Empathy and Community Research
By Kayla McCartney, Community GIS student in Spring 2023
At the start of the semester, my class begun a collaborative mapping project with the Brooklyn Cemetery. The Brooklyn Cemetery is one of the first African American cemeteries in Athens, GA. From my cursory observation, there seem to be two major kinds of cemeteries. The first kind is the one that remembers and celebrates the people who are buried there. The second kind is the one that people are buried in and forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind. The Brooklyn Cemetery is an unobtrusive place that would become the second type of cemetery if it weren’t for a few select people fighting for its visibility such as Linda Davis. The purpose of this project was to take all existing data regarding the cemetery and combine and add to them to create a sustainable, informative, and accessible map for those interested in the cemetery.
Like many UGA students, I am not from Athens. I am not familiar with the history or layout of much of Athens. Before this project, I had never seen the Brooklyn Cemetery, heard of it, or even driven by it. I had no connection to the Brooklyn Cemetery. So, at the beginning of the project, I approached it like any other assignment: understand what needs to be done, then do it. However, it might be important to understand that while this is a geography class, I am a landscape architecture major, and I approach community engagement projects like a landscape architecture major. A lot of my experience with projects like these has been mostly in the realm of theoretical, and for the few projects actual communities were involved in, they said what they wanted then were majorly hands-off afterwards, somewhat similarly to this project. Something particularly relevant to me that I’ve learned by working more closely with a place like the Brooklyn Cemetery is a better understanding of the attachment to place in people regarding a place I am unattached to.
Linda Davis is the most visible advocate for the revival and maintenance of the Brooklyn Cemetery as a historical place. She came and spoke to our class about the cemetery’s historical and emotional significance. As it was established in 1880, only 15 years after slavery was abolished, it was likely many freed people had been buried there. Moreover, there was also a high likelihood her own ancestors were also buried there, which she explained as her strong personal connection. She then expressed to us how strongly she felt about the impact having access to their history and where they came from would have on future generations.
These things were significant and perhaps slightly confusing to me because they were things I don’t usually think about. My grandmothers on both sides of my family are Asian immigrants, and in coming to America, they more or less left their roots behind them. Both of my grandfathers have longer histories in the US, however maybe being veterans and not being as close to external living family members has made the history of how we got to this point less important to research or talk about. In my family, there is a much stronger emotional connection to family now than family gone, hence why Linda’s different emotional priorities felt very significant to me.
After she spoke to us, my perspective changed. Before, I had no attachment to the Brooklyn Cemetery, and I wouldn’t have necessarily called it important to me. However, after I was able to see how important this place was to Linda and how her connection to her family and roots felt mirrored to my connection to living family, I was able to develop a sense of empathy for this place through Linda’s attachment to the cemetery. More than that, I realized it was important to her. My mind then circled around to the idea that while importance is a relative concept, if looked at objectively, isn’t it universal? I can then start to think, because the Brooklyn Cemetery is important to her, it is important to me.
While I don’t know if this revelation truly changes how I approach this particular project, I believe that this kind of awareness of where my values end and another’s begin (how they relate and how to blur the lines) can be greatly impactful for future projects. It is the kind of thing that affects communication, understanding, and empathy which then affect how the project framework develops. When working on community projects, it can be easy to get stuck in the big picture headspace where you have a certain set of priorities and values. It’s easy to think in terms of “What is worth putting time into?”, “What will have the most impact?”, or “How can I best improve [this place] for [specific goals]?”. It’s easy to forget the about the people the change is for. It doesn’t help that many of my projects as a landscape architecture major has us working on community projects with limited if any contact with said communities. In building the world, it shouldn’t be so easy to forget who you are building it for.
What I’ve learned from the Brooklyn Cemetery project is that empathy is important. I’ve learned that when approaching projects, I need to come with my ego pre-dismantled. Because at the end of the day, I am not making design or planning decisions for myself. I am making places for people. People cannot be separated from place. So, when making a place, the first question I will ask from now on is who are these people, and what is important to them?
