By Maya Rao, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
Earlier this year, I had a conversion with Dr. Jerry Shannon (my advisor, the professor of Community GIS, and director of the Community Mapping Lab) about project ideas for my Master’s thesis. As I spoke about wanting to do a community-based project, Dr. Shannon asked me “What do you mean by community?” This simple question made me start to think more about the heterogeneity of communities. As the field of community geography evolves, it is important to not equate the word “community” as always the same group of people.
When I pictured the word “community” prior to this class, my mental image was of individuals belonging to some kind of shared identity. I did not think of community as including organisations or an amalgamation of different groups and positionalities. Additionally, I failed to recognise how a person can be a part of interacting communities. My approach to the idea of community was extremely narrow, and I have been working to broaden my understanding of this term through the projects in Community GIS.
Currently I am a student in Community GIS, a class where we learn how to use GIS in community-based projects. In this class, we are working on two projects - first partnering with the Brooklyn Cemetery (a historic black cemetery in Athens, GA) and second looking at eviction in Athens. However, we have also spent time looking at the disciplines of Community GIS, Public/Participatory GIS (P/PGIS), Participatory Action Research (PAR), and community-based projects. Scholars differentiate these fields into their subcategories, but the idea of community still remains a central tenet. Although researchers from the articles we have read discuss the communities they have worked with, few detail a description of who makes up a community.
In our class, we are working with two different communities. What is the community we are talking about these projects?
Brooklyn Cemetery Project
Our first Community GIS project this semester was with Brooklyn Cemetery. This cemetery started housing graves in 1882, making it a final resting place for some former slaves in Athens. This place is full of history, and yet it is not given the public stature that similar historic white cemeteries have in the city. Brooklyn Cemetery has several unmarked and sunken graves. Of the graves that are marked, some markers have fallen over or are no longer visible.
For this class, we wanted to make Brooklyn Cemetery and the graves visible. By mapping the graves at Brooklyn Cemetery, we are making a conscious effort to think of these graves as permanent resting places of those marginalized in the past. Our work for the cemetery included making a physical and digital map of visible graves at Brooklyn Cemetery. We also created section markers for the cemetery to better understand how to locate the graves.
So who is the community here? We are a community of student-researchers from various backgrounds approaching this project. But who is it that we are helping? Our primary contact for this project was Ms. Linda Davis, the president of the Brooklyn Cemetery Society. Ms. Davis was a great partner to have due to her love for Brooklyn Cemetery and her dedication to preserve and upkeep the space. She provided us with ideas and feedback about our project. She was always appreciative and happy with the work that we completed. As a trustee of the Brooklyn Cemetery, she spoke about things that would help the cemetery and ways for us to assist with their vision. However, we didn’t meet with other members of the board of trustees of the cemetery until the end of the project, which limited our ability to interact with more people comprising the community.
The question arises then if this was truly a community based project. One of our class goals was to support not only the trustees of the cemetery, but also the descendants of those buried at Brooklyn Cemetery. Since we only spoke with Ms. Davis for the majority of this project, did we put too much focus on her as the sole representative of the cemetery? Or was this the best thing to do because of the obligations that other people who represent the community have (work, school, etc.).
Fitting with discussions we had earlier this semester in class, we discussed how doing community projects is a balance between the researchers and the community. We recognise that as students, we have more time to dedicate to this project compared our community partners. Forcing the other trustees to participate in more of this project may have been inappropriate and contractual. Doing this project made me understand that the rosy idea that UGA students and Brooklyn Cemetery have constant dialogue with each other is not the only way to do a community-based project. We provided deliverables (the maps and data) that the board of trustees of the cemetery were happy with. And, ultimately, this project is the first step in a long term relationship between the UGA Community Mapping Lab and Brooklyn Cemetery. We worked to establish trust and sow the foundations of future collaborations.
In the second half of this class, we are working with the Athens Housing Advocacy Team (AHAT) to clean up data detailing evictions in Athens-Clarke County. We haven’t gotten too far into the project as of now, but our current goal is to clean and validate the data collected by undergraduate researchers and AHAT.
Through engaging with this project, I am better understanding the complex “community” we are working with. We have three members of AHAT either in or attending our classes, including one of the founders of the organization. AHAT is the group that we have been in correspondence with, but I question if our community with this organization or with the evicted tenants? If our work is with people facing eviction, what does it mean for us to be working through this middle organization?
Prior to this class, I may not have considered working with AHAT a community project, since we aren’t interacting with those directly facing eviction. Earlier in the semester, we read a piece about the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in San Francisco. This is a project that I can clearly see the community angle, since the researchers are working, organizing, and mapping with people facing eviction in San Franscico. However, for the project that we are doing in this class, working with AHAT may be the best way for us to facilitate a community partnership. Our class has about twenty people (most if not all of whom are not currently facing eviction), so it may have been misguided if we were having conversations with evicted (or precariously housed) people. It may have created a dynamic and hierarchy between us as researchers and our community partners. Working with AHAT allows our class to still provide assistance to this project which will help illuminate the eviction problem in Athens.
I’m still struggling with the idea of a community not including evicted people in this project, but I can see how we are indirectly connected through AHAT. However, since we are still new to this project at this point in the semester, I am aware that my ideas may change as we move further in this project.
