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 Rachael Glenn, Community GIS student in Spring 2022
I was introduced to the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (“AADM”) the summer when the Black Lives Matter movement was in full force. They hosted multiple rallies that successfully culminated in the removal of a confederate monument that once stood in front of the UGA Arch and only feet away from the Holmes-Hunter academic building, named after the first African Americans to attend UGA. There is still a sign behind the Arch naming the Civil War a “war for southern independence,” but I digress. I was happily reintroduced to AADM through our Community GIS course to partner in support of their “United Against Discrimination” sticker campaign. This campaign in particular was sparked by reports of downtown bars racially discriminating against students and local residents of color back in 2016.
AADM is a local non-profit here in Athens, GA that focuses on initiatives to advocate for racial and social justice. Some of their work includes hosting community discussions, events, workshops, and resources designed to help people protect their civil and human rights (AADM). Currently, AADM has a sticker campaign called “United Against Discrimination” where businesses in Athens are able to participate with 3 easy steps laid out on their website.
The point of the campaign is to commit business owners in the downtown and surrounding area to stand in solidarity against discrimination regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or immigration status. This campaign highlights a simple yet outstanding way that businesses can create a more inclusive culture. Displaying the sticker, as pictured above, is a physical reminder that everyone is welcome in their establishment.
Our Community GIS course has partnered with them to help with the campaign data and to create a web map of the downtown area of businesses that have joined the campaign. Our first step in getting this sorted was verifying which businesses were still participating in the campaign based on the list they provided us. In order to create an updated list for our map, we participated in canvassing downtown, speaking directly with businesses and seeing if they were still participating. Canvassing involves soliciting people, often by going door-to-door for personal contact in an effort to raise awareness, fundraise, politically campaign, and, in our case, collect data and support a local movement.
The Athens downtown area is comprised of 170+ businesses, so in the spirit of collaborative work, each student received a block to complete. We used the ArcGIS field maps app so we could directly update business information. The field map app lets users directly update and edit data as they are collecting it during fieldwork. I quickly learned how useful canvassing could be to get accurate data about a community and, in the same vein, how important it is to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to community work to produce accurate and usable data.
Before starting this process, our class took class time to plan the canvassing. When engaging in collaborative community work, this is such an important step so that 1) everyone understands the goal and definitions involved in the project, 2) knows the process, and 3) how the technology works. In our case, the process was visiting each business in our block, checking who was participating in the campaign, and marking their status.
Using the field maps app, I was able to directly update the data into the app for my block, “block 2021.” This is where the planning from before came in hand. I was able to understand which types of businesses we were including, what verified meant, how to add new businesses, what to do with old ones, etc.
Going from business to business was a bit daunting, thinking I could face rejection and even worrying about saying the right words to market the campaign. However, my worries were settled after proposing the campaign to the first business. I found they were open and eager to hear about the campaign and how they could join.
Moreover, from this process, I was able to understand how fieldwork and collaborative work can be managed and facilitated to benefit a community. Our class's work canvassing showed us an easy way to organize and reach many businesses in a short amount of time. However, for this small commitment, multiple people and community members will see the Anti-Discrimination stickers on businesses and perhaps see a more welcoming environment. As UGA students, I think it is incredibly rewarding to do work that is directly benefiting the local Athens community. In most cases, many of us come to Athens to enjoy the city and all it has to offer but fail to give back. This project enabled us to counter this imbalance and participate in a positive social campaign that benefits Athens to learn how to facilitate community work and all the mishaps that can come with it.
By Trevor Underwood
Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
As a student in Community GIS, taught by Dr. Shannon, I’ve been faced with various readings and opportunities surrounding-of course-community GIS. Through exposure to the practices and ideas that have been taught, my approach to mapping (from idea conception to completion) has evolved. By education I’m an ecology major, and most of my experience mapping up until this course had been in mapping ecological phenomena like population dynamics, habitat ranges, and ecosystem boundaries. While those mapping focuses may seem different to the Linnentown storymap and Athens 1958 maps we’ve mapped throughout this course, I think there’s a bounty of approaches to mapping that could stand to be adopted in my niche of GIS.
In this blog post, I want to talk about how I would have applied what I know now to past projects I’ve worked on; specifically, as a fisheries technician for the United States Forest Service (USFS) in Oregon. I want to focus on this experience because of the importance of the projects I did there, but also because of the community-project interactions that were present. There’s one specific project I was a part of that I think, if I had known what I know now, could have been handled differently by both myself and those in charge of the project.