By Amber Orozco, Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
What do you think of when you hear the word “open access” in relation to research or community-based work? Perhaps it brings to mind programs, tools, and academic publications that have no paywall? Or maybe you think of a community that shares resources, such as software code? But in what ways can the approach of open access be a way to support local community organizations?
In our Community GIS class, we have spent the last few weeks of the semester thinking through these questions as we work to support the campaign of a local organization, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM). AADM “advocates for racial and social justice and strives to combat discrimination through education and activism”. Part of their efforts includes their “United Against Discrimination” sticker campaign where they ask local businesses to pledge to creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment. If the business decides to participate, they receive a AADM sticker (see photo below) to place on their business’s front window. As a class, our goal is to create a map that will be hosted on AADM’s website, showing the businesses in downtown Athens that are supporters of the campaign.
For this project, open access can be understood in two different ways. First, open access for our work takes the form of a process-based approach (Shannon & Walker, 2018), meaning our class is working collaboratively with AADM to gather input on the project, including the timeline, goals, exchange of resources (i.e. AADM provides our class the list of business supporters of the campaign from 2019), and how the map will be both stored and accessed. Our collaboration with AADM is consistent throughout the process, which included us meeting with Denise Sunta (AADM Administrative Assistant and Events/Community Outreach Coordinator and also UGA alumna) at the beginning stages of the project and we will be ending the project with presenting our final map designs to AADM for their approval.
Second, our class is leveraging our technical skills to create this map through an open access mapping program (QGIS) and coding library (Leaflet). Our class was tasked with verifying whether the list of businesses provided by AADM were still participating in the campaign. To do this, our class divided up sections of downtown Athens to assess which businesses had the AADM sticker displayed on their front window. We used ArcGIS’s Field Map data collection application to update this information, including adding new business supporters of the campaign. Our class was able to utilize our university membership to access paid GIS applications, such as Field Map, for this project.
Once this list was updated, our class added the geographic coordinates to each business. We were then able to upload this list through excel to QGIS and map out the businesses. Using Leaflet for codes to customize the functionality and appearance of the map, our task is now to develop a map that serves the needs and goals of AADM. Our class is currently divided into different teams, and we are working to develop different options for AADM. For example, my group is working to use codes from Leaflet to develop a pop-up label that will appear when someone clicks on a business that is a supporter of the campaign. We intend to include information on each business, such as the hours of operation, website link, a photo of the business. Additionally, we are developing an option on the map that allows a visitor to filter for the type of business, such as “restaurant, bar, and retail shop”. Once we decide on the format on the map, it will eventually be uploaded and hosted on Github. Personally, this process of transitioning from ArcGIS to QGIS and Leaflet has been challenging because some coding knowledge is required to format the map in my group’s vision. The last time I encountered html was in high school, but I think getting comfortable with these open access programs are a matter of practice and will require more time learning compared to more user-friendly programs, such as ArcGIS.
From this experience, I have learned that open access is more than free programs and resources. It can mean leveraging technical expertise as students to support the efforts of community organizations, while engaging the community organization through the process to ensure the organization’s perspectives are centered as the tool becomes developed. Open access extends to the programs we used with no paywall and those programs that we had access to through our university membership. Each of these elements play an important role when partnering and supporting the GIS work of community organizations.
By Miles Montello, Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
...ranked in no particular order, here are five new nuggets of information that stuck out to me
since starting this class in January of 2022...
1) Know how to plan a task with a group
In my experience, the group projects that go the most efficiently are the ones where there’s one
dominant person who is the most passionate about the task and can get the less passionate group
members smoothly convinced of their vision early in the timeframe given. Groups where all the
members are either too shy or too indifferent wind up with a wishy-washy concept of a final
product and it’s awkward for everybody. If there are two dominant people with conflicting
visions then their egos may clash, but usually a resolution is reached early on. Just because
there’s a space for someone to step up doesn’t mean anybody necessarily will- until the deadline
gets close enough that either someone caves in or everyone comes to an agreement. In my
opinion, it’s apt evidence for the 80-20 rule, which is a principle that says that roughly 80% of
consequences come from 20% of causes- 80% of the work/planning is done by 20% of the
participants. Clearly defining tasks from the beginning makes it the least stressful, and the tasks
don’t even necessarily need to be divided equally because the quality of every member’s work is
proportional to how invested they are in the topic. I’m proud of my group’s contributions to the
Linnentown Storymap, which was a web map the class produced describing a black
neighborhood in Athens doomed by Urban Renewal to be replaced by freshman dormitories.