This class has helped me understand how the communities included in Community GIS are not amorphous and homogeneous. Additionally, the idea of “community” should not be imposed directly by the researcher, because the context of each project will necessitate different relationships between the researcher and the community. This is particularly important to acknowledge in our predominantly white group of students who are not facing eviction. In our class, I’ve had to wrestle with these ideas of who is included in our ideas of community and consider this word in a new setting. So, my original question of who is our community in Community GIS is more challenging than I originally thought. The communities we are working with are multifaceted groups of visible and non-visible members.
By Reyd Mahan, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
Mapping and Geographic Informational Systems (GIS) have always interested me because they have significant practical use for me as an archaeologist. However, before taking this Community GIS class, I saw GIS as checking a box for my career. I never really thought about the applications of GIS outside of what I needed to do for class or work. As an archaeologist, I typically use GIS to create basic maps of an archaeological site and overlay different forms of data on top of it, such as artifact density or ground penetrating radar (GPR). While these maps are helpful for archaeologists to find where artifacts might be, the public will never see these maps or even know where the archaeological site is located to prevent looting. GIS in archaeology is private and not typically community oriented. Since I started working on the community-based projects for this class, I have gained a new appreciation for the positive impacts GIS can have in local communities that I never thought possible before.
I engaged with Community GIS because it allowed me to gain valuable, practical skills and improve soft skills in working with others while also improving the local community through various projects. The first project I worked on was at Brooklyn Cemetery. Brooklyn Cemetery is a historically black cemetery important to the local Athens community. Unfortunately, several graves were damaged over time or lost their marker entirely. Our job as a class was to record the points of each marked grave along with the grave’s information and then create a map that would be useful to cemetery visitors. During the project, we made trips to the cemetery to determine the accuracy of the data we already had from previous projects. Visiting helped me connect with the project by seeing the graves I recorded in person. It gave my work more meaning because I saw its impact in person, not in a spreadsheet. I saw my work as helping to preserve the memory of the people buried there. By recording the location of each grave, descendants can utilize the map to pay their respects for years to come, and we can dignify the deceased by recognizing their burial location.
The project also presented some challenges along the way. After we visited the cemetery, we realized that much of the data concerning the location of each grave was inaccurate. On top of that, the GPS on our phones was not the most accurate in recording our active location. To update the data, we went back and personally recorded each point that we could find at the cemetery to make a new accurate point layer that could be used in the final map. The GPS issue was annoying but tolerable since we needed the points around the grave, and pinpoint accuracy was not required to make a helpful map. Much of the project was devoted to sorting our recorded data and correcting discrepancies or duplicates. I’m beginning to understand that much GIS work involves spreadsheets and data management, which is necessary but also tedious.
By working with the Brooklyn Cemetery directly, this project showed me that my GIS skills could be used to make positive community impacts and not just for private research-related use. I saw the people I was helping directly, giving my work a purpose. Work in archaeology is far from purposeless, but there are not typically people that are a direct connection to your work unless you are working in consultation or collaboration with indigenous communities. Furthermore, to ensure the protection of an archaeological site, all maps and data concerning the site are private and only accessible to professional archaeologists, which was the antithesis of what we were doing at Brooklyn Cemetery. We wanted the maps and data we made of the cemetery open to the local community so they could be best used. I hadn’t worked with GIS and mapping in a public way before, so it was amazing to see how our work as a class could directly help community members.
As of writing this post, we are getting into our second-semester project with the Athens Housing Advocacy Team (AHAT) to better identify and map housing evictions in Athens, GA. While the previous project utilized GIS through community service, the AHAT project focuses on using GIS for social change and advocacy. I am interested in seeing the maps we create at the end of the project that visualize the eviction problems in Athens. This class has shown me how public GIS can benefit the local community, which differs from the typically private GIS utilized in archaeology. More importantly, it has taught me skills that help build stronger community connections that I can use for the rest of my life.
By Constanza Urresty Vargas, Community GIS student Spring 2023
Community GIS is a service-learning course in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia, where students from different backgrounds and from different years (both undergrad and graduate) converge. This means that as students, we come to the course with diverse skills, knowledge, and interests; although we are all in the same class, we are not learning the same things or in the same ways.
During the semester we have engaged in two projects, contributing with GIS tools to local community organizations. The first was with the Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery, a local organization in Athens that works for restoring and rebuilding this cemetery, which is a resting place of former slaves. Their aim is to commemorate the individuals laid to rest there and bring their stories to the present. For the second project we have been working with the Athens Housing Advocacy Team (AHAT), a grassroots activist group that collaborates with renters and allies to fight for the right to affordable, healthy, dignified, stable housing as a human right.
Course activities have involved lectures, mapping, discussions, and sessions with several visitors talking about their experiences as researchers, practitioners, or organization members engaged in issues related to the projects. We also had various class discussions attempting to reflect on the purpose and meaning of our work as a class. What do we want to achieve in our projects? Why mapping? How are we contributing to community organizations through maps? Many of these discussions involved collective agreements about the goals of our work and how to address our questions.
So, this is a lot about “we” and “our”. Most of the course activities were collective, not individual. In my opinion, this is particularly meaningful, as many of us enrolled in this course because we think community is important. Community mapping processes need skills for working with, thinking with, and learning with others. Co-learning and knowledge co-production is what allows us to be co-producing maps.
