Geovisual software can help district leaders make data-driven decisions about redistricting, attrition, and transportation.
By Greg Thompson, 10/01/13
This article appears in the September 2013 issue of T.H.E. Journal.
For district leaders, the modern school system can be a maze of options, with dead ends, wrong turns, and delays leading to classic paralysis by analysis. Solving the maze from within can be difficult, but rising above the labyrinth with geovisual analytics can illuminate the finish line.
For the uninitiated, geovisual analytics is an emerging interdisciplinary field integrating visual analytics and geographic information science. Essentially, the software sorts through massive amounts of data from school and local government sources to help school administrators find patterns and trends. These patterns can then be displayed visually–for example, layered over a district map. “It definitely beats staring at a spreadsheet,” says Chuck Amos, CEO of Minneapolis-based GuideK12, a geovisual analytics software company. “By adding the geographic, visual dimension to your data, we bring out insights.”
What sort of insights? Many schools, for example, are dealing with student attrition, and school boards want to know why. “We can help identify patterns of loss if schools are losing kids to private or charter schools,” says Amos. “With the right kind of insight, planners can react appropriately and determine what kind of magnet schools could attract those kids back to the local school system.”
Amos tells the story of a recent GuideK12 district that decided to explore the impact of combining middle schools, by looking at local crime statistics. “They wanted to analyze gang territories and work with local police to determine school safe zones,” explains Amos. “The police in many communities collect those statistics, and they can be brought into our software.”
Making Choices With Maps, Not Emotions
Amos says that objective software analysis can even help cool the heated topic of race. Specifically, he cites a situation in which one school’s racial balance was thought to be markedly different than the overall district. That perception turned out to be incorrect, and GuideK12 helped correct the misunderstanding.
“Racial balance tends to be a highly charged issue,” Amos says. “When the issue was raised at a meeting, school officials were able to bring up information on the fly that showed racial balance at the school in question was actually within a very small variance of the overall district racial balance.”
The speed at which the software can produce actionable data is something that Robert R. Emerson, assistant superintendent of educational services at Farmington Municipal Schools (NM), really could have used during an arduous middle school redistricting process. Looking back on the marathon meetings that he endured without the help of GuideK12, he estimates that the software could have cut the redistricting time by two-thirds. “That process was the impetus for looking for a different software package that would help us in future projects,” says Emerson. “We’re going to be redistricting our elementary schools probably the year after next, and it’s going to be so much easier and quicker.”
Any redistricting initiative can be a daunting prospect, primarily due to emotional parents worried about their children’s future. Even in the relatively small, 40,000-person community of Farmington, misconceptions can cloud an otherwise straightforward decision. “People have preconceptions about neighborhoods and the kids who live there,” says Emerson. “Then you go and actually look and see who lives there, and suddenly people say, ‘Wow, we thought kids who lived there were all poor or Hispanic,’ when that’s really not the case. It’s helpful to eliminate some of those misconceptions. The software can take that out of the picture and show the real situation and demographics.”
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