One of the largest things that struck me during my time in Oregon was the importance of PR. The public’s perception of the USFS in Tiller where I was working was polarized; some people loved you and others hated you. For some, the Forest Service was doing important work that would end up benefitting the public, for others, the forest service was a clandestine organization that was trespassing on “their land”.
Our project I was a part of was doing snorkel surveys for the Umpqua Chub, a state-threatened fish species. We would get in wetsuits and hop in rivers/streams at public access points like bridge crossings, boat launches, and roadside pull-offs and record the number of fish we saw along with the coordinates to map later. People would come up to us during/after the surveys and ask what we were doing. After we gave them an answer as to what the surveys were for and why we were doing them, most people would respond with a friendly “cool!” or “that’s neat”, but sometimes people would say we had no business being there and, in a few instances, would harass us.
I think if the Forest Service had involved the communities around where we were doing surveys more, we would not only have been on better terms with those communities, but would also see a higher degree of approval for that specific project. In this course we talked about community involvement in GIS, and broke down a figure (Arnstein’s ladder) showing different levels of this type of involvement. In a federally sponsored project, including citizens in a research project to the degree of letting them do GIS analysis would be difficult, but at least getting to the higher rung of “partnership” from “informant” on Arnstein’s ladder would have been satisfactory. In my experience there, the people that engaged in harassment seemed to feel undermined when being informed about what we were doing, maybe feeling as though they were being treated as unintelligent.
Building a trust between the groups doing research and the communities in which the research is being done is mutually beneficial, and something I’ll always reflect on when performing work like that again. That shared vulnerability makes for a stronger flow of ideas, and a better product. In our Linnentown storymap project, the experiences and feedback of resident Hattie Whitehead were directly incorporated into the final product. Our project aimed at telling the story of Linnentown, both how it was, and how it’s been erased by The University of Georgia Urban Renewal Project. I was able to benefit from learning from a first-account of the story we were trying to tell. Getting to see and hear about her experiences and having feedback directly from her was extremely helpful, and largely the basis of the depth of quality for our finished product. There wasn’t any preconceived animosity between the parties working on the Linnentown storymap project like there was between the USFS and communities in Oregon, but just the action of communication and transparency like in the project our class worked on are enough to build a foundation of trust. This class has challenged me to think beyond a cartographic result; rather, it’s encouraged me to think of the process of reaching that result.
By Phillip Jones
Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
Imagine you were tasked with creating a map of your hometown. How would you go about doing this? You may start with popular roads, neighborhoods, and parks. Then, you may throw in some popular landmarks like the city hall, schools, and libraries. This may seem like a straightforward and fact-oriented task. However, you can’t possibly map everything in the town, as this would be overwhelming for the reader and impossible for you do to by memory. You may find yourself choosing landmarks that are most important to you. You may also find that the overall impression of your map reflects your perception of your hometown. The map may be dreary or dull if that is your perception of the town, or it may be brightly lit and exciting if you have fond memories of your childhood.
Maps often give the impression of being concrete and factually correct. However, like any other form of media, they are narratives being proposed by their authors. In our Community GIS course, we have been introduced to theoretical frameworks that help us question the intention behind a map: Who created this map? Who is the intended audience? What biases may the author be influenced by? What narrative does this media promote? What voices are missing from this map? Ultimately, we have learned to be wary of the predominant narrative of maps, as they may be reflective of the loudest and most powerful.
Most recently in our Community GIS course, we have finished a project about the Linnentown neighborhood in Athens, Georgia. Linnentown was a Black neighborhood along Baxter Street that was destroyed by UGA and the City of Athens in the 1960s through a federal Urban Renewal grant. All houses in the urban renewal area were torn down and all residents were displaced. In their place, UGA built three large dormitories and a parking lot to house freshman UGA students. Through their power, the city and the university characterized the neighborhood as run down and a “slum” to justify displacing a proud and close-knit Black community.
