Mapping Community Assets

Experts suggest strengthen a community by mapping its assets, not its liabilities, but that may not be as easy as it sounds.

by / April 16, 2002
For years, community leaders have been turning to outside help to fix local problems. The process begins by looking at the community's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, better known as SWOT. But the focus is invariably on weaknesses rather than strengths, and often the community ends up believing that only outsiders know how to fix what's wrong.

But a growing number of community activists are pushing a new approach based on appreciating the assets that exist in a community and using them to strengthen relationships among residents and to draw on these resources as a way to renew a rundown community. The idea is to identify or map a community's assets, in terms of individuals, associations and enterprises.

Asset mapping focuses on opportunities that exist within a community and capitalizes on them, while identifying problems and dealing with them by leveraging the identified assets or resources, according to the Madii Institute, a Minnesota-based organization that assists communities with asset mapping. The concept is about connecting people to the resources within their community to share knowledge and skills in hopes of creating a stronger place to live. So far, technology hasn't played much of role in asset mapping, but that may be changing.

A Valuable Tool

The Internet provides a valuable medium by which community members can come together online and share information. Web sites are relatively easy to set up and with the infrastructure already in place, people need only to find a computer with a modem - at home, school, the library or a community center - to start connecting. Another useful technology is GIS. With its ability to link different types of information to geographic reference points and then layer them on electronic maps, GIS allows a community to see data spatially and how different community assets may relate.

Meg Merrick, coordinator of the Community Geography Project at Portland State University, in Oregon, points out that many people simply don't know what exists within their community, but can get a better understanding through GIS. She mentioned how one community wanted to expand day-care services. Her students mapped existing day-care centers, as well as local churches that had space available for possible day-care facilities. Then, they overlaid census data to show where the largest concentrations of children were in the community. "Right away, they could see where there were holes in coverage and which churches were in the best location to help out," she said.

But GIS isn't cheap. It calls for top-of-the-line Pentium computers to operate, data sets to populate the maps and potentially complicated software. These costs, together with training issues, can prove to be a formidable barrier for some communities hoping to map their assets electronically. One community that tried it found the experience expensive and, with only limited access to a GIS specialist to guide them, unfeasible in the long run, according to the Madii Institute.

To help overcome some of the technical and nontechnical hurdles, the Ford Foundation provided Portland's Community Geography Project with a $259,000 grant to find better, cheaper ways to use GIS for community projects. According to Merrick, the university has launched a number of pilot projects in the Portland area by working closely with schools. She explained that middle and high schools are able to get a hefty educational discount when it comes to purchasing GIS software and that the students are a helpful and inexpensive resource for collecting the necessary data about the community to populate the database.

While the schools provide communities a low-cost entry point into the world of GIS and asset mapping, the exercise helps the students learn about critical thinking, them relationships between different sets of data. "More importantly, they can see when the information is right or wrong," Merrick explained.

Students Improving Communities

So far, the Community Geography Project has mapped the historical assets of an inner city neighborhood once populated by Portland's Asian community, which has now given way to gentrification. In a suburban community, students are using GIS to map natural assets before they are destroyed by development. The hope is to create a more sustainable community, with the most valuable environmental assets protected from sprawl.

When GIS maps are placed on the Internet for a wide range of people to see, they can have a powerful effect. More people are drawn into the debate over what's best for a community and what can be done to improve it. But Merrick cautions local governments and community groups to be realistic about what can be achieved by running GIS over the Internet. "Internet mapping software has been sold as a way to provide public access to data," she said. "But the problem is that it's clunky to use online and it's highly controlled by those who are running the system, not the users."

Still, interest in asset mapping in communities continues to grow, despite current technical limitations. Merrick's advice to communities wishing to map their assets with GIS is to understand the data they collect. "It takes training to interpret what you see on the map," she explained. "It's not just a matter of pushing buttons and serving up data on the Internet. It has to become part of the thought process, so that the community can view issues in new ways."