As an international student in my first year in UGA and in the U.S., collectivity has been vital for my academic experience. Particularly in the Community GIS class, collectivity has been important for my learning process and for contributing to our projects. This is a community-engaged course, which means we are collaboratively working with local non-academic organizations or community members. Consequently, it requires an understanding of the context of these organizations/communities and learning about the problems they are facing.
In the case of the Brooklyn Cemetery project, it was necessary to have some understanding about the history of both Athens ant the U.S.; it demanded familiarity with the past in this place, the role of slavery and how this shapes the present in diverse and complex ways. Furthermore, Athens eviction project requires understanding about the social context of housing access in the city, some basics about the housing and eviction legal framework in Georgia, and additionally understanding the nature of available data from local institutions and organizations. All these issues might seem simple, but they are not when you come from a different context, history, and culture. This means new administrative structures, specific concepts, and sometimes different worldviews and social problems. Even more so when you approach these issues not in your first language.
This can be complex and challenging, maybe unfeasible in a short time for international students, as we usually have lived a short time in the U.S. when starting a study program. In those conditions the course might be difficult, as it is highly contextual. However, rather than being an obstacle, all these issues become an interesting and meaningful learning process thanks to the collective. I’m not an individual foreign student navigating an incomprehensible context and struggling to complete the course work. I’m part of a collective, where different knowledges and skills contribute to a common project. Listening to others, being part of group discussions and asking many questions to my classmates is how I could gain some understanding about these issues and shed light on how local communities address their projects.
Collaborative and supportive relationships inside the classroom are what makes room for foreign students. It allows us to be part not only of the classroom community, but also the Athens community. This creates space for us, it opens the opportunity to learn from local communities and organizations, while contributing with our work. Sometimes we can also contribute with novel perspectives. coming from the amazement of observing and knowing a new place. While learning from other students about local context, as international student I can contribute with viewpoints as an outsider, which although has some drawbacks, it might be a “fresh” view, in some cases complemented with experiences from different contexts as well.
From this perspective the “co” prefix becomes applicable beyond community GIS. This means as a class, we are collaborating not only when creating maps with organizations outside academia (which is the key in this class), but also when doing collective work, co-learning, and co-producing knowledge inside the classroom.
Community mapping becomes an intertwining of relationships of collaboration occurring inside and outside the classroom. Community mapping is not only about mapping, but also about collective learning and knowledge co-production, where different skills, knowledge and ideas have a space.
By Nick Taborsak, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
Over the past several weeks, our Community GIS class has been hard at work researching various questions concerned with housing and evictions across the Athens community. Working in conjunction with the Athens Housing Advocacy Team (AHAT), the Athens-Clarke County Geospatial Office, and other community actors, our collective goal is to attain a deeper understanding of housing-related issues that plague our community. Our research questions include:
Athens, historically categorized as a traditional “college town”, is home to over 120,000 permanent residents (not including the transitory student population) as well as a poverty rate upwards of 30% per acc.gov, nearly three times the national average. Additionally, the household median income in Athens is just over $38,000 annually, which represents approximately 54% of the national average. These statistics alone demonstrate the need for affordable housing across the county, something which is and has been severely lacking. The community is currently facing a shortage of affordable housing - a crisis - and the issue is perpetuated by the very nature of the city itself. The displacement of neighborhoods comprised predominantly by people of color at the hands of the university, such as Linnentown (see UGA Community Mapping Lab), in favor of student housing developments, the prioritization of new housing developments for the much more affluent student and university demographic, and the failure of local policymakers to provide assistance for its most vulnerable of groups, are all influencing factors which have led to where things stand today.
With this being the current situation in Athens, our class has set out to find which landlords and property owners own the most rental properties across the county, and which are evicting the most. We’re also interested in precisely where these landlords are located - be it other parts of the country, world, or from within our community - to shed light upon the role inside/outside investors may play across the landscape of property management and displacement of evicted persons. Additionally, we’re researching which parties participated in the Eviction Prevention Program (EPP); specifically who received assistance, where they were located, and how this relates to the outcomes of those eviction filings. Our final area of focus is concerned with the relationship between housing price, housing stress, and patterns of eviction. Through these analyses, we hope to articulate how these processes tie back into the overall eviction landscape of Athens.
The spatiality of this project depicts the applicability that GIS has to work of this nature, as well as to the multitude of other community-based projects that geospatial analysis may contribute to. I’ve been part of the group tackling the categorization of landlords by number of properties owned, amount of eviction filings, and their known outcomes; we believe this to be an important topic to research so that we may establish a “spectrum” of which landlords are the most prominent of property owners in our communtiy, and whom most perpetuate the displacement of tenants via eviction filings. While we’ve used GIS platforms such as ArcGIS Pro as part of our analyses, our research has largely consisted of data cleaning and analysis amongst the datasets provided by AHAT and the ACC Geospatial Office. As part of this process, we’ve seen the complexity that is extrapolating meaningful data from various large sets of data and drawing substantive conclusions as a result of those analyses. One of the more interesting facets of this research has been seeing the multitude of operating names these landlords and property owners have as registered LLC/LTD’s, and establishing a standardized “umbrella” title for these ownership groups for the sake of our analysis has comprised a significant proportion of our research time. For example, one single entity may have separate operating names such as “Elite Realty”, “Elite Realty (Hallmark)”, and “Elite Realty Services”, all which represent the same ownership group in various capacities. Interestingly enough, this is done to insulate individual property owners from personal liability for their rental property, as well as so that if a lawsuit is filed pertaining to one of their properties, the rest of their properties will not be affected by the lawsuit, which effectively separates and protects each of the properties.