Because of the efforts of first descendants of Linnentown and organizations such as the Linnentown Project, the neighborhood’s story has been told, and steps have been made to acknowledge the harms done and provide reparations. To support their efforts, the Spring 2022 UGA Community GIS class has created an ArcGIS Storymap to support the Linnentown Project and first descendants of the neighborhood to bring memories of the neighborhood to life. The Storymap synthesizes first-hand accounts from first descendants Ms. Hattie Whitehead and Mr. Bobby Crook, archived records from the UGA Special Collections Library, and research by UGA professors to tell the story of the Linnentown community, its erasure, and the resistance of its residents to their removal. For example, through a guided video tour, Ms. Whitehead and Mr. Crook share their memories of the neighborhood, which is a sharp juxtaposition from what the area looks like today. It also the process of UGA acquiring properties in the area, aerial imagery displaying the destruction and replacement of the Linnentown community, and evidence of the resident’s resistance to being displaced. The Storymap culminates with a timeline of advocates’ efforts to demand redress and resources on how to become involved.
In Community GIS, we have learned that there is no one correct way to describe an area. Instead, many perspectives can all coexist at the same time. However, the perspective of the area around Baxter and Finley Street as just freshman dorms is incomplete and is an injustice to the community of people in Linnentown that were displaced from this area. Using digital storytelling technology, we can share memories, identify important landmarks, and explain how Athens and UGA used their institutional power to transform these areas at the expense of the Linnentown community. Doing so will not bring back what was lost, but this tragic history must be exposed. It is never too late to hold institutions and people to account for their actions, as doing so will communicate that the unjust destruction of people’s homes is unacceptable and prevent it from happening again in the future.
By Molly Dunn
Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
GIS has the ability to tell a powerful story by legitimizing the perspective of an individual or group that has struggled to be taken seriously. In Sarah Elwood’s book Qualitative GIS, she says “many of the powerful actors and institutions whom they seek to influence treat GIS-based data and maps as illustrations of what is real or true about a place, and as evidence of an expert (and therefore, legitimate) portrayal of that place” (Chapter 4: “Multiple Representations, Significations And Epistemologies In Community-Based GIS”, page 70). Throughout my time in our Community GIS class, I have learned the importance of making maps with caution and consideration, especially when they will be used to persuade or provoke.
For the past few weeks, my class has been working on an informational StoryMap (a collection of public, multimedia web maps) about Linnentown, a Black community erased by UGA and the City of Athens to build dorm buildings in the 1960s. From the beginning steps of the project, it was evident that we had an important task to complete. We were not working with simulation data or practice labs. We were working with real stories, from real people, about real places. As the project developed and I heard more from Hattie Whitehead, a resident of Linnentown, I began to see the impact that our StoryMap could potentially have in aiding her mission to bring redress to the people who lived there. The importance of being cautious with each choice we made throughout the project was clear. In one of our meetings, she told us that when brainstorming the book she recently wrote about her experience, she wanted to compile the data together before she wrote and published it. It was then that I understood the point that Sarah Elwood was making - there is power in a visual representation with data behind it. It can be the tipping point that allows a movement or a story to be recognized as legitimate.
One of the ways that a map can be made with consideration is by capturing the emotion in the place it is portraying. In Meghan Kelly’s article “Mapping Syrian Refugee Border Crossings: A Feminist Approach,” she walks the readers through the development of her map of Amal’s story, a man living through the conflict in Syria. She chooses symbology that alludes to the ways that he experienced the borders - for example, how difficult it could truly be to move from one place to another. This kind of information can be difficult to show through maps, but if done correctly it can add an entirely new layer that is meaningful and informational. She was able to transform his story into an immersive piece that showed the way he experienced life in Syria. She prioritized his voice over her own, a skill that makes a map center around individual experience within a physical place. We were able to use this in our own StoryMap by continuously meeting with Hattie Whitehead and others working towards Linnentown’s redress. We used their feedback and suggestions to ensure that the story we were telling was helpful, accurate, and focused.
The point I want to make is that the work of people in GIS is important. It can inform people about issues that they were unaware of and inspire change based on their new knowledge. It can also provide evidence of reality to powerful people that have the resources to aid causes and fix problems. This is one of the first times that I have worked on a project with “real” data and the goal of being shared - the skills that I learned in classes prior to this only equipped me with technical skills. Community GIS requires the creator to be open-minded and adaptable. It is practical, it is effective, and it is real. It can back up the perspective of someone who may have gone a long time without it being taken seriously. In 2019, I went to the ESRI User Conference - an event hosted by the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a GIS company. They were launching a new campaign called “See What Others Can’t,” to promote the usefulness and potential of GIS. This phrase encompasses what I have learned in this class: when you can turn existing information into a compelling illustration, you are able to elicit worthwhile conversation and crucial change.
