Academic journal article URISA Journal

Leveling the Playing Field: Enabling Community-Based Organizations to Utilize Geographic Information Systems for Effective Advocacy

Academic journal article URISA Journal

Leveling the Playing Field: Enabling Community-Based Organizations to Utilize Geographic Information Systems for Effective Advocacy

Article excerpt


Conflict over urban policies is ubiquitous, reflecting the clashing interests, visions, and aspirations of myriad existing and prospective community stakeholders. The conflicts between condominium developers and existing residents, landlords and tenants, small business and transformative developers, owners and renters, urban planners and grassroots activists all are played out in the public arena. Blue-ribbon panels, congressional hearings, city council hearings, hard-fought election campaigns, neighborhood association meetings, and faith-based organizational briefings are examples of the venues in which conflicting goals are exposed.

Entering this arena can be daunting for typically under-resourced community-based organizations (CBOs), which often face well-established, well-resourced agents in these venues with interests that differ from grassroots residents. Fortunately, as statistical and mapping technology becomes simpler to use, it may be possible even for novice CBOs to engage effectively in urban debates and thus build a stronger base among their constituents for grassroots action in their own interests.

Public Participatory GIS (PPGIS) efforts have attempted to engage communities by empowering stakeholders in various ways (see, for example, Carver 2005 and Geary, Trodd, and Hertzman 2005). The purpose of this project is to deepen the PPGIS approach by providing information on relevant Web sites and wikis and by providing publicly available and accessible GIS training modules so that CBOs can independently develop their own GIS products to enhance their capacity for GIS-informed advocacy. Nowhere is such capacity needed more than in New Orleans, where the housing stock was devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2006) and where community-based rebuilding efforts remain problematic more than two years later.

The devastation of communities within New Orleans has been met with federal, state, and local dysfunction. Some argue that the political will needed to bring about restoration is missing, while others argue more ominously about a corporate initiative to transform New Orleans into a clean slate for corporate development and tourism by demoralizing former residents and dissuading them from returning. (See, for example, Baugh 2006, Cooper 2005, Dawson 2006, Bullard 2006). Whatever the truth may be, local communities and neighborhoods have a strong desire and a responsibility to advocate vigorously for their communities in whatever venues may be available for them. Their interests are holistic, including housing, education, personal health, public health, disaster assistance, public works-in short, the key necessities and amenities of life, most of which were destroyed or severely disrupted both by the hurricanes and by the neglect of the political establishment.

CBOs and ad hoc grassroots organizations have conducted many protests, given extensive personal testimonies, and generally advocated forcefully for the interests of their constituents. But to move the recovery process in a direction congruent with these interests, grassroots, community-based, and faith-based organizations need to have information available to them to help define, refine, and articulate their interests in the recovery process. To that end, Howard University and Dillard University formed a partnership to provide GIS training modules to enable them to make the most of technology's promise in the advocacy arena. The partnership builds on the long collaborations of Historically Black Colleges and Universities with each other and with their surrounding communities (Green et al. 2006).

Take, for example, the challenge of environmental damage. Among the most challenging issues facing the revitalization of New Orleans is the problem of environmental contamination (Bullard 2007). …

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