Practicing GIS in community-based settings as part of our class this semester has been an eye opening and enlightening experience for me personally. From our contributions to the Brooklyn Cemetery project to our work here with anti-eviction mapping, I’ve seen the role platforms such as Arc, QGIS, and R can play in work of this nature, and the applicability of many of my learned skills across GIScience in serving my immediate community. Geospatial analysis is oftentimes most needed by the most underserved and marginalized of groups, and it has been quite the holistic and fulfilling experience to take part in our work this semester. Through our efforts across this project and semester as a whole, we hope to leverage community-engaged work to promote a more inclusive and equitable community for all. Looking ahead, our class is most excited to share the results of our research with the community at the Athens-Clarke County Public Library on Friday, May 5th, 2023.
By Lilia Shorrock, Community GIS student Spring 2023
My relation to geography has always been through the lens of the environment. I am studying ecology in school and took on the Certificate in Geographic Information Science here at UGA to add to my portfolio of hard skills. My advisor was the one to suggest it to me, as I had not heard of it before. When I started taking classes for it, they showed me how entrenched in my field of study GIS really was. I began to see the role of GIS everywhere. All of my classes use maps, aerial imagery, GPS tracking, and similar things to look at the climate, wildlife, vegetation, landforms, etc. Professional items like scientific journals and media for governmental organizations use the same. GIS is everywhere in the environmental sector, and so the environment is my basis for GIS.
In the spring of 2022, I became very interested in urban places, when I began to think about the effects of urban places on the environment. Where before I would spend my time reading about new river restoration projects or conservation of endangered species, I began to learn about the power of public spaces, street design, housing, and transportation poverty. I became very passionate about these things and my passion has only grown as time has passed. It was in these spaces that I saw how GIS was being used outside the environmental sector: maps used to designate municipal zoning, instead of burn units; aerial imagery used to show expansion of the built environment, rather than deforestation; transportation planning instead of trail guides; etc.
My new interests made their way into my schooling, and for this semester, I decided to take Community GIS. I did not know anyone who had taken the class before, so I was not exactly sure what it entailed, but it sounded like something I wanted to try. I wanted to have experience working with people in a community as a collective to solve a problem and to work on my own interpersonal, group project, and public speaking skills.
The class itself is about what I was expecting. We have had two community-based projects this semester, one working with the Brooklyn Cemetery and one working with local housing advocates on eviction. The Brooklyn Cemetery is a historic Black cemetery in Athens that we aided through GIS by locating graves and creating physical and online maps. We met with one of the trustees of the cemetery, and heard about its history, why she wanted to preserve it, and the types of things she wanted from us. In this project, I learned how to use Arc Online, use Field maps, and create a searchable webapp. I also gained a lot of experience in data cleaning and experience dividing work among a team based on skill and interest.
For the eviction project, we met with many different representatives to learn about eviction in Athens and the programs in place to help tenants. This project was more exploratory and data-focused. The outputs are not necessarily just for one community either; they can be used by many different groups, like the housing advocacy groups, tenants, and the government. In this project, I learned a lot about the subject of housing and eviction and more about the city I currently rent in. I cultivated more of my R skills, learning how to work with date and time data, how to create time series and graduated color bar graphs, and how to make csv files from data frames. On Friday, May 5th, we will have our public presentation event at the local library, where we will share our work. I have not done something like that, so I am excited.
The mechanical aspects of GIS could be applied to every area of geography. We also learned about the subject of Community Geography. I did not know this was a subject to be studied, even going into the class. There are many different methods and practices of community geography, specifically in how academics partner and work with communities to solve a geographic problem. The theoretical distinctions among the different practices are minimal, but they can have a big impact on the accessibility of the work. There is emphasis in the literature that an academic should work with the community, viewing them as a partner with equal but different knowledge and stake in the project, rather than viewing themselves in a “superior” position to the community. I think academia has a superiority complex built-in to the institution, so consciously thinking about this when going into work can help equalize the process. Learning about this showed me that geography and mapping is more than just the outputs–the process and the relationship between partners really matters.
So, how do I bring this knowledge and experience back into my chosen field? I believe there can be an intersection between the environment and community geography. Protecting the environment protects people, and there are many groups of people that rely on rural lands in order to make a living. The government has a long history of taking land from local people and establishing their own control without having local ecological knowledge or caring for the environmental health that would affect local peoples. I plan to work for the government, so using my experiences in this class, I feel more prepared taking into account the needs of the communities by working with them, rather than having the perspective that I am working for or against them. Community GIS is definitely more complex than the mechanical, environmental GIS I was used to going into the class.
