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Checking on California via the Web

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 2008 Issue
August 11, 2008

Checking on California via the Web

As an educator, I have always used a lot of maps. If data can be mapped, they have been. We’re all familiar with weather maps, population maps, and the infamous political “red versus blue” county maps. As a birdwatcher, I consult maps to confirm where some species reside. My wife uses maps to determine what plants grow best in a region.

It turns out, there are maps some of us don’t expect to find. These are maps that change more frequently than books or magazines are published. A “live” map of earthquakes is definitely something a textbook could not include.

There were 1324 earthquakes in North America during the first week of August, 2008. A third of these were in or adjacent to California, half were in Alaska, and the remainder were scattered about the West. These data are from the U.S. Geological Survey, better known as the USGS, which maintains a live map of earthquakes on the Web (

Why would a Californian need a map to know the state is moving? I’m probably not alone, but until I had roommates in college it never dawned on me that I don’t even notice most of the minor tremors. “Did you feel that?” is apparently a phrase new arrivals to our state are required to ask after every sonic boom, train passing, or actual tremor.

Thanks to the USGS, I can verify if there really was a quake. Turns out, most are so small that no one would notice them. It is possible to notice patterns, though, with lots of small quakes around the larger ones.

The USGS map also reveals not a single quake in the Central Valley. Not one. Not a single tiny yellow dot. The size of a dot represents the magnitude of the quake, using the Richter Scale. I am always impressed by how many 3.0 to 3.5 quakes strike our state.

I find that people outside our state assume it is always shaking. Turns out, it is always shaking. But what about the other popular vision: California burning?

Again, the USGS has a Web site with maps. The GeoMAC ( service provides live wildfire data to government agencies. You don’t need to be a California Dept. of Forestry employee to appreciate the maps.

There were 32 files in the Continental U.S. the first week of August. Half of these were in California. Okay, maybe we do tend to be a flammable state.

GeoMAC allows you to compare the previous five years to the current year. You can map the fires of 2002 and compare the map to 2007, for example. What you quickly realize is that the fires seem to appear in the same general areas year after year. And, once again, the immediate Central Valley and our foothills are rarely involved.

Don’t get me wrong. I think living in an uneventful area is a good thing. That Fresno, Visalia, and our other cities are neither shaking nor threatened by wildfires are just two more important factors separating us from our fellow Californians.

A region is more than its physical qualities, so I’ve located some other maps that illustrate differences between the Central Valley and other places.

Our strength remains agriculture. Yes, there are maps of agricultural data, too. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture also has a great Web site with interactive maps ( The Ag Census displays Central Valley counties in dark green for almost every category of production or farming income. The rest of the nation fades to beige or even brown, with the exception of grain crops in the Midwest.

The Ag Census shows just how amazing our Central Valley is: dark green for everything from tree fruit to milk production. People don’t believe some of the facts, but here they are in shades of green. The Central Valley relatively tied the state of Wisconsin for cheese production in 2007. Same shade of green, same range of dollars in retail sales.

When I travel, I receive puzzled looks when I talk about how amazing it is to fly into Fresno. The land is a patchwork of green fields as you pass over the Valley. The Ag Census looks like the view from the air: a wonderful patchwork of greens.

I admit that our Valley is not perfect, though. Maps reveal our strengths, but they can also reveal our weaknesses.

The U.S. Census Bureau maintains a Web site known as American FactFinder ( The FactFinder site provides county-by-county maps of census data, from education levels to poverty rates. The maps are interactive, which means someone like me can spend hours looking at different maps.

FactFinder also has Fact Sheets on Demand for any city or county in the nation. Enter “Tulare County” into the box and three pages of data for 2006 appear, along with options to show even more detail for any of the data categories.

In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated that nationally 27 percent of citizens over 25 had a four-year college degree. In Tulare County, that number was only 12.4 percent. The interactive maps reveal that the lower the educational levels of a region, the higher the poverty rates. Sadly, this translates to double the national poverty rate within Tulare County: 18.5 percent versus a national average of 9.8 percent.

Despite relative calm and safety, our area does have some economic challenges. Using the maps online, it was easy to find another feature more important than natural disasters or proximity to the Pacific Ocean: college enrollment, which corresponds to number of colleges in a region

I definitely plan to have my students analyze online maps. For example, the physical sizes of some states can distort how we understand data. Literacy now goes well beyond reading to include understand visuals.

Maps and simple tables are a lot easier to read than boring government reports or academic journal articles. Using FactFinder and the USGS sites, I can learn a lot about our region and our state. Visuals reveal patterns I would never find reading a text. Pictures really are worth a thousand words in these cases.


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