Map-Based Apps Help Fight Food Insecurity Caused by COVID-19
The novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is impacting families on an unprecedented scale across the state of Indiana. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state's unemployment rate for May climbed to 16.9 percent, which is the highest number ever recorded in Indiana. Lost or reduced wages have resulted in significant food insecurity, and several resources that residents normally would depend on have become unavailable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Food banks are being stretched to their limit. School closures have changed access to free and reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches for students. Food staples normally available at grocery stores have become scarce.
"Indiana already had a 13.2 percent food insecurity rate going into this, and could come out with estimates ranging from 14.2 to 18.4 percent post-COVID-19," said Rachel Lane, chief transformation officer for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA).
Interagency Collaboration Drives a Statewide Solution
In response to the quickly spreading outbreak, the state of Indiana needed to assemble a team of experts to create an online application that could connect residents to nearby food pantries, meal sites, and schools.
"The problem that we were trying to solve as a state was that there was no single resource or platform for people to find available food resources," said Lane. "In the face of the daily changes to the food pantries that were being forced to close, we had to get this new solution up and running."
As many as 70 percent of the state's food pantries had to close their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic because their volunteer staff were forced to stay at home. Given the unpredictable status of the operating food pantries, it was determined that a map-based app built with geographic information system (GIS) technology would be ideal for the state's COVID-19 response.
The FSSA team turned to the Geographic Information Office (GIO), within the Indiana Office of Technology, to fast-track the new, mobile-friendly Food Assistance Availability Map.
The interactive app needed to provide functionality to not only pinpoint the closest food sites but also deliver critical information about each of them. For example, does the site offer special hours for senior citizens? Do only students at the school qualify for its summer food service program?
All the new variable datasets needed to be carefully considered and strategically factored into the configuration of a new interactive map that could be used with ease by parents as well as their high school–age children, if needed.
This was brand-new territory for the FSSA and its partner agencies. Prior to COVID-19, no one had ever mapped these resources statewide. The process for a major project incorporating multiple state-level agencies such as this would normally require around six months, from conception to deployment. This one would need to be completed in less than a week.
Mobile Maps Make It Easy to Find Nearby Food Assistance
The FSSA partnered with the state's charitable food banks, the Indy Hunger Network, and Feeding Indiana's Hungry, serving all 92 counties. Indiana's GIO team was able to build the map-based app, using the ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online platforms, in under a week. A highly diverse, cross-departmental effort traditionally would not be considered for a state-level initiative such as this. COVID-19 changed that dynamic.
"We needed a powerful mapping tool, but one that is intuitive to use. ArcGIS helped to make our workflow very easy. I am able to bring in new location data from the sites, add the updated information to the map, set up the symbology, and configure the pop-ups in ArcGIS Pro. I can share them out using ArcGIS Online. I then bring that map into the application, using the Near Me tool in ArcGIS Web AppBuilder," said Irv Goldblatt, GIS technology manager, Indiana GIO. "Initially, this process would take me up to two hours per day. Now I can do it in less than 45 minutes."
The interagency team's efforts thrived by utilizing ArcGIS to get the new map-based app off the ground and onto digital devices statewide.
"It was really impressive how our teams were able to come together and get this project launched while adjusting to the mandatory work-from-home order," said Megan Compton, geographic information officer, Indiana GIO. "Given the unique circumstances that everyone was facing, it was a priority to ensure that citizens in need could find access to food pantries. This team really rose above the challenges facing us to pull together a valuable product."
The new Food Assistance Availability Map has been a game changer for the Hoosier State. Residents can now easily locate nearby food resources by either clicking on the map or typing their address in the search field. Clicking on any of the sites produces details about it, including name, address, hours of operation, type of organization, contact information, population served, and eligibility requirements. Food pantries and meal sites can provide their detailed information via a web-based form. This information is uploaded to the map on a daily basis.
The Food Assistance Availability Map has become one of the most-used resources on the entire FSSA website, logging over 124,000 unique views since its launch at the end of March. On average, users are spending around two and a half minutes on the app.
"This project fulfilled a huge gap for people in need who have lost their jobs or were COVID-19 positive and couldn't get out. It's proven to be an incredibly valuable resource," said Lane.
Supporting Fellow Hoosiers in Need Makes a Lasting Impression
The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from fellow state agencies on this project proved to be a powerful experience.
"What I really appreciate about this project is that none of us had ever worked together prior to this project. We all quickly came together and did what we needed to do for human beings, as human beings. I get choked up when I think about what this team accomplished in such a short period of time," said Lane.
The experience has also laid the groundwork for future interagency collaboration, using the app to continue to serve fellow Hoosiers fighting food insecurity, which will not cease after this crisis subsides. Work remains to build on the functionalities of the app, with an eye toward what's possible for the road ahead. That may include food pantries utilizing simple mobile GIS tools to update their status in real time.
"We know the severity in which COVID-19 directly affected many Hoosiers. It hit me straight in the heart, hoping we are making a difference," said Compton. "During the crisis, it is heartening to see multiple teams partnering and driving to a swift, successful solution. In this instance, using GIS tools to spatially lay out the data made it more accessible. People innately understand maps better than sorting through a list of providers—that picture makes all the difference."
Given the unique circumstances that everyone was facing, it was a priority to ensure that citizens in need could find access to food pantries. This team really rose above the challenges facing us to pull together a valuable product.