Mapping small area data using Google Fusion

From Rob Fry, Office for National Statistics

One of the problems we have in England and Wales is that the small area geography used to disseminate our statistics is largely meaningless to users. While many users might know their postcode, it is unlikely that they will know their statistical output area codes (mine is E02004729, since you asked). Although there is valid reasoning behind this geography (it is stable, hierarchical and optimised for statistical homogeneity), there is no doubt that, for most users, we need to add context to make the statistics more meaningful.

One of the outputs I am responsible for at ONS is the “small area income estimates”, and last year, with the aim of improving how users could interact with our data, I investigated using online mapping tools to display these estimates. The product I ended up using to create these maps was the Google Fusion tool (which I can highly recommend).  Several iterations of the map were published. They use a combination of the basic map produced via the online tool as well as HTML,CSS and some JavaScript (to add styling, tables, legends, branding, opacity etc). You can see the latest iteration of the map here.

screenshot from small area income estimates

The beauty of this approach, from my perspective, is the way it opens up small area data by making it more useable – by adding the context that our own geography hierarchy lacks. It enables users to first find their area by a postcode/address search or by using the background mapping, and then observe the estimate for their area and see how it compares to areas around them. Using mapping techniques like this will allow and encourage a much wider audience to explore the data compared to large static tables full of obscure geography codes.

Whilst I’m happy with what has been achieved so far, this is still work in progress. There are several enhancements I would like to make to the tool when time allows, including linking to the data source via an Application Programming Interface (API), rather than uploading it manually.  ONS is currently developing an API which will potentially make this kind of product much easier to produce and maintain. This kind of approach shouldn’t just be restricted to maps either – for example, we are keen to investigate adding charting and interactive tables to add further context. Keep an eye out on ONS’ interactive content page for further examples and future developments.

2 thoughts on “Mapping small area data using Google Fusion”

  1. That’s very interesting. Has there been any discussion as to the use of a Google service with this, e.g. is there a possibility that Google might one day show context sensitive ads on that map or that Google probably now knows better than ONS which parts of the map are zoomed in the most and so on.

  2. Hi, glad you found it interesting. As for embedding services I’m not sure what will happen longer-term, it’s possible that this is the direction Google will take, but unclear. We haven’t had any conversations with Google at all but it would be worth knowing.

    I should probably say that the whole investigation has been quite low key (just me in my spare time, with a little help from others) and separate from other work ONS is doing at the moment (such as developing an API). It’s unclear how, when, if, this will fit into future plans.

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