By Emilie Castillo
For the past two semesters, I have worked as a CURO Research Assistant in the service of the Community Mapping Lab and BikeAthens towards the goal of creating a comprehensive cycling map of Athens-Clarke County (ACC). While the project will most likely continue into next fall, as of the end of this semester we have succeeded in creating a web-based map of biking routes throughout the county with classifications noting the safety/preference level of each route, bike lanes, multi-use trails, slope, points of interest, and bus stops. This project was undertaken at the request of BikeAthens for the purpose of making cycling in Athens an easier and safer alternate form of transportation. Alongside Olivia Gilliam, a fellow CURO Research Assistant, I worked as an aid to Dr. Jerry Shannon, who headed up this project in the Fall of 2019.
In recent years, Athens-Clarke County Government as well as several community organizations have been interested in building up and refining the cycling infrastructure and resources of ACC. BikeAthens in particular operates with the mission of creating equity in transportation; when they requested the Community Mapping Lab undertake this project, they hoped the map would assist both novice and seasoned cyclists in planning rides throughout the county. That being said, this project was not concerned with classifying the safety level of every existing road or path in ACC, nor was its purpose to showcase recreational rides. The web map, as it is today, displays and classifies those routes necessary for travel throughout the county along with destinations determined as useful or necessary for those using a bike as their main form of transportation.
When Olivia and I began working on this project in Fall 2020, a former student, Regina Nasrallah, had already worked with Dr. Shannon to determine some points of interest and classify some existing road data. Olivia and I began our research by collecting more points of interest (POI). First, we had to determine what were “useful and necessary” destinations for the people in this community and for cyclists in general. Grocery stores, healthcare clinics, bike shops, bike repair stations, bike parking, pharmacies, dollar stores and coffee shops were some of the categories we discussed; we needed to make sure we were being as inclusive as possible when compiling this list because we did not want our map biased towards any particular demographic, rendering it useless to large portions of the Athens community. After determining this list, we needed to collect the location, name, and service type of all the destinations in ACC falling under these categories. I relied heavily on Reference USA, a database of businesses located in the U.S. available through UGA’s Library website. We also extracted several locations from OpenStreetMap. In some cases, a list had already been partially compiled for some destination types, but for the most part we had to search around to make sure we were getting everything. We then organized all these collected data points into a single spreadsheet and mapped it. At this point, we noticed how few points of interest are located to the East of the Loop/ SR10 and we added random location points occurring on the eastside in order to ensure our routes were not missing large chunks of the county.
With the comprehensive POI data mapped, Dr. Shannon used R software in conjunction with Google, HERE, and Mapbox routing APIs to generate approximately 1,500 routes for each routing service between all our identified POI’s (over 600 points). We identified common streets used by those three services and aggregated them to make our first draft routes.
At this point we began to classify the routes, relying heavily on speed limit as an indicator of safety. Later, BikeAthens helped us better classify routes as safe and unsafe from their personal experiences as cyclists in Athens. We were using Strava Heatmap data as a point of reference to determine if the routes we had were ones actually travelled by cyclists and to identify routes we may have missed entirely. I georeferenced screenshots of the Strava Heatmap for the entire county so we could easily compare and edit our data within QGIS.
A large portion of this spring semester has been focused on editing the existing bike routes. Dr. Shannon generated slope data for all the road routes from elevation data provided by Athens-Clarke County. We attempted to gather public feedback through a Survey123 form that allows the user to comment on specific locations of our draft map; however, as the COVID-19 pandemic persisted, public feedback became challenging and often disappointing.
Once we had edited our draft routes to some degree of satisfaction, we began transferring our data from QGIS to ArcGIS Online to begin configuring the web app. We focused on cleaning things up to ensure the map would be easy and intuitive to read. We trimmed down our initial POI data to a smaller pool of points and set the transparency level of that data as smaller than that of the routes so as not to overwhelm the reader upon opening the WebApp. We also began to discuss the best way to color routes, bike lanes, and trails. Further, we determined the best symbols to denote our points of interest and slope. Daniel Sizemore, Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Safety Coordinator from ACC Unified Government, assisted us and is still in the process of organizing data to provide our map with a more comprehensive list of bike lanes. We reviewed several other similar bike route maps of other cities such as Vancouver, Portland, Madison, etc. to get a better idea of how to visualize the data. Dr. Shannon and I worked on creating a print map for BikeAthens staff and patrons to mark up physically, but again, community feedback was difficult and less fruitful than we hoped.