Each group of 4-5 students were given a section to create on our own. I would describe the first
half of our time given as sheepishly figuring out what we should do, the second- executing the
original agreed upon vision which was subsequently revised, and the last fifth- creating most of
what would be on the final product.
2) Teams make monotonous tasks go quicker
This lesson from the class also applies to life in general. Having multiple people assigned to a
creative task as opposed to one or two people creates the awkward scenarios I previously
described. On the other hand, if you have human capital, having multiple people assigned to a
clearly defined repeatable task that is too big for one person is super-efficient. I recall Dr.
Shannon remarking on how the task of geolocating all of Athens’ downtown businesses on the
AADM list (of which there were around sixty) would’ve taken hours for one person to do but
was shortened to two minutes by each student being assigned four businesses to add coordinates
to on a shared cloud document. If you tell a random set of eight people to paint a twenty-yard
wooden fence a certain color or pattern, it’s going to be finished in an hour or two if they have
the materials. If you tell them to paint a mural on the fence, it’s going to take way longer and the
result will have very noticeable gaps in artistic ability between the painters.
3) Text mine efficiently
The 1958 Athens City Directory existed only as a physical book, yet the Community Mapping
Lab was working to digitize the information listed inside- from names, addresses, occupation,
race, home ownership, etc. To do so, the entire directory was scanned- but to be able to
manipulate the data it needed to be recorded on a digital spreadsheet. When trying to collect data
from a scanned paper document, transferring what is on the page into manipulable digital text
is a big challenge. Your saving grace in this Herculean task are programs that “text mine”- using
artificial intelligence to read the scanned text for you and transcribe it in plain text into the
program you tell it (Word, Excel, etc.). There are various ones, from paid to free and open
source. Knowledge of coding is often necessary, mostly to tell the program how to separate lines
of text. Keep in mind that there can be a lot of room for error, and you might be disappointed to
find the resulting text is littered with problems. Data cleaning is tedious, but it was a necessary
part of our classes’ digitization of the 1958 Directory. If the dataset is small enough (hundreds
of lines of dozens of pages instead of tens of thousands of lines of hundreds of pages) consider
manually typing the lines of info as you read them (which is what I did for the pages I data
cleaned). Something which accelerates this task leads to my next point...
4) Two monitors are better than one
When you have a task involving cross-referencing (like data cleaning), it can break your train of
thought to have to be constantly opening and closing the same two or three tabs. Opening the
wrong tab by accident making you forget the short line of info you just memorized can make you
grind your teeth. Even a simple action like that can break your flow. So, I’m grateful that the GIS
lab has two monitors to a desktop. I find it so much easier to not have to move my hand and
simply glance from one fully visible document to another. This also makes it easier to keep up
with web tutorials among many other tasks.
5) Google Sheets ...excels your work
Both Google Sheets and Excel are great for data organization related to GIS. I made a map using
the data from the 1958 Athens City Directory where I showed the locations of the residences of
blue collared workers (blue dots) and white collared workers (yellow dots). This was not a
distinction made by the directory itself. I took the top 300 occupations listed and categorized
them myself using a pivot table to create a new column with a new value. If this option were not
available, the task would’ve been too big for me. Knowledge of these two applications helps you
work with data more efficiently. I prefer Google Sheets due to how easy it is to apply and use
add-on tools from the Google Workspace Marketplace, paired with the ease of sharing the
document with others. Offline Excel cannot be edited live by multiple people, and while online
Excel documents can- the plugins available for geocoding are more limited and take extra steps
Google has SIX paid options:
Versus FOUR paid options for Office
Three extra tips? No way!