Democratizing GIS

GIS applications arm communities with information that local government can't ignore.

by / June 30, 1998 0
Geographic information systems (GIS) have a way to go before they become as democratized as word processors, especially at the grassroots level. Applications associated with social and environmental justice or equal representation are mostly the work of universities and government agencies responding to requests for assistance from community-based groups. Few, if any, of these organizations today have the resources to use the technology. There are national coalitions and advocacy groups in Washington, D.C., that have never even heard of GIS, let alone used one.

"I think of it as assisting communities in developing information technology skills that will enable them to take on more responsibility for achieving their goals, using GIS so they can help themselves in the future as more and more information is available on the Web and through Community 2020-types of software."


Before GIS can become a tool for mapping and geographic analysis at the neighborhood level, it will have to be made available through federal, state and local government. HUD's Community 2020 Program is the front-runner here [See "GIS Made Easy," Government Technology, February 1998]. Even with these advances, however, many professionals feel that grassroots applications will continue to require some level of technical support, whether in maintaining databases, mapping or analysis.

At present, the most common model for GIS applications in grassroots issues is the joint community/university effort, whereby neighborhood organizations request a school's assistance in resolving issues in transportation, land use, home loans, redistricting or environmental justice. In such instances, faculty members often act as consultants, with student interns providing the GIS expertise, and schools making the technology available. There are numerous variations on this in community projects at the universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Carolina.

Government programs, such as Community 2020, provide the GIS training, technology and data to nonprofit organizations across the country. Local governments are also making a broad range of city data available to their communities. In Washington state, Seattle's Open City program is enabling residents to take a more active role in planning the future of their communities. In most of these programs -- university or government -- the overall objective is to help communities develop the skills that will enable them to take more responsibility for achieving their own goals.

Milwaukee's Data Center Program

The Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee (NCM) is a membership-based association of nonprofit organizations. One of its major functions is the operation of the Data Center Program (DCP) -- a data/GIS shop for community organizations. Established as a data clearinghouse in 1992 by Associate Professor Michael Barndt and others from the University of Wisconsin, the DCP provides data, analysis, mapping and GIS-level services to meet short-term neighborhood programming and planning needs. "A large part of what we do," Barndt explained, "is get data in the hands of organizations for use on the street."

Resources for DCP come from public and private sectors. NCM funding comes from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars, and ArcView GIS is supplied by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). University of Wisconsin students help develop parcel maps, map patterns of home ownership, asset locations, crime events and data relating to NCM activity. Occasionally, police departments make printouts of crime incidents available to the organization. In addition, the Minneapolis Planning Department provides a variety of low-cost maps on request and a cadastral database on compact disk. Barndt pointed out, however, that community groups have yet to take full advantage of this affordable mapping resource. "This is one of the things that surprises me about Minneapolis: Community groups are not asking for more; they haven't been aware of the wealth of technical material the city provides."

Assistance to neighborhood organizations usually begins with a spokesperson from a group coming to the Data Center describing a particular problem and, within a few days or weeks, picking up a set of maps and tables. The need may be as simple as a list of homeowners for an organizer who is working in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Groups may want to put together maps showing where individual neighborhood organizations are located, helping them see how the community is coming together. They may want to develop a plan that will have an effect on the way city funds are allocated in their neighborhoods. "Sometimes it is more complicated," Barndt explained, "for example, working with a coalition that is trying to get the city to change liquor-license policies by demonstrating relationships between crime and the concentration of these licenses in particular parts of the city."

In 1997, a coalition of neighborhood organizations concerned about rising crime rates had DCP overlay the locations of stores licensed to sell malt liquor onto maps of their neighborhoods. The maps showed that licenses were heavily concentrated in these neighborhoods. "Even the city aldermen had not been aware of that fact," Barndt said. "The coalition managed to make a case to the city that led to the creation of a commission to review alcohol licensing process -- and a seat at the table."

The Data Center, along with several national organizations, was involved in a case against an insurance company for not selling policies within Milwaukee's African-American community. After the case was settled, the question was how to monitor the company's adherence to the terms of the settlement. The company and a residents' monitoring group worked out the details; for the past five years, the company has been sharing with the group the pattern of policies written or turned down, effectively making their portfolio available for inspection.

The agreed objectives were that the company would increase its sales within African-American Milwaukee neighborhoods by a certain percentage and hire a number of minority agents. As the monitoring group receives the data, they turn it over to DCP for analysis. "Every six months," said Barndt, "we produce a series of maps and summaries showing those patterns. We are about three-fifths of the way through the monitoring process. So far, the company has been meeting the overall objectives."

