Meet FRED's Brother, GeoFRED: Blending Technology, Geography, and Data

Do your middle schoolers need practice interpreting maps and analyzing data? GeoFRED, a data mapping tool from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, blends technology and geography and may be just the answer. Linked to FRED—or Federal Reserve Economic Data—an online database from the St. Louis Fed that houses over 60,000 economic data time series, GeoFRED lets students create their own maps, graphs, charts, and tables. It has numerous features that can help middle schoolers develop their abilities in collecting, interpreting, and reporting data while honing their technology skills and learning some geography. Current and historical data are available on a wide range of topics, from statistics on unemployment, gross domestic product (GDP), and per-capita income to information on health care, housing—and even the amount of money each state collects from hunting and fishing licenses.

GeoFRED allows students to customize the information in numerous ways, from defining a particular area on the map to study (such as a region, state, or county), the frequency of the data reported (monthly, quarterly, annually), how the data are reported (percentages, percentage change, year-over-year changes), and whether the data are reported in equal or fractile intervals. Students can change the number of layers and even the colors that appear, and can collect the data not only on the map but also in graphs and Excel files. They can also save and print maps, and compare several maps to track changes in the data over time.

Below are some ideas for what you can do with this flexible online tool.

Accessing GeoFRED and viewing unemployment rates

  1. Click here to access GeoFRED on the St. Louis website. A U.S. map appears with colors depicting the unemployment rates across the country in percentage points. (This is the default setting in GeoFRED.)
  2. In the Legend box, click Display data values on map.

The figures for each state now appear on the map.

Have the students analyze the map. Which areas of the country have the highest unemployment? The lowest? Brainstorm possible reasons for the differences seen among states, as well as the results for their own state.

The data in the map is displayed in five classes at fractile intervals, which categorize the data so that each interval holds the same number of data points.

Note: The remaining procedures assume you are already on the GeoFRED site.

Changing the way data display
The next steps help you display the information in fewer groups and in equal intervals, with each class holding the same range of data.

  1. Click Edit Data & Layers (a button in the top left corner of the window). The Edit Data and Layers input window appears.
  2. Select the Classifications tab.
  3. Click the arrow on the Class Method field to open the dropdown list and select Equal Interval.
  4. In the Number of Classes field, select 3.
  5. Click the Update Map button. You now have a clearer picture of which states and what sections of the country have the highest and lowest unemployment rates. Have students look for which state has the highest rate and which has the lowest rate. Compare the picture shown by this map with the previous one for a lesson on fractile and equal intervals.
  6. Optional: Click the Download Data button to download this information into Excel.

Viewing individual states
GeoFRED lets you drill down into smaller regions. The following steps use Florida as an example, but you can select any state.

  1. On the U.S. map, click Florida. A Map Info box appears.
  2. Select See More Data. The Map Info box expands.
  3. At the top of the window, select Graph. A graph of Florida's unemployment data appears.
  4. In the lower left corner, click 5yrs. The graph that appears shows unemployment rate in the state for the last five years. You can customize the appearance of this graph.
  5. On the Map Info window, click Customize using FRED Graph.
  6. Have your students play around with some of the options. You can also build the graph to include other date ranges and more layers of data.

Note: For more information on how to use FRED, please see this recent article in the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's online newsletter Extra Credit.

Comparing regions
Now have your students compare rates of unemployment between areas across one state.
  1. Close the window with the graph and click Edit Data & Layers over the map.
  2. Click the arrow in the Area field to open the dropdown box.
  3. Click County and then Update Map.
  4. Hover the cursor over your state of choice to display the Map Info window.
  5. Click Zoom Here. You can see levels of unemployment by county.
  6. Use the slide bar to move around and look at different regions of the state.

Ask students look for areas or counties in the state with the highest and lowest unemployment rates. Ask them to brainstorm possible reasons for the differences they see, as well as industries in these areas that may be affecting employment positively or negatively.

Other information from GeoFRED
This brief tutorial gives only a snapshot of the many functionalities of GeoFRED and the ways you can use it in the classroom. Not only does the GeoFRED website offer tutorials on how to use the maps, but it also provides a lesson plan that takes students through an exercise in FRED using Gross Domestic Product and an activity on how to distinguish between fractile and equal interval data sets.

When you use this tool for teaching geography in the middle school grades, you are limited only by your imagination.

By Lesley Mace, economic and financial education specialist with the Jacksonville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
March 1, 2013