Project Spotlight: Mapping Environmental Justice

October 14, 2020

Mapping for Environmental Justice (MEJ) creates easy-to-use, publicly-available maps that paint a holistic picture of intersecting environmental, social, and health impacts experienced by communities across the US. MEJ's maps combine environmental, public health, and socioeconomic data into a single indicator that reflects the combined impacts of race, poverty, and pollution that low-income communities, communities of color, and historically marginalized communities experience. Our maps are driven by an in-depth community input process that gives communities the power to dictate the data used to create the environmental justice indicator in their state. This environmental justice indicator acts as a score for each census-tract that allows for an easy neighborhood-by-neighborhood comparison by policymakers, community members, advocates, and researchers. MEJ has created a demo map for Colorado, and is looking to improve our interactive map and website, and also expand our map to other states.

MEJ recently received $60,000 from UC Berkeley’s The Green Initiative Fund to continue their work.

About the Researcher 

Adam Buccholz, the director of MEJ got his undergraduate degree in Biology after which he worked as a science teacher in Denver. He currently holds a master’s degree from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and got involved with MEJ during his time at Berkeley.

Interview 

What motivated you to initiate/propose this project?

I recognise that we need to attack root causes to aim solutions to big issues. Climate change and environmental racism are the most wide-reaching, long running and systemic issues there are, that disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.
MEJ targets the root cause of a lack of data, by combining environmental, public health, and socioeconomic data into a single indicator that reflects the combined impacts of race, poverty, and pollution that low-income communities, communities of color, and historically marginalized communities experience. This indicator aids policymakers, community organisers, members and researchers.

Since you have been a multi-semester Discovery partner, could you describe your project in phases and what each semester has been building up to?

Spring 2020 is when we first began the project with Discovery students. Our first semester went towards gauging whether it was possible to do the project. Then we piloted in Colorado with grad students doing the bulk of the environmental justice and public policy work and undergrads doing data science. 

This semester, we are expanding to Virginia and leading outreach and building partnerships with local organisations for policy making - similar to what we did in Colorado over the summer.

Zain (a prior Discovery participant), is now leading the undergraduate student team as a grad student. The following questions are answered by him:
Could you elaborate on certain aspects of this project that you find to be the most challenging?

Coming in as an external organisation to collaborate with organisations that have been in the community and have had their roots in it for a while has been difficult - it takes time to find our place. 

Also, shifting to remote due to COVID-19 has been challenging, because the student team is working across timezones. Additionally, my biggest takeaway from DSDP has been the experience of working in a data science team which is tough to give to students while remote.

How has your experience been with Discovery and your student researchers so far (through all the semesters you have been a discovery partner)?

Researchers have been great and we’ve had an awesome semester so far! We have had students from a wide breadth of educational backgrounds (Data Science, Geography, Statistics and Environmental Science) which has been great!

What are you looking forward to the most this semester?

It is rare in an undergraduate data science curriculum to work on something you believe in. Through discovery, students get to work on real world problems to make a difference. Trying to provide valuable skills/training for students and translating things they learn in class to a professional setting makes their educational experience more powerful. It is rewarding to see that payoff. However, the biggest challenge in addition to remote work, is that sometimes in a project team, students need to do necessary work which may not be exciting but is vital. Instilling that routine can be difficult.