including Principles of G.I.S. New York, NY: Rutledge.
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by
  • Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Calkins, H, & Eagle, M. (1995). Geographic Information Analysis and Human Capital
  • Research: A report to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Proceedings of the Geographic Information Analysis and Human Capital Research Conference. Boulder, CA: National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis.
  • Chisholm, L. (1995). “Geographic Information Systems: A Tool for Human Service
  • Professionals.” New Technology in the Human Services, 8(3), 18-22.
  • DeLorenzo, L. (2000). Using G.I.S in Program Evaluation and Policy Analysis. In Yupo
  • Chan and Said Esa, (eds.) Urban Planning and Development Applications of G.I.S. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • Figuera-McDonough, J. (1995). “Community Organization and the Underclass:
  • Exploring New Practice Dimensions.” Social Services Review, 69(1): 57-85.
  • Goodchild, M. F. (1995). “Geographic Information Systems”. Microsoft Encarta ’95. Redmond, WA: Microsoft (CD ROM text and images).
  • Henderson, Z. P. (1995) “Renewing Our Social Fabric.” Human Ecology Forum, Winter, 16-18.
  • O’Looney, J. (1997). Beyond Maps: G.I.S and Decision Making in Local Government.
  • Washington, DC: Publications Department, ICMA.
  • Queralt, M., & Witte, A, D. (1998). “A Map for You? Geographic Information Systems in the Social Services.” Social Work, 43(5), 455-469.
  • Rushton, G., & Frank, S. (1995). Sharing Spatial Data Among Social Scientists. In H.J.
  • Onsrud & G. Rushton (Eds.), Sharing Geographic Information (pp.461-474). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University.
  • Tompkins, P. L, & Southward, L, H. (1998). “Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S):
  • Implications for Promoting Social and Economic Justice.” Computers in Human Services, 15(2/3), 209-226.
  • Wier, K. R., & Robertson, J. G (1998). “Teaching Geographic Information Systems for
  • Social Work Applications.” Journal of Social Work Education, 34 (1), 81-96.
  • Witkin, B. R., & Altschuld, J. W (1995). Planning and Conducting Needs Assessments:
  • A Practical Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.