Agencies are bolstering the Biden administration’s environmental justice push with mapping initiatives that help users understand complex data, as the White House also directs agencies to use a new tool to guide their “Justice40” investments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last August, released the Environmental Justice Index (EJI), a tool featuring an interactive map designed to measure the cumulative impacts of environmental burdens on communities throughout the United States.

Ben McKenzie, a geospatial epidemiologist with the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said the EJI — while it has limitations — can be a valuable tool for policymakers, public health officials, community-based organizations and individuals.

“They can use it to educate and inform people about community level factors, including analyzing the unique local factors that are contributing to cumulative impacts on those communities health, and then use that information to inform policy and decision making, as well as to use that data to establish meaningful goals and to measure progress towards health, and towards environmental justice and health equity,” McKenzie said during a recent interview at the annual Esri FedGIS conference in Washington.

The EJI features data for each census tract in the United States, providing an “environmental justice score” for each community by measuring environmental, social, and health data in combination. The EJI sources data from the Census Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the CDC itself.

“We’re taking really complex data, and we’re bringing it together in a way that provides both a high level point of entry — you can map that single score for cumulative impacts on health across the United States and start to look at this data at that very high level — or you can dig down deeper,” McKenzie said. “You can look at individual factors within the overall index score that might be contributing to those overall health impacts of environmental burden, social vulnerability or health vulnerability.”

NOAA maps urban heat

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) is working to map urban heat islands. The effort seeks to help communities better understand their risks in extreme heat, which NOAA says kills more Americans than any other weather-related event.

Last year, NIHHIS launched as the primary portal for accessing heat health-related data and forecasts, including the urban heat islands maps.

More than 60 cities have already been surveyed for heat islands, providing details on which parts of those cities get hotter than others during dangerous heat events. The campaigns use volunteers to measure temperatures throughout a city during a particularly hot period. NOAA also uses its historical data and satellite pictures, as well as newer sensors, to build out forecasts and other resources.

NOAA is now finalizing the cities that will be involved in the 2023 campaign, according to Rafael de Ameller, lead of the NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

He said the urban heat island initiative has “democratized the data” so communities can have a “common operating picture” of heat-related risks, particularly looking into the future as climate change leads to warmer temperatures worldwide.

“So city planners and governments can actually take this data and add it to their own repository of data layers that are available for their city,” de Ameller said. “They can take it a step further and do some analytics on it.”

The urban heat mapping campaign is just one effort under the Biden administration’s “Justice40” initiative, which aims to ensure 40% of the “overall benefits” of certain federal investments go to disadvantaged communities that have been “marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

Justice40 funding directive

The efforts at CDC and NOAA, respectively, come as the Biden administration directs agencies to use another mapping tool to guide Justice40 investments: the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST).

The CEJST was released in beta version last February, and version 1.0 was rolled out in November. The tool features an interactive map and identifies communities that face burdens, relying on data across eight categories in climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater and workforce development.

The White House is now telling agencies they must use CEJST for any new Justice40-related investments by the start of fiscal 2024.

“Federal agencies should now start using the CEJST to identify geographically defined disadvantaged communities for any covered programs under the Justice40 Initiative and for programs where a statute directs resources to disadvantaged communities, to the maximum extent possible and permitted by law,” a Jan. 27 memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget states. “Agencies shall use best efforts to transition to using the CEJST as expeditiously as possible.”

The goal is for the CEJST to “become the primary tool used by agencies for such geographic identification of disadvantaged communities,” the memo adds.

The tool’s development is overseen by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. The CEJST website states the tool will be updates annually “based on public feedback, research, and the availability of new data.”

Mapping and visualization

Meanwhile, NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Lab is developing different ways to present the urban heat data, including a virtual reality application. The VR platform is currently in beta format and allows users to explore Washington, D.C., and its heat island data in three dimensions.

The application integrates other relevant data, showing which areas have greater tree coverage and which have exposed asphalt that can make a neighborhood hotter. It also integrates socioeconomic data, showing where extreme heat and higher concentrations of poverty can overlap.

“For an average citizen, you need to tell a story, you need to find a way to explain this . . . in a way that is, perhaps, a little more interactive and dynamic,” de Ameller said.

NOAA has recently started to show the VR application to a wider audience, including media outlets and at conferences like the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt.

“Most of the people that we’ve shown this to, until now have been scientists,” de Ameller said. “It’s been making sure that what we’re showing is appropriate and valid by NOAA standards, and making sure that we tell a story that’s correct and that everybody has vetted and feels good about.”

The CDC’s EJI tool  also relies on mapping to help users understand complex datasets.

“The focus on mapping and visualization is such an important way of communicating these data and these issues to the public and to public health practitioners and officials,” McKenzie said.

The CDC is now “engaging with communities, engaging with people, letting them know that the tool is available, and getting feedback that we can use to make our approach better in the future,” McKenzie added.

“We do plan to update the EJI regularly going forward to use the best data available at the time,” he said.