Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are all the rage right now, and many youth-serving organizations have embraced the technology to improve their understanding of where at-risk youth are, to help youth and their families find needed services and to connect youth workers with one another.
“Maps can help you find out why things are the way they are and what you can do to change them,” says Wendy Brawer, founder and director of the Green Map System and creator of the Green Apple Map of New York City in 1992. “Maps provide a way to present a vision to decision-makers.”
In essence it’s a simple two-part process: Collect data and build a map based on the data, for example, of all the after-school programs and the ages they serve or all the emergency food resources in an area and their opening hours. While such maps might once have hung on the wall of an agency administrator, computers can put these same maps at the fingertips of anyone who might find them useful: from that same administrator to hungry families and the social workers and politicians who are trying to help them.
With a bit more sophistication and technical finesse come interactive maps: Type in an address, and programs in the area are displayed automatically. The more complex mapping systems require full- or part-time technical personnel to maintain and update them; simpler maps can be updated by youth-serving agencies themselves.
Though the lack of access to online services may make it difficult for the people who need the maps to access them directly, online and interactive community maps have proved an invaluable resource for social and youth workers.
Reasons to Map: In Utah, the Board of Juvenile Justice has used an online Risk and Protective Factors Information Tool to help determine which localities have the greatest funding needs, something that is essential for a board that operates on a tight budget and for small localities seeking their appropriate shares of state money.
“Through the online tool, we found that kids in rural areas have more risk factors and less protections than kids in urban areas,” says Matthew Davis, a research analyst with the Utah Criminal Justice Center, who helped create the online tool. “This led the Board to change its funding practices.”
Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, says the coalition of organizations that started the D.C. Food Finder website had tons of data on the city’s food services but weren’t sharing with one another. Every coalition member contributing to the online map had a set number of categories of information to collect and submit to the Food Finder.
In many cases, young people can help with data gathering. “Community mapping can engage young people in data collection and focusing on specific issues,” says Raul Ratcliffe, senior program officer with the Academy for Educational Development (AED).
Jonnell Allen, community geographer at Syracuse University, who helped Onondaga County, N.Y., create an online map of youth services, says it is important to consider how to collect data. “The survey’s design is critical,” she says. “It can be hard to get the right questions, so it’s important to pilot a survey.”
Getting It Done: Dan Bassill, president of the Tutor/Mentor Connection (TMC) in Chicago, believes partnerships are critical. “Geographic Information Systems are a specialized skill,” he says. “Not everyone can do this.” Find a partner willing to provide GIS services, as funding is hard to come by, he suggested.
“It helps for funders to know there is evidence this is a strategy that works,” says AED’s Ratcliffe. “Be prepared to show outcomes from similar projects in other communities.”
It’s also essential for potential partners to understand a community map will serve everyone and is not designed to forward one organization’s agenda. “We need to get away from competing with one another,” Bassill says. “Instead, we should connect with other people trying to do the same things.” Maps can help.