4-H Community Mapping - The Story of a Local Cemetery Project

By Debbie Stevens, Jennifer Akers

4-H Tech Teams dot the United States. The scope of community projects in which the teams participate are as diverse as the communities in which theytake place. In Iowa, the Mahaska County/Southeast Area Tech Team (SEATT) began a cemetery mapping project in Oskaloosa after cemetery managers and community leaders became aware that our teamhadreceived an Esri/National 4-H GPS/GIS grant award, which provided ArcGIS mapping software, learning materials and technical support. 

The project initially seemed so easy! Cemetery board leadership asked SEATT to “GPS the cemetery.”The 4-H youth have really enjoyedprojects using GPS hand-held units.So instead of just geocaching or using the units for recreation, we were excited to do a project which held value for the community. After a few weeks of trial and error, the team developed a system using simple paper maps of each section and began marking waypoints with GPS. However, the first challenge loomed when we realized the graves were closer together than we could accurately mark with our inexpensive GPS units. 

Jennifer Akers

Before we could resolve the accuracy issue – and more than three months into the project – we were finally invited to a meeting with the company that would be using our data collection as part of its GIS-based cemetery software program. Computer technicians from a local company were tasked by the cemetery board to act as liaisons between the Tech Team and the company developing the custom program for our cemetery. Within a few minutes, we realized the local cemetery personnel, board and computer techs had no clue about GIS or what the company had wanted. The company needed shapefiles – representations of sections, lots and spaces (graves), all backed by attribute tables – instead of GPS points. The Tech Team had just spent three months on the wrong process! 


The shapefile of a section of the cemetery. (Click for larger view.)

One of the 4-H team members and the adult leader then spent time with the company representative to determine what, exactly, was needed. Next, our team sought out a GIS mentor, the county GIS coordinator, who had actually worked on such projects. We redeveloped a plan, outlined a process, and put together step-by-step guidelineson how to use aerial photography, TIF images of each cemetery section, and the steps required to createsection, lot and space shapefiles. We began again, but now youth started dropping out of the project because computer action was not as appealing as data collection in the field.

“I enjoy being outside more, working in the field, as opposed to sitting at the computer and entering data.” “It’s more interactive, more fun to be with other people and less repetitive than the cemetery computer work.” These reactions were not uncommon among the youth.

After five years, the first phase of the project is nearing completion. In addition to the team’s adult leader and a few 4-H youth, the Tech Team has received assistance from two Indian Hills Community College GIS associate degree students and computer students at William Penn University (WPU).

Challenges continue to offer problem-solving opportunities. For instance, the cemetery’s current files are DOS-based, so WPU computer students downloaded the files and converted them to an Excel spreadsheet that will merge with our shapefiles. Our last task of Phase One will be to enter a “key” into the GIS attribute tables, merge the Excel file with the GIS data, and then send them to the cemetery company as the base for the new software package for our cemetery.

A completed section.

This community project, like many others by 4-H youth across the nation, is volunteer driven. This type of real-world project allows youth to gain knowledge, work with experts in the GIS field and other community leaders, develop leadership skills,and contribute time and talent to their communities.

Lessons Learned

  1. As with any project, planning is imperative. All stakeholders need to be in the planning session, including 4-H youth and potential project mentors.
  2. Open and ongoing communication needs to be established from day one.
  3. Start with skill-appropriate projects to reduce frustration. Marking a trail using GPS may take a day or two and use 150 records, while a cemetery project requires a longer-term, continuing commitment and may include more than 25,000 records.
  4. The right mentors and project partners may mean the difference between a project that frustrates and fails and one that satisfies and succeeds.
  5. Not all youth come into a project with the same interest level. Try to develop backup activities for those youth whose interest wanes. For example, some youth may enjoy doing tombstone rubbings of interesting markers or researching some of the people buried in their local cemeteries. Others may take an interest in restoring or maintaining forgotten cemeteries.

Published Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Written by Debbie Stevens, Jennifer Akers

Published in


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