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
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