By Margaret Hersey, Community GIS student Spring 2023
The Community GIS course functions similarly to other GIS courses by strengthening students’ technical skills in popular software such as ArcGIS Pro, QGis, and ArcGIS online. However, the scope extends far beyond the glowing monitors and classroom walls. During this course students are given the rare opportunity to step out of the classroom and collaborate in meaningful and equitable partnerships for community-based research. Our course instructor (Dr.Shannon) provides students with theoretical frameworks that illustrate the context in which we work with the community and enable us to work collaboratively and meaningfully towards community empowerment. Topics include Critical GIS, situated mapping, community geography, and counter-mapping. This semester we focused on two projects, each involving members of the Athens-Clarke county community.
For the second half of the semester, our class worked with the Athen’s Housing Advocacy Team (AHAT), whose goal is to empower the tenants of Athens-Clarke county to fight for housing justice by providing access to information and resources. Rather than simply documenting evictions, they actively challenge inequalities and the processes that produce them, leveraging maps to draw attention to and alter public perception of evictions within Athens, Georgia. AHAT team members spoke with our class and shared their experiences working with Athen-Clarke County tenants. Their willingness to share these experiences allowed us to gain new perspectives of social and spatial inequalities within Athens that an ‘objective’ map alone could not.
We learned that AHAT emerged shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, following mass evictions of immigrant communities within Athens-Clarke County. Three years later, in 2023, many community members are still dealing with financial instability and economic hardships caused by the pandemic–now, without the protection of the CDC’s eviction moratorium (An order that allowed additional time for rent relief and prevented persons from being evicted from their homes). In addition to COVID, the county has faced increased housing demands due to an influx of students enrolling in the town's local college, the University of Georgia. The university has, on average since 2014, admitted 625 additional students per year– and doesn’t show signs of slowing anytime soon. Despite this, the university has only built one dormitory since 2014– causing many students to seek housing off-campus and compete for homes with permanent residents. The community has seen drastic rent increases followed by the displacement of community members who cannot accommodate the rising prices.
In recent years real estate companies have responded to this growing student market. One of these companies– Prosperity Capital Partners, purchased hundreds of working-class units in lower-income areas of Athens-Clarke County to renovate and sell at a higher price point. In some cases, they increased rent by as much as 93%. Many residents also received a 30-day notice to vacate their properties– a violation of Georgia law. Breaches like these are not uncommon in eviction cases, and AHAT aims to identify those violations and equip tenants to handle them through resources like their eviction defense manual. The eviction manual is designed to inform tenants of their rights and gives a brief walk-through of the eviction process.
Our Community GIS class worked together to identify what questions we could answer with the data we had. From there, we decided which of those questions were the most relevant, helpful, and feasible. Feasibility was a factor since we had only two weeks to work on the projects. Each group was then given a topic that focused on either landlords, tenants, or the Athens Eviction Prevention Program. One group mapped how housing stress affected eviction patterns, while another worked on determining the cause behind most evictions and the average eviction timeline in Athens. My group examined the distribution of landlords at local and global scales, choosing to map the locations of landlords who own the most properties and landlords with the highest number of evictions.
First, we filtered the Athens-Clarke County parcel zoning data to find parcels in residential zones without homestead exemptions. To be granted a homestead exemption, a person must occupy the home, which is considered their legal residence. So parcels without homestead exemptions were considered rental properties. For each remaining parcel, we obtained the owner's address and the number of properties they owned in Athens, Georgia. We then joined this dataset to our ArcGIS project and geocoded all owner addresses. We used a visualization technique referenced by Taylor Shelton in his article, “Situated Mapping: Visualizing Urban Inequality Between the God Trick and Strategic Positivism.” Using flow maps, Shelton mapped the relational geographies of vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville, Kentucky. We used flow mapping and proportional symbology to visualize the connection between landlord and tenant locations. Understanding the distribution of landlords can provide insight into housing and help inform decisions for zoning, housing policies, and rent control. It can also provide a source for future researchers to draw from.
By Maya Henderson, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
My driving goal is to be of service to my community, Native nation, and broader Indian Country. Sometimes, however, I struggle to see how obtaining my PhD in Geography so far from home and at a university with limited support for Indigenous students is helping me achieve that foundational goal. I often find myself in this headspace when my coursework and tasks as a PhD student aren’t aligning with my areas of interest and values as a Seneca-Cayuga person and scholar. This semester Community GIS has helped me to recenter me, reminding me why the skills, tools, and knowledge I am obtaining here in Geography at UGA are still in line with my driving goal. I say this for two reasons, the skill sets I am gaining through the course and the involvement and direct aid to the local community.
Community engaged scholarship and GIS are skill sets that I can directly employ to be of service to my community. These methodological and technical mapping skills are highly sought after and needed by Native communities and nations. Spatial analysis and more specifically GIS are becoming increasingly used by Native nations for projects including but not limited to land use planning, environmental and sustainability projects, and jurisdiction and political purposes. Since Native nations and communities are employing spatial analysis for community and nation-building projects this has also led to outside partnerships. This often means working with non-Native partners, a reality that although can be fruitful, can also add to the precarity of the Native nation and community. I see Community GIS as allowing me to craft the skills needed to be a Native academic partner for Indian Country.