Now, as the semester is ending, we feel that we have a solid draft to start distributing to the public, with the understanding that the routes will continue to be refined and updated throughout the rest of the year. In our final meeting with BikeAthens, we discussed the possibility of one more semester’s worth of work in collecting that much-need feedback from the community. BikeAthens is interested in creating some formats of the map that can be easily printed, possibly even some pocket size maps to be kept at BikeAthens and other biking resource locations.
I really enjoyed working on this project and feel I learned a lot about GIS project management. It was extremely valuable to see first-hand what it is like to work with local organizations and utilize those available resources in showcasing data. Before this experience I would not know how to even start, and now I feel confident in my ability to organize the steps of a project like this and be a part of the construction. The COVID-19 pandemic kept us from meeting in person and facilitating more community events where we could have generated feedback and creative collaboration, and that setback was felt by all of us. Zoom fatigue and generally busy schedules made me feel like I did not engage with this project as whole-heartedly as I could have. A part of me wonders if we had been able to meet in person whether we would have gotten more done in that first semester, giving us more space for creativity in the second semester. All things said, I am really proud of our final product and I hope to stay in the loop about the future of this map and its impact.
Emilie Castillo recently received an undergraduate degree in Geography alongside a certificate in GIS at the University of Georgia.
By Jerry Shannon
Related posts: Aidan's reflection | Katrina's reflection
Many southern universities have faced increased calls to deal with complicated histories of racial exclusion. At the University of Georgia, pressure for the institution to explicitly address the historical legacies of slavery was increased by the 2015 discovery of 105 remains near Baldwin Hall on campus, unearthed during construction of a building expansion. Subsequent testing revealed that many of these individuals had African ancestry, and given the historical period of use for the adjacent city cemetery, this implied that most were likely enslaved. These bodies were reinterred by the university at a nearby active cemetery, but without consultation with leaders from the local African-American community, which caused further tension.
In response, the university has made efforts to acknowledge its historical complicity with enslavement, creating a memorial that honors those buried at the Baldwin Hall site and sponsoring two related research initiatives. The first resulted in the online Athens Layers of Time portal, which provides materials about the Baldwin Hall burials specifically and the historical expansion of campus. The second, currently ongoing, is examining the role of enslaved people in the university’s life from its founding through 1865. UGA also joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium in December 2019. Both efforts are the result of advocacy by community members and faculty for the university to address historical legacies of enslavement.
Still, the university’s relationship with the local African-American community remains fraught. Only 7.5% of undergraduates and 5% of faculty identify as African-American, while nearly half of service and maintenance staff do. The numbers for student and faculty are far below rates in Clarke County (29%) and Georgia (32%). Specifically, there are rising concerns that new student housing is displacing low-income African-American residents, raising property taxes and putting upward pressure on rents.
The Linnentown Project is one local effort to call attention to these issues. It focuses on the Linnentown neighborhood, a historically black area just west of campus that was demolished in the early 1960s to make space for new student dormitories.Residents of this neighborhood--many of whom were home owners--were most often forced out through the use of condemnation findings and eminent domain. Through public forums and public protests, residents have told the story of their forced removal from the neighborhood, advocating for compensation for financial losses, and further research around the university’s role in slavery and displacement.
Joey Carter, who has helped lead the Linnentown Project, had previously identified multiple records about this redevelopment in special collections at UGA Libraries. These included maps of the neighborhood used to plan property acquisition, correspondence from UGA administrators and legislators about the urban renewal funding used for construction, and detailed records about each property acquired. While he was able to do initial analysis of some of these data, the scanned records had more data than the group could easily enter and analyze.
This spring, students in the Community GIS course offered by Dr. Shannon sought to support this effort through digitizing and analyzing these archival records. More specifically, students in the class focused on the following tasks:
The goal of this project was to crowdsource some of the data entry aspects of this analysis as well as to build a database that could supplement residents’ existing narratives of their displacement. As former resident Hattie Whitehead noted at the beginning of the project, Linnentown was for decades a neighborhood that existed primarily in the memories of those who lived there. By putting it literally “on the map,” our class aimed to provide materials that preserved those memories and provide visual representations that could be used for future education and activism. To adapt Baudrillard’s famous quote, our mapping helped “engender” the territory of Linnentown--giving physical representation to an already existing social reality.
