On The Map

Merging the disciplines of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and human geography, Georgia Southern geography professor Robert Yarbrough and professor Tom Chapman at Old Dominion University are working to create a mass system of geo-spacial data to better serve people in need.

Their Community Geography Initiative helps local communities detect community health, environmental, housing and economic problems with the use of specialized mapping techniques.

“We are interested in broadly seeking a kind of social and economic justice,” Yarbrough said. “We see it as an opportunity to use our expertise and training as professional geographers to contribute to making people’s lives better.”

During summer and fall semesters in 2009, Yarbrough and Chapman invited undergraduate interns to work with them in locating sub-standard housing in Camden County, Ga., and mapping those locations using GIS. They collaborated with the Camden Community Alliance & Resources Inc. (CCAR), which helped provide the data on the locations which the faculty team mapped.

GIS technology allows users to assign land-based coordinates to a home, business or service organization. Using computer-generated maps, those coordinates can be easily located, indentified by type and proximity to other locations and overlaid with additional demographic or physical information.

“We think we are going to use the maps as a snapshot for where we are now and measure our progress as we move forward,” CCAR Executive Director Calenda Perry said. “We just want to help people in these situations create better environments for themselves.”

Yarbrough described CCAR’s participation in the project as invaluable. “One of the big things about doing any research when you are using GIS as a tool is making sure you have access to quality data,” Yarbrough said. “You can have all the greatest ideas in the world and the fastest computer programs, but without good data to start with, your finished product will suffer.

“One of the main things we learned was the importance of broadly educating people about the applications of GIS and how it can aid these community-based organizations. Becoming comfortable and familiar with the groups you are working with is essential,” said Yarbrough. “We want to make sure we have a reciprocal relationship with our community partners. We do not just want experience for our students, but actually something that is helpful for the community-based organization. We try to allow them to drive the process and lead us to where we can help them better achieve their goals.”

One of the unique aspects of the research project is Georgia Southern’s involvement of undergraduate students. The process provides benefits to students, faculty and society alike. Apart from lab work alone, the research allows the student to feel an intellectual attachment to and ownership of something bigger. The relationship between the professor and the student is vital in the development of innovative alumni. It provides for the stable transition from apprentice to team member and creates a larger perspective into the work field.

“Many times students have a lot of training and knowledge, but lack the opportunities to apply them in the real world,” Yarbrough explained. “We want our students to be involved from the beginning to the end of a community geography project, not just the middle.”

Wes Askew, a senior at Georgia Southern, was the student collaborator for the program last summer. He said nothing could have taught him better than the hands-on experience he received from the program.

“Applying something to a real-world perspective means starting from scratch,” said Askew. “It is much more than doing a lab that is already completed before you begin. It helped me to focus on the wider applications of the program and how it can benefit actual lives rather than just going through the motions of a project,” he said. “Both the non-technical and technical sides are important. Without knowledge of why you are doing something, it loses its purpose.”

Askew graduated in December and used his experience to highlight his senior thesis.

Yarbrough described Askew as the “guinea pig of a bigger project” in which they hope to implement student research in all levels of GIS.

Yarbrough said he hopes that incorporating students will also help promote a better understanding and implementation of the system on a wider perspective.

“We’re excited about getting our hands on more data and putting our interns to work,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.

“In the longer term, we are trying to figure out a way that we can achieve the same goals in a more direct way,” Yarbrough said. “But that takes a lot of resources in terms of training people how to use GIS in their own lives.”

— Denver Pittman

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