Progressing Toward Self Help

Rather than seeing DCP solely as a system for providing data, NCM views it as part of the overall development process for nonprofit organizations; workshops and programs are also available to help organizations understand what can be done with the data. They learn what they need to know about their own communities, about the mix of housing programs needed to encourage home ownership, what percentage of the community cannot afford to buy a home, where the housing market has been deteriorating in their neighborhood, how to check the trend toward increasing numbers of city-owned vacant lots, and how CDBG funds are dispersed. "The overall goal," Barndt stressed, "is to bring the tools down to the point where people can use them in their own organizations, to get them to the point where they are doing most of their own work."

United Neighborhood Coalition Of Minneapolis

After experiencing a net loss of housing from city condemnations in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in northeast and south Minneapolis, concerned residents of those communities found that development dollars -- ostensibly intended for housing rehabilitation in their neighborhoods -- were not reaching them. According to Jay Clark, director of the Minneapolis Training Program for Neighborhood Organizers at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), funds intended for housing improvement had been cut by the Minneapolis Community Development Association (MCDA). In response, residents formed the United Neighborhood Coalition (UNC) in an effort to bring about changes in city land-use policy. Their objective: a no-net loss of housing in their communities. Instead of boarded up houses and vacant lots, communities wanted older houses refurbished and those torn down to be replaced with CDBG funds.

Making an effective case and presenting it to the city called for collecting and analyzing extensive spatial and demographic data -- a task that required expertise and resources the group did not have. Through CURA, however, the coalition was able to get Linda Wong, a graduate student intern paid by the university, access to a computer in the basement of the university library, with the help of Clark at CURA. "A librarian showed them how to access the GIS program," Clark said, and they took it from there. "They loaded their own information onto a database, then used GIS capabilities to develop the maps." And how did UNC fund its operation? "By passing the hat at every meeting," replied Clark.

From a combination of TIGER census files, cadastral files and base maps provided by the Minneapolis Planning Department, Wong worked with UNC leaders to develop data and materials that would be needed to make their case. Initially, UNC had argued that neighborhoods with the lowest incomes were losing the most housing. But when Wong mapped where housing was being lost, relative to income levels in the different neighborhoods, they found that these areas were, in fact, not losing housing at all; residents with the lowest income were living in public housing. "And you don't lose public housing," said Clark. Wong then mapped the combination of lowest income and lowest housing values. The results showed a high correlation between housing loss and areas having the lowest levels of income and property values.

At present, the coalition is concentrating on building up its membership. "They have already held meetings with neighborhoods that are in the same boat, using the maps to detail the problems and show what neighborhoods are being affected. Once they have all the neighborhoods they think should be in the coalition," Clark said, "they will present the information directly to MCDA, and probably to City Council members, using the data and maps to make their case." Although the project is moving into its second year, Clark said the coalition has already managed to get most of the money originally intended for one of the neighborhoods.

Achieving a no-net loss of housing in all neighborhoods may have to be a long-term goal since the issues are not all clear cut. Clark pointed out that many of the houses are 100 years old. "People haven't put money into some of these houses for years. Eventually, they end up with enough housing code violations that the city condemns them. Once they get to a certain state, they are cleared out. The larger question is where does MCDA see this housing going in the future. There are people who see a lot of older housing here as having character that should be preserved. Then, there are suggestions that MCDA sees these houses as antiquated and a need for more new housing stock." Will UNC take its case to the courts? "Since we're passing the hat," Clark said, "my guess is we're not going to be throwing legal threats all over the place."

Nonprofit and University Support

Residents of the low-income and predominantly African-American community of Edisto Court in Columbia, S.C., are challenging the re-licensing of a nuclear laundry operating in their neighborhood. The facility, licensed by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), has been accepting clothing contaminated with radioactive debris from various sites for the past 20 years. However, the possible health threat to the community became known only in 1996, when the plant was bought by Interstate Nuclear Services (INS). Until then, there had never been a public review of the licensing and siting of the facility.

Under the new ownership, however, the plant began laundering contaminated clothing trucked in from the Savannah River Site nuclear bomb plant -- halfway across the state -- bringing with it a significant increase in the amount of waste being discharged into the city's sewage system. In addition, the facility has been briefly shutdown for spills, dumping and other safety violations. There have also been recordings of radioactivity above what is legal, along the fence line separating the laundry from the neighborhood.