One key reason for precarity concerns when working with non-Native partners is the data required on Native nations and communities for spatial analysis projects. Here the principles of Indigenous data sovereignty and trust become key. Data collection and analysis has always existed within Indigenous communities but data collection and open data under the settler colonial structure in which we live can increase rather than decrease Indigenous precarity. By this I mean that while data can aid Native nation’s sovereignty and goals it also “sits at the nexus of current and historic data challenges as a result of colonisation, bias, and a lack of knowledge of Indigenous rights” (Rainie et al. 2019). It is for this reason that I, as an Indigenous person who is part of Indian Country and accountable to my people, wants to develop these community GIS skills. Our nations and communities can and do benefit from spatial data and its analysis but because of its precarious potential, keeping Indigenous data in Indigenous hands is equally important.
Although the Community GIS course has not touched on the idea of data sovereignty explicitly, there has been an iterative process of reflection and intentional decision-making regarding the data we obtain, clean, use, and store. One keyway that I have seen the tenant of data sovereignty in the course is through discussion of data access, storage, and ownership. For one project regarding the historic Black cemetery in Athens, GA we discussed at length where the data should be stored and who could host and gain permanent access. After reviewing accessibility and stability concerns, we decided upon google drive with the community mapping lab rather than a single person hosting the data and permanent access shared with the board members of the cemetery. Carefully considering accessibility, location of data, digital access, and more are essential steps and principles of data sovereignty in the context of community engagement, and I consider them necessary skills, just like those of geocoding and physical map creation. Engaging in these discussions allowed me to draw on what I know of Indigenous data sovereignty and begin to see how data sovereignty tenants can be applied more broadly in community projects.
In addition to teaching me necessary skills, Community GIS allowed me to become more grounded in the local community and space where I am living as a guest while I obtain my PhD. Although I aim to always be accountable to my community back home and Indian Country overall, my protocol and teachings as a Seneca-Cayuga woman remind me of my responsibility to be a good guest. By this I mean that I am responsible to and for those around me. Being a PhD student means that I am constantly overscheduled, and it can become hard to find time to engage in community efforts outside the academy. Therefore, Dr. Shannon’s Community GIS course is uniquely situated to aid students, undergraduate and graduate, in becoming more grounded in Athens. The course teaches us about the historical-present of Athens, GA and allows us to meet community members and organizers that we likely wouldn’t otherwise through the various projects we work on in class. For example, working on the eviction mapping project we got to speak with former County Commissioners, City of Athens GIS employees, and engage with representatives of community groups like the Athens Housing Advocacy Team. In doing this we learned more about how the local government operates, the housing landscape of Athens, and what can be done using GIS to aid the community.
One project that taught technical and community geography skills alongside place-based histories and present was the Brooklyn Cemetery Project. Working with members of the Black community in Athens on restoring and mapping their cemetery, Brooklyn Cemetery, was particularly impactful for me in regard to engaging my traditional protocol in the Athens context. As an Indigenous person, I am taught deep reverence for our ancestors and the sacredness of their burial grounds. Therefore, it was particularly meaningful for me to be able to aid the Black community here in Athens in mapping their cemetery. The most powerful moment of that project was being able to locate one community member's grandparents in the cemetery using the searchable web map created in the class. Although I am not part of that community and those buried in Brooklyn Cemetery are not my ancestors, I was doing right by my people here in Georgia by aiding the local community in this way.
Reflecting on the Community GIS course has helped me recenter my purpose here at UGA. It reminded me that obtaining my PhD is allowing me to create and sharpen many tools that my Native nation and broader Indian Country need and want for our people to have for ourselves. The projects we’ve engaged with this semester, like Brooklyn Cemetery and eviction mapping, have also reinforced the ways that I can be accountable to my people while being far from home.
Rainie, S. C., Kukutai, T., Walter, M., Figueroa-Rodriguez, O. L., Walker, J., & Axelsson, P. (1970, January 1). Issues in open data. Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.stateofopendata.od4d.net/chapters/issues/indigenous-data.html
By Jai'anna Gonzales, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
I decided to take Community GIS for a few reasons. The first is to have the opportunity to work on a project where the data is not neat and prepared for you and has real-world implications. The second is to have more experience in community engaged work, particularly because I have an interest in urban planning. The third is because I knew about the work the Community Mapping Lab did with Linnentown and it opened my eyes to the power of mapping.
Situated mapping is a concept introduced to our class through a research article by Taylor Shelton, who came to speak to us about his paper this semester. It was an enlightening conversation about how we can approach mapping from a more complex viewpoint. In this paper, Shelton argues that we can “simultaneously use maps to prove that inequality exists…while also demonstrating that the ways we conventionally think about space through maps are not really sufficient to understand what is actually going on in the world” (Shelton, 2021). The world typically views maps as a quantitative and authoritative method of constructing knowledge. Being able to use GIS beyond these conventional goals and implementing more qualitative and subjective ways of mapping is a useful way to shift the ways we view the world around us, and this has certainly shifted the ways I think about GIS work.
For example, another article we read this semester was about anti-eviction mapping in San Francisco, where personal stories, community art, and subjectivity were incorporated into mapping efforts. Instead of simply mapping where evictions occurred, Manissa Maharawal, Erin McElroy, and community members worked to create maps and stories with the intention of making the marginalized visible and challenging the processes that forced people out their homes. These efforts were in direct service to community action and advocacy (Maharawal & McElroy, 2017). Instead of viewing mapping/ GIS as simply a means to an end for tracking an event or occurrence, I can now see how mapping for a specific situation or viewpoint can create maps for action instead of just knowledge. Maps that are about people, not datapoints. This is the framework we established before diving into our work with evictions in Athens.