This was, of course, an especially challenging semester for all university classes. In addition to the already existing challenges of coordinating this work among a class of 18 students, we spent a full third of the semester communicating only digitally through Zoom and online discussion boards. Digitizing records for neighborhoods and streets that no longer exist was also a challenging task for the class.
Two graduate students in this course--Aidan and Katrina--have written blog posts about their experiences in the course. In final reflections, other students were clearly impacted by learning about this history and being part of the larger project. Many students have lived in the dorms built on this land, which made it especially personal, and talking with former residents about their experience gave life to the archival data they had been working with. Overall, the goal of our work as a class was to make this chapter of the university’s complicated history more legible and help amplify the experiences and perspectives of Linnentown residents. We hope to further refine these records in the future in coordination with the Linnentown Project.
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
A few weeks ago, I and roughly 8,000 other geographers attended the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting in Washington, D.C. While it can be exhausting--AAG has dozens of sessions going on at any given time--these meetings are a great chance to see friends and colleagues and meet new folks whose work I’ve only read or who I’ve only met online. (Despite the platform’s very real problems, I personally have benefited a lot from participating in #academictwitter).
One moment that stuck out: I was talking with Peter Johnson, a faculty member at the University of Waterloo, a morning reception hosted by the Digital Geographies Specialty Group. Peter does great work with open data and governance. For example, here’s one of his recent articles on the costs of open data, including the ways it subsidizes private enterprise and corporate influence on policy. Over the last decade, there’s been a strong push for open data initiatives across multiple levels, from cities up through international bodies such as the UN, which makes this work particularly salient.
Companies such as ESRI and Socrata have created platforms for hosting and sharing these datasets, and the rhetoric around these tools emphasizes transparency and community engagement. Socrata’s page, for example, references a goal of “fully connected communities,” while ESRI touts its “two way engagement platform.” In my classes, I’m particularly fond of letting students analyze NYCOpenData’s records of yellow cab taxi trips, including more than 100 million trips with details down to the tip given for each one.
Peter’s work, along with many others including Renee Sieber, Muki Haklay, Rina Ghose, Taylor Shelton, and Rob Kitchin, has examined how these projects play out on the ground, focusing on whether they live up to claims of citizen engagement and empowerment. As one might expect, results have been mixed. The people most likely to use these data are the ones with the education, training, and expertise to do so--a fairly select group. In my Community GIS class, I use this article on Data Driven Detroit as one example of this dynamic, where open data records on housing only strengthened investors’ ability to buy up vacant property.
The alternative model presented in that article is one I’ve been thinking through as well, community-based projects that facilitate residents’ ability to interact with and make meaning from public data. I asked Peter about this dynamic in our conversation, and he mentioned a project conducted by the Canadian government where trained staff would work with remote rural and indigenous communities, helping them interpret census and other government data and understand their relevance to local concerns. In recent years, the Canadian government has increased the online availability of these data, but it has cut the number of trained staff who can work with local communities. In effect, open data portals replaced these staff, providing more “access” to data but curtailing the work needed to understand and interpret it.
Recent developments in both open source and proprietary software have provided a number of tools for community-based data collection and open data for government records. But, as Alex Orenstein said at our recent community geography workshop, you also need to “check yourself before you tech yourself.” These platforms provide interfaces for accessing and visualizing these data, but they cannot fully replace the important work of helping community members articulate how the data may (or may not) match their own experience.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of my now years-long work with Georgia communities through the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing. Along with my colleague Kim Skobba, I have been helping develop a toolkit for community-based housing assessments, one that uses free and open source software such as OpenDataKit and RStudio’s Shiny platform. These technological tools make it possible for even small rural communities to collect and map out detailed data on individual housing conditions, identifying common issues and facilitating outreach to specific property owners. At the same time, communities struggle with what to do with these data once it’s collected beyond simply noting patterns on the map. Similar to Taylor Shelton’s work in Lexington, I’ve been thinking about ways to work with communities to visualize drivers of problems identified through these data. By talking about landlords, zoning, and other historical factors, we can beging to talk about the problematic history of blight as a metric and its ramifications for community development.