Lacking resources and knowledge to challenge INS, the neighborhood turned to local nonprofit community organizations for help: the Rosewood Development Association, Environmentalists Inc. and the Sierra Club. Two environmental attorneys also joined the fray on the side of the neighborhood. According to attorney Robert Guild, the laundry is inappropriately sited in a densely populated residential neighborhood with literally no buffer between it and the residential homes. "There is a strong effort to try to encourage INS to move to an alternative site. I'm optimistic in the long run that will happen."

Since the case also involves a question of environmental justice -- siting a controversial facility in a politically and economically disenfranchised neighborhood -- attorneys for the group teamed up with Paul Braun, campus GIS coordinator for the University of South Carolina, to document the demographic profile of Edisto Court. From updated census block group data and Richland County cadastral data, Braun developed demographic maps of the neighborhood clearly showing the laundry in the middle of Edisto Court.

A ruling on the case is presently under consideration by an administrative law judge.

"Whether the laundry will be allowed to continue to operate at the end of this litigation remains an open question," Guild said. "Now that the public has become widely aware of the facility's operation -- of which they were pretty ignorant before -- I think there is a strong consensus that the laundry should go someplace else."

Seattle's Open City Model

In response to a Washington state mandate requiring cities and counties to develop comprehensive plans for growth management, Jennifer Pettyjohn, GIS analyst for the city of Seattle, created the Neighborhood Planning Process (NPP). The program enables neighborhood organizations to develop community plans that will eventually be adopted and incorporated into the city's comprehensive plan. Pettyjohn sees the program as an opportunity for grassroots organizations. "I think of it as assisting communities in developing information technology skills that will enable them to take on more responsibility for achieving their goals, using GIS so they can help themselves in the future as more and more information is available on the Web and through Community 2020-types of software."

To bring the neighborhoods to the point where they could begin working with consultants and writing plans, the city began preparing the groundwork for the NPP in 1994, spending two years in outreach programs providing information, assisting communities in forming representative working groups, and identifying existing plans and key movers in the community. The next two years focused on training and technology for neighborhood groups, helping them identify the projects they want to incorporate into their overall plan.

Important resources for NPP are the city's information "toolbox" and a CD-ROM of selected GIS infrastructure data, organized by neighborhood planning areas. The data, comprising 120 layers, includes tax-parcel information, land use, assessed values, sales, ownership, transportation, sidewalks, streetlights, traffic volumes and census block-level data. To enable neighborhood groups to access and work the data, Pettyjohn modified ESRI's ArcView GIS to function only as a viewer with Seattle data. "We wanted to create a viewer that would allow a user who just wanted to make a land-use map, or a simple overlay, or transportation analysis, to actually have the data to do it."

Following extensive advertising and efforts to enroll neighborhood groups and consultants for the training classes, the city began a series of evening sessions at neighborhood libraries for beginners and intermediate groups -- the latter focusing on database techniques and data specific to each neighborhood. Computers to run the program were installed in the eight neighborhood libraries. Twelve project managers now work out of a neighborhood planning office assisting the different groups by providing technical support, reviewing community plans, distributing CDs and ArcView. Student volunteers from the University of Washington also assist neighborhood groups that do not have the resources to develop plans.

Each of the 37 neighborhood groups has entered into an agreement with the city to hire planning consultants to assist in developing and producing a plan for a specific area. Plans involve a broad range of issues -- basically everything from sidewalks and parking to the type of trees and the location of parks. All plans are supposed to be completed and submitted by the end of this year. The City Council will study them, discuss necessary changes with the neighborhood groups and incorporate a final version of the plans into Seattle's comprehensive plan.

Measure of Success

According to Pettyjohn, a final analysis of the program will be done at the end of 1998, when all 37 plans are supposed to be completed, but, overall, she believes the program to date has been successful. "The citizens feel like we are being very open with them; they are working with the same information that we are, and that goes a long way toward building trust." Pettyjohn acknowledges, however, that the data's complexity has frustrated some people. "Even so, it helped them think beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood."

Funding for the NPP stops at the end of 1998. After that, residents will go to Seattle's Web site to access city data -- a decision made by other departments, said Pettyjohn. "At that time, I would like to set up a neighborhood tracking site on the Web, where we look at the plans developed by the neighborhoods, see what they have decided is important to them, then put in follow-up information so they can see how the city is responding to their plans." The idea reflects one of Pettyjohn's goals for developing the NPP: enabling community organizations to help themselves through IT skills.

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communication and information technology.

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