Hull of a House

The Impact of Mapping

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By Lok, museum educator

In a previous post, we explored the history and process for the making of Hull-House Maps and Papers, by Florence Kelley and others from the Hull-House community. Here we will look closer into the significance and at how the maps connect to the contemporary world.  Undoubtedly, Florence Kelley’s maps provided explicit information about the wages and living conditions of the neighbors around the Nineteenth Ward area in the late 19th century. But the significance of this study might go beyond what you think. One reason why the study remains important is because Florence Kelley was one of the first people who was able to visualize a sea of information in an easily understandable manner. The techniques she used were well beyond her time. More importantly, she was able to use her maps as evidence to inform the public about what was going on in areas then known as “slums.” With the maps, she raised a great deal of awareness by the public about the living conditions of the working poor, which lead to reforms from the government to improve the quality of life for the working poor.

One page from Hull-House Maps and Papers

Because Florence Kelley’s maps were so successful, the public begun to see more and more data visualizations in public meetings, conferences, and under a variety of different settings.  Even now, we often see Florence Kelley’s legacy on many occasions. Thanks to improvements in everyday computer technology, computer software now enables its users to create maps without having earned a PhD in a particular field. Among the map-making software, the most popular is called the Geographic Information System (GIS). Under proper training, even a high school freshman can easily create maps that capture, analyze, or present data to the public in a stunning fashion. Figure 2 is a typical example of a GIS map, created by the author. Notice that the map could speak for itself, audiences could immediately interpret information about the immigrants in the city of Chicago. Most obvious of all, we can see the immigrant population tend to concentrate more on the north side and the west side of Chicago. Policy implications about this map could go from creating more multi-language community centers on the west side to putting more bilingual schools on the north side. Really, sky is the limit, and it all depends on where the presenter is taking his or her arguments.

A GIF map of Chicago's Immigrant Population

Nowadays technology has improved so much and critics have pointed out some design flaws in Florence Kelley’s maps. For instance, Florence Kelley used different colors to represent different wages earned by the residents around the 19th Ward. Due to the fact that wage is ordinal data, however, it would be much better to present the level of wages using one color, from light to heavy. This way audience would have no need to look back and forth to interpret which part of the neighborhood earned the highest or lowest wage. Regardless of this shortcoming, many researchers have openly acknowledged that Florence Kelley’s work was revolutionary.  You would be surprised to know how many public investments were made based on the findings from these GIS maps. Perhaps one GIS map helped your local officials to draw state funds to build a new hospital in your community. In any case, Florence Kelley’s legacy might have changed your life dramatically, but you will have no idea where it all came from if you have not visited the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

From this example, we get a taste of how reformers from the settlement houses changed the world, or precisely, U.S. society and our everyday surroundings. I hope that you will be able to come visit us someday, and that our artifacts might open a new page for you to understand our history and society from a completely different perspective.

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