The second half of this spring semester we have been working with eviction data collected by The Athens Housing Advocacy Team, AHAT. We spent the first few weeks getting familiar with the data, other possible data/information sources, the specifics of EPP (an eviction relief program run by the city of Athens) and how it was run, and how our work fits into a larger context of community-engaged mapping. We have broken into groups to address key research questions about the eviction landscape such as: Who is doing the most evicting? Where are landlords located? Who benefitted from EPP? What are the demographics of the communities facing the most evictions? I am on the “categorizing landlords” team, where we are trying to determine how to categorize landlords by number of properties, eviction filings, eviction outcomes, and see how these categories compare. Once it was time to dig in, our team got caught up in the details quickly, so I want to take a moment to reflect on how our work contributes to the concept of situated mapping.
By focusing on mapping and understanding landlords instead of tenants, we are attempting to aim the conversation surrounding evictions on those pushing forward the processes of dispossession. Through this project we were able to identify the landlords in Athens filing the most evictions and gather information about their eviction behavior, such as how many filings resulted in evictions. Instead of simply asking ourselves where the evictions are happening, we have tried mapping for action. AHAT and those facing housing stress can reference this data about landlords when deciding the best avenues for advocating for tenants’ rights.
Learning critical cartography as a UGA student also provides a better understanding of what exactly our situatedness as students entails. We have access to resources that allow us to help community issues be taken seriously by institutional power. Resources that are not accessible to many Athens residents. Students also have a massive influence on the housing market in Athens, so it’s important to recognize the ways in which we can contribute to the problem even as we play a role in trying to address it. Ultimately, our situatedness as a group less likely to face eviction, with access to institutional power, and a major force on the housing market inevitably inform our work. Recognizing my own situatedness and the truths often overlooked by traditional mapping are lessons from Community GIS that I will carry with me for the rest of my career.
Maharawal, M. M., & McElroy, E. (2017). The anti-eviction mapping project: Counter mapping and oral history toward Bay Area Housing Justice. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(2), 380–389. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2017.1365583
Shelton, T. (2021). Situated mapping: Visualizing Urban Inequality between the god trick and strategic positivism. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 21(4), 346–356. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/8zswy
By Nathan Castro, Community GIS Student in Spring 2023
Beginning my college career I decided to choose geography as my major simply because of the fact that I enjoyed Earth and atmospheric sciences, not knowing what else was waiting to be uncovered. Passing through my freshman and sophomore years at school I was pleased to dig into the material and content I have known and heard about since high school: tectonic plates, geology, weather systems. It wasn't until my spring semester of sophomore year that I decided to take my first course in geographic information science (GIS). I have heard about what GIS was briefly before but did not truly understand the magnitude of its implications. Growing up in my hometown, some of my friend’s parents were GIS analysts so I knew the study was something practicable and enjoyable. Taking that first class, I was hooked on the content, combining my interests of computers and geography! I felt as if I gained a lot of new knowledge out of that intro to GIS course as our professor shared with us his point of view on not only the various programs but also his real life experiences. I remember being told that GIS is an extremely versatile skill that could be paired and applied to practically any discipline. This at first shocked and excited me since up until then, most of the work we had been doing were tutorials in ArcGIS Pro on how to utilize the program’s features. I had far off ideas of what I could personally use GIS for but still felt a disconnect of what meaningful work could really be done.
Fast forward to the Spring semester of 2023, I am currently enrolled in the Community GIS Service Learning Course at the University of Georgia. I will be honest, during the registration period, I did not know what a service learning course was or what to expect from one. I had assumed that we would be learning more about using ArcGIS or QGIS but with more emphasis on community problems like traffic or resource management. I would soon come to realize what a service learning course entailed: learning and gaining real world experience and reflecting on those after having performed services to a community. This was not going to be a course of rote learning functions on a computer, this was going to be applying all of the skills I have accumulated over the years to help Athens residents and I was very excited to finally be of use to the community.
The community GIS course this semester had been split into two major projects. The first taking the time span of the beginning of the year up until the beginning of March was our work with the Brooklyn Cemetery here in Athens, GA. Many people might not know too much about or even recognize the name of this cemetery as it had been abandoned and unkept for many years, but this place is of great importance to the Athens community as it holds many African-American ancestors of the present generation. Our professor had gotten a hold of the founder of the Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery organization, Mrs Linda Davis, to come talk to our class about the history and importance of the cemetery. This was an eye-opening experience hearing Mrs Davis speak about her connection to the space as a site of remembrance to the community but also herself personally. She herself is so passionate about maintaining and improving the cemetery that if our class could only do enough to assist her in her endeavors, then it would be a very rewarding experience and a success for the class in my eyes. Realizing that GIS could improve Athens changed my view of myself from a student, to a GIS analyst.
