GIS in Social Science: Mapping Social Capital Strength to Measure Organizational Efficacy

Devon Reeser


GIS can change the efficacy of social service organizations with the evaluation power of mapping.

Climate change, urbanization, and modernization are evolving the social landscape of the world – and creating more gaps in social services for the world’s poorest to cope and to keep pace. Those gaps are nearly always filled by government programs or NGO or nonprofit services, but their efficacy can be difficult to measure.

For example, basic health education for poor women does not generally come from private hospitals, but from Planned Parenthoods and Plan Internationals. How can they measure the more intangible health education goals of “empowering women to use condoms,” “breastfeeding until 6 months,” or “not tolerating violence in the home”?

That type of evaluation is often difficult at best, and challenging to quantify. An organization can help prove that its programs have been successful by mapping its social network geographically, by showing reach and making a link between broader impacts. That reach defines its quantity of social capital and becomes a measurable output or goal.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

Here is background information and four steps to use GIS to measure the social capital, or social network strength, of social service programs to better understand organizational efficacy and gap analysis.

What is social capital?

Social capital is the sum of all of the other organizations and resources an organization touches based on the power of its network. The World Bank calls it “the glue” of an organization[i] – it is all of the connectors it has to other resources.

An NGO can show how strong it is by drawing those connector lines to all of the other resources with which it has an affiliation and then showing those relationships graphically with a spatial relationship analysis. This tool can help the organization see 1) how far its reach really is and 2) if it has the right connections, and hence resources, to meet its particular goals.

Affiliations mapping: How to get started

You (the organization or evaluator) will need to map affiliations for all staff, board members, key volunteers, and partner organizations.

If the nonprofit has a lot of board members and volunteers, you can either research them with prospect research services (or Google and LinkedIn if you have a low budget) or send out a survey to all on the list asking them quick questions about their affiliations.

Affiliations include: where they work, where they have worked, what other groups they work with, and the same information for their spouses and parents. Expect a good amount of data!

Build the geographic data

Now find the geographic locations for all of the affiliations and input it into a spreadsheet. Again, use Google if you have a low budget, or if you are studying a rural area in a developing country, you might contract locals to volunteer time to help you with addresses for local hospitals, schools, etc.

It is even possible that local governments have large quantities of GIS coordinate ready data for you to use.

For example, LA County has a comprehensive and publicly accessible database including basemaps, hazards, and transportation.[ii]

Try a tool like Excel Geocoder to turn addresses into coordinates. (See this related article for step-by-step directions on turning addresses to maps.)

Make a map showing your resource reach

Map all of your information, and see what patterns arise.

  • Separate data into layers for different genres of affiliations if you have too much information. For example, put the hospitals that board member doctors work with in a “health services” layer and the Executive Director’s wife’s father as County Commissioner in a “politics” layer.
  • You can use this map to show both your current and potential reach from both the number of community organizations with which you are affiliated as well as the geographic territory you cover.

Using social media in social capital measurement

Social media has now “converged” with GIS, as more and more (if not all) social media programs tap into GIS on smartphones and use it as an integral part of their programming.[iii]

The strength of an organization’s social media network can be added into your social capital analysis easily as a result, if social media is a viable resource for the organization’s goals.

That would include social media campaigns to influence widespread behavioral change, as in the women using condoms example. It would also include organizations trying to involve youth. Map-able indicators to help quantify outcomes include:

  • How many Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube members does the organization have, and where are they located? (com links 5 ways to see your Facebook friends on a map with simple apps.)
  • How many people liked or tweeted a particular social media video, and from where?
  • What percentage of high school age students in your area are linked into your social media?

GIS has now made it possible to make the intangible tangible – to quantifiably measure organizational reach and effectiveness at meeting social service goals by mapping the power of social capital.

In only a few steps cumbersome data and indicators of social program strength can be turned into demonstrative maps that show gaps in service and where to focus resources going forward to meet goals.


[i] The World Bank. 2014. What is Social Capital.

[ii] Los Angeles County. 2014. Los Angeles County GIS Data Portal.

[iii] Sui, Daniel and Michael Goodchild. 2011. The Convergence of GIS and Social Media: Challenges for GIScience. International Journal of Geographical Information Science.

Photo of author
About the author
Devon Reeser