By: Derek Hannon

If a picture is worth a thousand words then, in my completely biased opinion, a good map is definitely worth at least five thousand. I love maps! I think one of the best examples of their power is that even when the location they’re depicting isn’t a real place, maps can help you feel more connected to the story – think the maps included in The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire books. In those books, the maps help the reader keep track of their detailed, some might say occasionally convoluted, plots. Maps can do the same thing for many issues associated with sustainability, issues that are often more complex and interconnected than anything George R.R. Martin has dreamed up.

Energy intensity in NYC (Howard, et al., 2018)

I’m the kind of person who, when presented with a problem, will almost always say that more data is a good thing. However, without some way to organize that data, you quickly have a jumbled mess that doesn’t provide any usable information. That’s where maps come in. Through the use of GIS tools, a wide variety of data types can be connected to geospatial data for the creation information. At Brendle Group that’s what we’re focused on – using data and maps to create a story and solve complex challenges. The use of geospatial data is not exclusive to sustainability. It’s also prevalent in retail, health care, even financial data, and the use of such data is growing every day (Behm, Bryan, Lordemann, & Thomas, 2018).

When applied to sustainability, data maps can come in many forms. One of the most common map structures used is a heat map. These maps show how intensity varies spatially for some data type – such as population per square mile or energy use per square foot. Columbia University provides an excellent example with a publicly available map of energy intensity for New York City. Brendle Group uses maps like this one to target areas of interest or track progress after a project has been implemented to show energy intensity changes (particularly useful when combined with time-series data).

Campus Sustainability Map (University of Iowa, 2018)

Maps can also be used to quickly highlight sustainability initiatives for the public. A great example of this can be seen in this map from the University of Iowa where each dot represents a different activity such as a rain garden, permeable pavement, or green roof (University of Iowa, 2018).

One of my favorite things about the growth of mapping is that so many of the maps and their source data are publicly available. Many cities and counties have GIS repositories that can be used to create new maps that look at data in ways that hadn’t been considered before. Additionally, if you need larger datasets there are countless sources from state and federal agencies to get spatial data covering topics ranging from transportation to air quality to land use and beyond. The sources of data are growing everyday as are our methods of gathering the data. Now that most of the population has a GPS enabled data collection device (also known as a smartphone) it is even possible to crowdsource data to get broad coverage that may otherwise have been far too expensive to collect.

As the availability of data continues to grow it’s more important than ever to check its quality (QC) and translate meaningless data into usable maps and other data summaries that result in actionable information. Once you have data, combining it as layers of a map or some other graphical representation, helps everyone involved take a systems-view of area being examined. Maps let us see interconnections that might have otherwise been missed and can help prevent solving one problem by creating another (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018). These interconnections are where the real meat of sustainability work lies. Most of the problems that we face in the coming decades don’t have just one side. They are complex multi-faceted challenges that require a wide vision and diversity of thought. If we want a sustainable future, we’ll need a map to get us there.


Behm, D., Bryan, T., Lordemann, J., & Thomas, S. (2018, February 1). The Past, Present, and Future of Geospatial Data Use. Retrieved from Trajectory Magazine:

Howard, B., Parshall, L., Thompson, J., Hammer, S., Dickinson, J., & Modi, V. (2018, May 22). Estimated Total Annual Building Energy Consuption at the Block and Lot Level for NYC. Retrieved from Quadracci Sustainable Engineering Lab:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2018, May 18). Mapping Sustainability. Retrieved from Global System for Sustainable Development:

University of Iowa. (2018, May 18). Campus Sustainability Map. Retrieved from Sustainability – The University of Iowa:

About the Author – As an engineer with Brendle Group, Derek is involved in a wide array of water resource and climate related projects including rate studies, efficiency analysis, literature reviews, greenhouse gas accounting, and local government climate planning. He also provides support across service areas in data analysis, geographic information systems, and software development.

Prior to joining Brendle Group, Derek worked in energy policy advocacy, data processing, and academia. His broad expertise is supported by a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies from the University of Kansas and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, Water Resources Planning and Management from Colorado State University where he focused on water supply in developing nations.