Connecting People, Connecting Communities: Community Participatory Mapping Workshop Learning Reflections

I have only been at the Cleveland Public Library for three days, and I am delighted to have already been immersed in new learning experiences that are expanding my thinking!  My colleague Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz, who is the Knowledge Manager here in our Knowledge Office at CPL, and I attended two wonderfully original and thought-provoking learning events earlier this week.

On Monday afternoon, we attended an introductory presentation to community participatory mapping with Dr. Wansoo Im, a well-respected and widely known scholar and pioneer in the GIS (geographic information system) community.  The session, hosted by the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, gave us an overview of the work that Dr. Im has done with young people using the GIS mapping application Mappler to identify and address issues in their communities.  The Monday session focused primarily on the remarkable Hurricane Sandy Gas Station Mapping project that was created by Dr. photo (1)Im and his students; this mapping project quickly became the primary source of reliable information used not only by citizens impacted in the Northeast by Hurricane Sandy, but it was also utilized and recognized by federal agencies including FEMA and the Department of Energy.  This project was just one of many that Dr. Im has implemented to help young citizens identify and take action on a community challenge through IMSOCIO, Scholars Organizing Culturally Innovative Opportunities, an organization facilitated by Dr. Im that works with young people in the Franklin Township in New Jersey; IMSOCIO seeks to “…encourage the academic progress of Hispanic high school students in Franklin Township by providing the support and resources necessary to facilitate their progression to higher education” (“What is IMSOCIO?”)

On Tuesday, we attended a more intensive daylong workshop with Dr. Im; not only did we have the opportunity to learn more details about Dr. Im’s efforts, but we also had the chance to interact with other community members representing a diverse range of organizations, institutions, non-profits, and businesses from various parts of Cleveland.  The common thread we all shared was learning more about how the GIS technology Mappler could be used to collect and track data in meaningful ways that could help each of us address specific community needs.  We also had the chance to apply the Mappler technology first hand by working in small groups to collect assorted data around the Cleveland State University campus; our groups used the Mappler app to collect and map data about bike racks, food, trees, and vacant buildings.   Before going out into the field, small groups first took time to brainstorm categories and variables for the data we wanted to map; we then came back together as a large group to discuss the process of inputting those data fields into the backend of the Mappler platform.  photoWith the help of Dr. Im, Dr. Mark Salling, and Dr. Salling’s graduate assistant Gregory Soltis, each group was able to set up the data fields in Mappler so that we could then go and use the Mappler app to collect that data and map our findings.  In addition, a user name and password for each group was established to ensure quality control of the data collection.  My group focused on types of food sources on and around the Cleveland State Campus; it was great fun working together as a group because we discovered that we often needed to consult each other with questions about the data we were collecting, such as whether or not a food source was more of a fast food establishment vs. a restaurant.  You can see our map we created (still a work in progress)  by clicking here.

Anastasia and I left the workshop energized and inspired by the possibilities of how we might use this type of GIS application not only for data collecting and sharing purposes, but also as an avenue for critical literacy and participatory learning with people of all ages, including learning experiences that could empower our CPL community to identify and act on community needs and social justice issues.  What I particularly admire about Dr. Im is his focus on community engagement; he views the GIS technology as a tool that can help connect people and ultimately empower communities to advocate for change.  As Dr. Im showed in his case studies and work with IMSOCIO, community mapping also provides the opportunity for all community members, including those who may feel marginalized and a lack of investment in their community, to have an entry point into engaging with their community in meaningful ways that in Dr. Im’s words, gives people “hope and courage to make a difference.”  Through his workshop and case studies, Dr. Im adeptly demonstrated that participatory community mapping can also help local government be more effective and responsive to a community need by acting on this kind of crowdsourced data.  The workshop was also a poignant reminder that participatory mediums and technologies for learning can provide us the opportunity to honor the idea that “novice” and “expert” are fluid roles as we learn together; as librarians and educators, participatory community mapping is one of those technologies that can provide us the chance to better understand our communities, their ideas, and their insights to push our own thinking and understanding.

If you are interested in learning more about these concepts, I encourage you to visit the links in this blog post; you may also want to check out this short video of a lecture from Dr. Im that while slightly dated, captures many of his big ideas.