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