This isn’t work that can be solved by a platform or visualization software. It involves time and “soft skills”--listening, thinking, reading, and many conversations, before the work of data collection even gets started. Community members themselves often want to jump right into the technology, and so it is sometimes difficult to communicate the need to move more deliberately. This is hard labor, but as folks working in public participatory GIS (PPGIS) have long emphasized, it’s crucial to fostering sustainable, just change in communities.
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
By: Jerry Shannon
At the end of last month, I and several students from the Community Mapping Lab were able to help run the first international workshop in community geography, or #commgeog19 for short. This two day workshop, supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation, was held on the campus of Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. It featured presentations from 41 workshop fellows and collaborative breakout groups around topics of common interest. While we will eventually be posting more materials from the workshop, in this blog post I give a brief overview of some of the highlights of the workshop and what stood out to me as one of its organizers.
Community geography is a relatively new subfield within our discipline. In a paper that I and others are working on, we currently define it as
"a form of praxis, one rooted in collaborations between academic and public scholars resulting in mutually beneficial and co-produced knowledge. It draws from and contributes to geographic theorizations of space and place, engaging with research in fields including development, urban geography, political ecology, critical food studies, and health geography. Community geography employs a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, often makes use of participatory research approaches, and has, as its epistemological framing, a commitment to address pressing social and environmental problems and work toward systemic change. A commitment to praxis entails a fundamental integration of research and action, one that explicitly values excluded and marginalized perspectives and fosters just and sustainable communities."
Geography has a long tradition of participatory and engaged research, and we recognize our connection to past work in public participatory GIS (PPGIS), feminist and black geographies, and participatory action research. Organizing around community geography has provided a formalized way to recognize this work, particularly through the creation of positions explicitly devoted to it at Syracuse University, Columbus State University, University of Central Florida, Chicago State University, and at my institution, the University of Georgia. By recognizing community engagement as an explicit expectation for promotion and tenure, these positions provide a model of academic work that blurs lines between the university and broader publics. While often based at academic institutions, community geography also includes the work of community scholars who partner in research and teaching.
The community geography program at Syracuse--the nation’s first--is now over a decade old, but thus far this group has been relatively small. Community geographers are predominantly academic faculty and staff, most of whom identify as White. To broaden the range of folks at this table, we successfully applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to hold an international workshop for the full range of scholars interested in community geography. This grant allowed for the workshop to be offered without charge and provided significant travel assistance to many of the workshop fellows who presented their work.
The call for participation to this workshop elicited a strong response. We received 91 applications, many of whom came from scholars new to community geography. From these, we invited 42 workshop fellows. Among these fellows, we had seventeen academic faculty/staff, sixteen graduate and undergraduate students, and none community scholars. Twenty three fellows identified as White, eight as African-American, three as Hispanic/Latinx, four as Asian-American, and two as mixed race. While still predominantly academic and White, this group was more diverse than both the planning team (almost all of whom were White academics) and the academic geographers as a whole.
The workshop itself was structured to promote sharing and connection. The full program is available here. The first day was structured around a series of eight minute presentations, delivered in two concurrent tracks across three sessions. These presentations shared highlights from each fellows’ work while leaving room for questions and discussion of shared themes across presentations. Workshop fellows and other attendees identified these themes, sharing thoughts on large post-it sheets throughout the day.
At the end of the first day, we identified multiple themes from these shared notes:
Workshop attendees then signed up for breakout groups, each focused on one of these themes. For much of the second day, these groups outlined potential shared collaborations that could be continued after the workshop. Summaries of these discussions are currently being compiled and will be shared on the conference page, linked at the top of this post.
During the second day, we also took a field trip to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, just a short walk away from our workshop site. This field trip got us out of the conference space and provided an opportunity to reflect on other struggles many of us address through our teaching and research.
We are still working through evaluations and feedback from the workshop. Many participants expressed strong appreciation for the chance to connect with others doing similar work, and most also expressed a strong interest in continuing to participate in conversations around community geography and collaborating with others at the workshop. We will encourage this work in multiple ways: creating an email list for discussion of topics and events relevant to group interests, sponsoring sessions at conferences hosted by the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and similar groups, organizing a special journal issue for topics presented at the workshop, and securing funding for future events and collaborations for community geographers.
I share a few other photos below, with special thanks to Dorris Scott for being our official photographer. Video from many workshop presentations will be available soon on the workshop webpage.
