#126 Nov/Dec 2002

Partners Power GIS

In 1998, Dan McCormick, a program officer at Richmond Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), read an article about Geographic Information Systems, and something clicked. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are based […]

In 1998, Dan McCormick, a program officer at Richmond Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), read an article about Geographic Information Systems, and something clicked. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are based on advanced information technology and can display demographics and other data spatially, using maps. McCormick knew little about GIS himself but was excited by its promise. He called a meeting with representatives from Richmond community development corporations, Virginia Commonwealth University and the city of Richmond to explore the possibility of bringing GIS to Richmond’s community development industry. Together the group created the Richmond Neighborhood Indicator Project (RNIP), which tracks key indicators and over 100 pieces of data, to gauge neighborhood well-being. Community groups have embraced the project and use the indicators and maps for planning and resource allocation, as well as to illustrate the potential for neighborhood revitalization to prospective investors and community members.

Richmond LISC Director Greta Harris attributes the project’s success to two important factors: the broad partnerships behind it and access to high quality data. “Forming an advisory committee of stakeholders who recognize the importance of indicators and GIS to our community development efforts has been key to the success of this project,” says Harris. “We’ve had a lot of technical challenges to deal with, but without buy-in and commitment from the city, neighborhoods and CDC practitioners, they would have been non-issues, because we never would have gotten off the ground.”

With this project, Richmond LISC joined a growing list of LISC programs that are partnering with community groups, universities and local government to use GIS for community development purposes. By mapping key indicators, CDCs can use GIS to better understand and communicate detailed information about neighborhood conditions, allowing them to more effectively target programs and resources. A joint review by LISC’s national office and PolicyLink found that community developers around the country are increasingly using GIS as a powerful tool for community planning, organizing, advocacy, partnership building, evaluation and marketing.

For example, in Buffalo’s West Side neighborhood, residents mapped demographics, land use and housing conditions to help build consensus around revitalization priorities. Based on a shared understanding of neighborhood conditions, participants created a comprehensive neighborhood plan. “By looking at the maps we created, residents could see why certain areas were targeted as places to build housing, playgrounds or community gardens,” says Michael Clarke, director of the Buffalo LISC program. “They could see the big picture. They also saw that there were nonprofits in the neighborhood 10 blocks from where they live that have after-school programs for their kids.”

More Than a Map

Maps engage residents in the process of gathering, analyzing and presenting information about their neighborhoods, and they also serve as effective organizing tools. Because GIS provides a way for residents to identify what exists in a community and to help envision improvements, it can facilitate discussions and advocacy with other partners. Maps also allow residents to engage decision-makers, by illustrating information about their neighborhood in a simple and compelling format – and conveying that residents are technology-savvy and know where to obtain key information.

Indeed, nonprofits have reported that after creating and sharing maps, they were taken more seriously and included in processes that had previously been closed to them. In Los Angeles, for example, the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice needed an effective education and organizing tool to respond to the proposed development of an enormous entertainment, hotel and retail complex in its neighborhood. Organizers created a poster-sized map of the neighborhood surrounding the proposed project, illustrating ownership patterns and development “hot spots.” Using the map, community groups successfully negotiated with the developer a landmark community benefits package that included investments in affordable housing and parks, a local hiring requirement and parking for residents.

“We use our map every day,” says Gilda Haas, director of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice. “We use it when we talk to residents, students, community organizations, the redevelopment agency and private developers. We can tell the history of our organization, and we can talk about the different neighborhoods that we are organizing in, about who owns what and what’s at stake now.”

GIS maps can also help community developers evaluate and illustrate the efficacy of their efforts and strengthen nonprofits’ ability to market their neighborhoods and initiatives, thus building political support, attracting residents and businesses and raising funds.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, a CDC used GIS to show funders and the city that at-risk properties were not concentrated in only one small area, as many people had thought, but were dispersed throughout the entire neighborhood, and the CDC was able to target housing assistance accordingly.

“We can keep track of and be more evaluative of our own activities,” says Beth Hyser, director of St. Paul Community GIS Consortium. “When we complete a new conditions survey, we cross-reference the addresses of properties we served [with assistance for home repair] with their new condition. Did 50 percent of our clients go up one level in the condition of their houses? Was our investment able to improve the overall condition of the block? I can’t wait to be able to say that.”

Why Partners Matter

Community-based organizations (CBOs) usually have the best knowledge of the neighborhood, know what questions need to be asked and how the answers can be used. However, many organizations underestimate the time and resources required for a successful GIS project, and very few have the staff or resources to tackle it alone. A few groups have built their own in-house GIS capacity, but most have found that their anticipated level of usage doesn’t justify the investment. Instead CBOs often partner with local universities to gain access to the equipment, software and skilled users required to produce high-quality GIS products.