The class was split into groups to tackle multiple tasks to benefit Brooklyn Cemetery. Some groups were asked to produce new maps of the cemetery grounds, others were in charge of cleaning and organizing data retrieved regarding grave markers, my group was set to produce brand new section markers to post around the cemetery. I was very pleased with this assignment as I could instantly see the value being brought to the community. New section markers would allow for better organization and ease of navigation around the grounds, not only for visitors but also volunteers working to improve the space on community work days. During this process I was able to really get my hands involved in multiple avenues. First we visited the cemetery to inspect the previous markers that had rotten and fallen off their posts to gain an idea of what purpose they served, how many replacements were needed and where they would be placed. Secondly we had the opportunity to create a new design for the markers that could provide visuals and even more information about the cemetery. This was a fun challenge for me since I have not had much experience with graphic design. My team got together and created various mock-ups with different design softwares until we decided on one. Lastly we crafted the signs out of plywood using the UGA Makerspace, a campus resource that provided us access to their laser-cutter and engraver.
The final products are something I am proud of as they are a summation of all the various skills I have learned within my time with GIS. This service learning course has been very beneficial to my group working skills as well. Organizing group member’s time and efforts to efficiently get through this assignment has been a challenge but has taught me that the real world is not always so simply laid out. New skills like working with photoshop or a laser engraver have been exciting to learn but I really value the opportunity I had to learn community skills. Managing information between myself, group members and Athens has shown me what GIS can be when implemented with multiple people in mind. Finally seeing in person the impacts GIS can have on the community, I feel like I now have my own instance of providing something valuable through GIS which I wanted since my first intro GIS course.
Thinking about GIS Differently
By Matthew Thurston, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
This semester, I have been taking the Community GIS class offered at the University of
Georgia. This class is designed to introduce students to how GIS can be used effectively to
engage with a community. Before taking this class, my experience with GIS work was limited to
producing maps made specifically to be turned in for a grade. I was excited to see this course
offered, as it sounded like the perfect experience to give back to the local community after going
to school here and also get to use GIS skills for something greater than just producing a map to
turn in. Helping the local community is important, especially through work done through the
University of Georgia, as I feel so often that the university is not concerned with the local
community and instead worries only about what happens within the confines of campus.
Throughout the semester, we have learned a variety of topics, but we have been working on two
major projects for the majority of the class.
Our first main project was concerned with the Brooklyn Cemetery in Athens, Georgia.
Brooklyn Cemetery is an African-American Cemetery, and houses many ancestors of people
still living in the area. We worked closely with the local community, especially the Board of
Trustees for Brooklyn Cemetery and Linda Davis. Hearing her talk and her enthusiasm for this
project made me realize the significance of the work we were doing. For this project, we had
four main goals that we wanted to accomplish. We first wanted to go back through the cemetery
to make sure every gravesite was updated and had a correct location assigned to it. Secondly,
we wanted to create both a printed map and an online map that would show the location of the
gravesites, as well as other important features. In conjunction with this, we wanted to also
create section markers for the cemetery. Finally, the creation of metadata was required in order
to make the data of Brooklyn Cemetery organized, and to preserve the data for any future work
done on the cemetery. In order to accomplish these tasks, the class split into four groups. My
group was tasked with creating the online and printed maps. Additionally, I assisted in the data
gathering and cleaning, as this was crucial in producing our accurate maps. In order to do this,
we used Field Maps as well as the ArcGIS Map builder online. It was a great experience
working in conjunction with everyone. Everyone knew their role, and completed their jobs.
Seeing the finished products reminded me that we were doing something much bigger than just
producing a map. Compared to GIS classes of old, we were simply given the data already made
for us, and then went about producing a map or product. However, here we had to collect the
data ourselves. This process was new to me, and something I had not done before in my
previous classes. Additionally, this data and map were related to the local community. In
projects past, the work we created was usually for maps that had no relation to Athens or any
surrounding community. Additionally, this map we were creating would be used by people for
years to come. In previous classes, the maps I had created were never really published and had
little bearing on anyone.
For our second project, we have started work on eviction mapping. This is a joint project
being done with the help of the Athens Housing Advocacy Team. The Athens Housing
Advocacy Team (AHAT) is concerned with fighting for the right to affordable housing in Athens,
Georgia by working and building relationships with renters and other allies in the city. Before this
project began, I had no idea that there was such a large problem of eviction in Athens. I knew
that rent was increasing in Athens, but I figured that was mainly just in the downtown area of
Athens, where a bunch of students live. I had no idea that there were companies buying up
large swaths of property in Athens and forcing out residents by declining Section 8 vouchers
and driving rent prices up as inordinate amounts. In order to prepare for this project, we read
some pieces about situated mapping, critical mapping, and other anti-eviction mapping projects.
These pieces were a good introduction into this large topic, as beforehand I was very unfamiliar
with segments of it. We have just begun to get into the real work for the project, but I am excited
to dive deeper into it. This work seems like it could help the local community greatly, so I am
eager to see what we can do in the rest of our class.
Overall, this class has taught me the impact that GIS and mapping can have. GIS can be
more than just plotting points on a map. Instead, real community work can be done, which
involves deep collaboration with the community to produce results that will help them positively.
This can be done by talking to local community members, perhaps in meetings or assemblies.
By talking to community members, you can sense what issues really plague them, and then
develop a plan to help them. I enjoyed that aspect of the Brooklyn Cemetery project, as we
listened to what the community wanted and tried to incorporate it into our project. In the next few
weeks, I am eager to begin to work more on the eviction mapping project. We have had guest
speakers talk to us about the issues faced, and hopefully these issues can be remedied.
Looking forward to the far future, I hope I can use the skills learned in this class to keep working
for my local community