Summer 2003

Using GIS Mapping to Build Community
by Megan Kinney and Michael Clark

“Community mapping is powerful because of its capacity to democratize information—both what is recorded and who has access to it. When presented well, maps have the power to convey complicated information and relationships in a straightforward, accessible manner, enabling non-experts to participate meaningfully in community planning and advocacy.”—PolicyLink

How can a grassroots organization or community project make use of an expensive, technical tool like GIS Mapping for community-based social action campaigns? The first step is to see GIS as more than just a shiny acronym. GIS (Geographic Information System) is a catalyst for planning, implementation, and evaluation of local initiatives. Community planners can identify problem areas, compare densities of specific issues in their city (single parents, juvenile crime, traffic accidents, etc), plan events that are central to their constituents, and share and compare local information from their community to other communities and cities. By bringing GIS into the strategic planning phase of an initiative, stakeholders can better predict the effects and success of their programs. By using GIS as an evaluative tool, planners can demonstrate program results in ways that words alone simply could not reveal.

The next step in demystifying GIS is to separate the technology from the process. The Geographic Information System that enables “community mapping” consists of data, software to analyze the data and produce a visual representation, and the necessary hardware to store the raw data and the resulting presentations of the data analysis. There is a broad range of manifestations these three basic components can take—from paper, markers, and human minds to a high-end mapping utility loaded onto top-of-the-line computers with high-resolution laser printers. Although these two possibilities are extreme ends of the spectrum, the underlying process remains the same: collection and analysis of data for the purpose of creating an image that reveals trends, contrasts, and gaps in resources.

Both PolicyLink and Libraries for the Future (LFF) are involved in community mapping projects using GIS. PolicyLink has recently published a Community Mapping tool as part of a larger resource called the Equitable Development Toolkit. The Community Mapping section of this comprehensive toolkit identifies key information needed to assess the considerable public and private forces driving gentrification.

There is a “three-part recipe” for using GIS as a community building tool:

  • Community knowledge and participation
  • Data by geography
  • Technology capacity

The conference session, "Using GIS Mapping to Build Community," explores GIS from a national perspective, followed by a case study of a youth-led community development project, focusing on the potential of GIS in community development and change, the value of collaboration and partnerships, and the public library’s role in the CTC movement.

Libraries for the Future is working with youth in four communities in Arizona to assess the quality and quantity of after-school programs. LFF offers one case study in community mapping from this program called “Communities for Youth,” shares its experience in exposing youth to GIS mapping as a tool for social change, and reviews the curriculum used in the program.

Megan C. Kinney and Michael Clark, presenters of the "Using GIS Mapping to Build Community" session at the 2003 CTCNet Conference along with Josh Kirschenbaum of PolicyLink, work with Libraries for the Future (LFF).

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