Building Tools and Training for Public & Educational Use of Geospatial Big Data

Guest post by Dr. Garrett Dash Nelson, Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at Boston Public Library

This Success Story is a report on the results of the Northeast Big Data Innovation Hub’s 2020 Seed Fund program.

The primary goal of this Seed Fund project was to create a gateway for adult library patrons and K-12 educators to begin engaging with geospatial data. This meant building both technical infrastructure and “social infrastructure” designed to facilitate access for non-specialist users to approach geospatial data from a critical perspective. 

The first step was to design and launch a new Public Data Portal to host the Center’s public-access data sets, based on a user-centered paradigm of human readable data. The Leventhal Center designed the Data Portal from scratch so it is easily maintainable by Center staff, and also to emphasize facilitated access to datasets for non-specialist users. This alpha version of our Data Portal has already become a major piece of our data engagement infrastructure, and we’ll be posting a white paper about its development, as well as making the codebase open access.

The second step was to create training materials to help patrons understand how to use the data portal and Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies as part of a broader introductory course on “Making Sense of Maps & Data.” Together, these efforts are meant to help individuals critically evaluate maps and the data used to produce them, fostering public engagement with geospatial data literacy.

Another goal of the project was to engage three data empowerment interns from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Data + Feminism Lab to develop a set of reusable training materials for a new introductory course, “Making Sense of Maps and Data.” The team offered this course to an initial cohort of 30 adult participants facilitated by both staff from the Leventhal Map & Education Center (LMEC) at the Boston Public Library and public data empowerment interns. The course was then offered a second time to a smaller group, facilitated solely by LMEC staff. For more information on the success of this course, read this article published by the data empowerment interns.  

In addition to the three student interns from the MIT Data + Feminism Lab, the project team members also worked with an advisory panel of high school teachers drawn from Boston Public Schools to ensure the portal and the instructional series are well-suited for use by educators and by high school students. Approximately a quarter of the participants in the pilot course of “Making Sense of Maps & Data” were current K-12 educators who can use these skills and course materials in their classrooms.

This initial version of the Public Data Portal will grow to become the Boston Public Library’s primary repository for serving and describing open geospatial data sets. Additionally, the “Making Sense of Maps & Data” course will become the key gateway course for new adult patrons looking to work with geospatial data at the Center. The project team foresees this course as being a kind of “prerequisite” for other adult programs that we will offer to equip patrons with the ability to engage critically, creatively, and carefully with geospatial data.

Articles Published as a result of this research:

Making Sense of Maps and Data at the Leventhal Map and Education Center 

Lead PI: Garett Dash Nelson

Collaborators: Belle Lipton, Michelle LeBlanc

Garrett Dash Nelson is a historical geographer who works extensively with geospatial technologies in the social sciences and humanities. He is interested in the relationship between geographic knowledge and civic questions like politics, community, and planning. 

Contact Garrett Dash Nelson on Twitter at either @en_dash or @bplmaps


Belle Lipton’s background is in digital mapping and geospatial data librarianship. She is passionate about exploring the relationships between social issues, GIS data, and mapping technologies. She enjoys thinking about ways to use library best practices, web mapping tools and educational outreach together to engage and empower researchers with increased spatial literacy skills.

Michelle LeBlanc leads all aspects of teacher training, school programs and curriculum development at the Map Center. She has over 20 years of experience in museums and classrooms, teaching history and designing programming for varied audiences. She holds an M.A. in Public History from Northeastern University and is a licensed teacher for grades 5-8 in Massachusetts.