Another problem facing organizations is that the amount, quality and availability of data vary tremendously from place to place. Data formats are frequently incompatible and administrators are often hesitant to share their information, due to privacy concerns. Even when data are available, considerable verification is often still necessary. Although the challenges are usually surmountable, ample time – and sometimes money – are necessary. Universities and other institutions often own large data sets and have students or other researchers available to help create or collect new data from other sources. Local governments usually have the data, such as tax delinquency information and crime statistics, which are of greatest interest to community development organizations. In some cases, local governments have GIS capabilities and can provide assistance with the technology as well as the data.

In the case of Richmond, an advisory committee composed of representatives from neighborhood-based CDCs, city government, Richmond LISC and university personnel developed the original list of indicators used in the project. The university is undertaking research to determine the indicators that are the most sensitive measures of neighborhood change and those that best reflect the objectives of neighborhood improvement programs. “Ultimately, we want to be able to measure factors that cause change,” says Dr. Robert Rugg, one of the people from the university who helped launch the project. “We want to be able to predict [that] if you do this kind of improvement in a particular neighborhood, here’s how it is likely to impact the neighborhood’s health.”

Each partner that collaborated in developing RNIP brought a unique set of experiences, skills and resources to the project that has been vital to its success.

Community Development Corporations. CDC staff are the ultimate users of the project’s data and maps, and strongly guided the development of the indicators and the design of the system to map them. As a result, staff were able to map the indicators most useful to them. For example, Minming Wu, director of commercial development at the Better Housing Coalition (BHC), designed maps that show potential investors the pace of revitalization in a targeted neighborhood. Because much of the investment is not yet visible, the maps help show what the neighborhood is likely to look like over the next several years. “We used a number of indicators, including the number of building permits, rehabilitation and demolition permits and new construction within a one-mile radius of the neighborhood where we are trying to attract investment,” says Wu. “It was very clear that this is a neighborhood that is growing.”

Local Government. As the main source of administrative data, the commitment of Richmond officials to the project has been vital to its success. Their willingness to share data, their current effort to develop compliant data management systems and their recent shift on privacy restrictions (project data was initially limited to the block level) are indicative of the collaborative nature of the community development industry in Richmond. “We recognized that developing the neighborhood indicators was going to be highly useful to the city,” says Connie Bawcum, former deputy city manager and now a consultant with the city. “As we went along and saw the potential for our work, we grew more committed. Recently, we have made a 180-degree turn on confidentiality.” The city now plans to make its comprehensive database available to the public via the Internet and has developed a Web-based mapping program.

LISC and the University. Richmond LISC facilitates and maintains the partnerships that make the project possible, and is also responsible for securing funding, dedicating staff time to oversee the project and creating a GIS center in its office, where nonprofits can access the system to create maps. Critical to the project’s success has been the technical expertise and ongoing staffing provided by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, through a contract with Richmond LISC. Students in the department’s graduate program help prepare data for integration in the system and help CDC staff to create and analyze maps.

Although the project has succeeded in becoming a valuable resource for community developers, a number of obstacles still exist. Important data are not yet available in electronic form, and long-term financing for the project has been difficult to obtain. In the face of these challenges, building a strong coalition of supporters has been critical.

“To be honest, at the outset, we had no idea what this project would entail, financially or in terms of staff time,” says Richmond LISC’s Harris. Nonetheless, she and other project partners continue to dedicate human and financial resources to the project. “We always find a way to keep it going and make it better, because it is exactly what our industry needs,” says Harris. “RNIP allows everyone – private investors, local government, LISC and CDCs – to see the benefits community development brings, not just to targeted neighborhoods, but to the region overall.”

Before Starting

GIS projects can range from a single map displaying a community organization’s services in a particular area, to patterns of poverty across a couple of zip code areas, to a sophisticated interactive web-based system with multiple variables and geographies. The costs associated with these projects range from under $1,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars invested over time. At the most basic, and least costly, end of the spectrum are simple display and context maps that show a few variables across a small geographic area, or general data (such as census data, crime statistics or education data) across a broad area. Analytical maps that enable users to integrate and analyze multiple variables for various areas are much more powerful, and more costly. For example, an analytical map might show property conditions and characteristics and census data across census tracts or property parcels. Other factors that affect the project cost include the size of the geographic area, the level of precision and labeling required and the types of paper or Internet-based maps desired.

The options and associated costs for sharing results also vary greatly. An increasing number of mapping projects now use the Internet as a primary vehicle for users to create and produce maps, such as CMAP in New York State (www.cmap.nypirg.org), Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (https://nkla.ucla.edu) and GreenInfo in San Francisco (www.greeninfo.org). The advantage of using the Internet is that maps can be developed by anyone with Internet access. Most online mapping systems have limited data input/output options, however, and do not permit new data to be mapped. Therefore, offline desktop systems that offer a variety of ways of displaying and analyzing data can be more useful.

While the potential benefits of GIS for community development purposes are great, the challenges of using it should not be underestimated. Many community development practitioners who have used GIS report that they did not fully realize what they were getting into at the outset. It’s important to be clear about project goals and budget, which will inform key decisions about technology, partners, data sources and how results will be used. Starting with a quick cost-benefit analysis, some research into the latest developments in GIS technology (which changes quickly) and building the right partnerships can save a lot of money and headaches down the road.


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