Rice University's

Shell Center for Sustainability

First sustainability atlas of its kind for Houston uses data visualization

to map 24 social, economic and environmental indicators

We spoke to Lester King, Sustainability Fellow at the Shell Center, author of the reports and creator of the website about software mapping.

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What sort of feedback have you had?

Everyone who has seen it likes what we have done without exception. The only challenge is there are some users who don’t want to spend time understanding all of the built-in data accessibility functions, so we are developing a series of ‘How to’ videos to help them get straight to what they need. I have also presented it to individuals in local government who were very impressed and are now deciding whether they should be taking a similar approach with some of their projects.


How will you develop the Sustainability atlas?

Our plan is to create reports every six months and this will cover a number of themes including: drivers for crime reduction and food deserts in the city (which will help us to understand what development factors exist in areas that have poor access to fruit and vegetables). We will also look at distressed neighborhoods and trying to identify the level of inequality in those areas.


What were the benefits of using InstantAtlas?

It was important for us to maintain our role in the city as providers of high quality and unbiased research:

  • Data is now freely available using mapping software
  • Users can browse the data and compare different areas in the city
  • We now have a dynamic website that is a showpiece for Houston
  • The support provided by InstantAtlas meant it was a positive experience


The Rice University's Shell Center for Sustainability, Houston has developed a unique website to help Houstonians learn more about sustainability and community resources. Three years’ worth of data analysis was used to produce 24 social, economic and environmental indicators of sustainability at the Super Neighborhood, Council District and city levels. The website allows users to interact with data and make comparisons within Super Neighborhoods and within Council Districts. We spoke to Lester King, Sustainability Fellow at the Shell Center, author of the reports and creator of the website about software mapping.


Why were you looking for a data visualization solution?

We wanted to contribute to the knowledge base on sustainability in Houston by demonstrating how comprehensive data can be used to understand important issues affecting the city. Our goal was to make sure this information could be accessed easily in an understandable way.


I had come across InstantAtlas at a Community Indicators Consortium (CIC) conference. I could see that it was an aesthetically pleasing format and when I was hired to develop the sustainability indicators I needed something that would help me to leverage my expertise in design, web programming and data analysis without the need to hire an additional team of designers and programmers. The templates provided are very well designed.


What are the aims of the project?

The Houston Sustainability Indicators (HSI) project is a long-term program to assist with the measurement and characterization of sustainability in Houston. Metrics for the chosen indicators were defined and are measured based on literature review; expert and advisory consultation and data availability.


The project uses 24 sustainable development indicators to measure development using the municipal boundary of the City of Houston. Indicators were selected to equally address the three pillars of sustainability (social, economic, and environmental development). Data was collected for the years 1990, 2000, and 2010.


Getting the data involved working across various software packages such as ArcGIS, Excel and Access. I then had to work out how to match the data with the InstantAtlas templates, which meant learning how the templates were programmed. I didn’t have to put time into the visualization design because of the templates.



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