As the principal investigator for this grant, I’m thankful for the work of others on this team who helped make this event happen. Most notably, Katherine Hankins and the Department of Geosciences at Georgia State University provided significant logistical and financial support for the workshop. The other planning team members were Danny Block, Amber Bosse, Tim Hawthorne, Jonnell Robinson, Dorris Scott, and Andy Walter.
In sum, the first ever Workshop in Community Geography was a smashing success, welcoming many new voices to the conversation and spurring ideas for future work. Check back on the workshop page for more information and opportunities in the coming weeks and months!
Author: Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
Jerry Shannon and CML members
The margins of medieval European maps are home to some fantastic creatures. These beasts were based on actual accounts by sailors, demonstrating the ways mapmakers relied on first hand accounts of regions that (at least for them) remained unnamed. This article, published by the Smithsonian in 2013, details a few of them: an ichthyocentaur (human, horse, and fish), a sea pig, and a lobster several times larger than the ships it swallowed.
Popular legend holds that the phrase “Here Be Dragons” (or “Hic sunt dracones”) was added to some of these ancient maps in regions deemed particularly dangerous. While probably apocryphal, the phrase remains in the lexicon of our cartographic imaginations, appearing in fantasy novels, multiple films, and even code for the open source Firefox web browser. In many of these instances, the phrase refers to areas where the world becomes unfamiliar, at least to sailors and mapmakers. These paper dragons are are a reminder to practice epistemological humility, recognizing the limits to our ability to know and name the world.
In the current era, big data and informatics promise a panoptic understanding of social and environmental processes, where algorithms and massive datasets can supposedly help us see into every corner of the world. We--members of the Community Mapping Lab--hope to use this blog to uncover stubbornly persistent blind spots in geographic research, dragons that underscore the continued partiality of our knowledge. Contemporary maps may often draw from larger and more complex datasets than these medieval efforts, but this may simply mean that the dragons--unspoken assumptions, biases in the data, extractive research practices--are more artfully hidden.
Adapting Haraway’s famous phrase, maps are always a view from somewhere. Dalton and Mason-Deese similarly describe an “and, and, and…” approach to mapping, resisting a single authoritative perspective in favor of “continual questioning and the production of alternative knowledges” (p. 460). By working through multiple ways to frame and map the world, such as the the Counter-cartographies Collective’s campus disorientation guide, we highlight the useful, if limited, insight each map provides. We study maps understood both literally (e.g., online and print maps) and metaphorically (e.g., theories of community development), in all cases understanding ways these name and produce the world.
Our group of authors is, at least initially, comprised of students and faculty at the University of Georgia, and our perspectives are inevitably shaped by our daily lives within that institution. This blog is, in part, an effort to make that explicit in our research--to be reflexive, in scholarly terms. Just as early cartographers drew on first hand accounts from sailors, we also develop partnerships with local communities to collaboratively develop alternative ways of mapping the world. We work toward research practices that are inclusive of marginalized groups, reveal the social processes that shape inequality, and promote social and environmental justice. We critically examine the conditions that produce geographic knowledge, placing maps in their social and historical context.
More specifically, the posts on this blog will cluster around four core themes. First, we are interested in community engaged and participatory research practices and their use in both spatial analysis--maps and number crunching--and qualitative research--interviews and participant observation. Second, we critically examine how gender and race matter to the ways research in geographic research is conducted, drawing from work in feminist and black geographies. Third, we explore new forms of data collection and alternative tools for analysis and scholarly conversation. This includes the ways free and open source software can be used within geographic research, the use of volunteered geographic data (VGI) and citizen science as sources of knowledge, and the potential of open science practices--such as shared code, data, and publications--to encourage transparency, public engagement, and reproducible research. Lastly, we highlight the ways that maps and other forms of geographic research are employed to support social activism and promote progressive public policy goals.
Our posts will vary in format, including reports from our own research, reflections on recent work by others, reports from conferences or workshops, and walkthroughs of new tools or methodological techniques. While our posts will often explicitly mention mapping and GIS, they are seldom just about these tools, and many of us regularly use multiple methods in our research. Through our posts, we hope to spur public conversation about maps and mapping within and outside of the academy.
In sum, Here Be Dragons is a blog focused on emergent ways of mapping the world, ones that are more participatory and inclusive. It’s a blog about the ways geographic research makes our world and its potential role in activism for social and environmental justice. Just like the maps we make, we’re not sure exactly where this blog will go, but we welcome everyone along for the journey.
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.