Non-Profits and Volunteers on the Leading Edge of GIS?

By Maurie Caitlin Kelly

Yes.That's right.Non-profit and volunteer organizations have come a long way - so far in fact that many of these groups are on the leading, if not the bleeding, edge of GIS technology - all the while, providing fundamental services to their communities. There are examples of these efforts everywhere, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on several organizations in Pennsylvania since that's where my direct experiences have occurred (with one notable exception).

Explore PA History
In many states, if not most, there is some kind of historical marker program - you know, those sign posts that appear randomly along the highway as you are speeding by at 75 miles an hour (I mean 65 miles an hour for all you state police out there), that describe an historic event that took place near a particular spot.While the idea behind them - to keep local history alive - is admirable, it is almost impossible to actually read them as you are speeding by.There is one sign in particular that I have passed at least a thousand times but have only been able to read the first line: "On Feb.21, 1861, the train carrying the President-elect from Springfield, Ill..."

Of course, one option is to stop the car, get out, and read the sign, but at that point, you would be risking your life standing on a major highway.In order to address this issue, several years ago two of my geography interns took to the roads and began acquiring GPS points and pictures of the markers as part of their final project.Both survived the experience, although it is my understanding that more than one tractor-trailer came within inches of them.One has even gone on to work in GIS in the consulting world.Since that time, my staff at Penn State Institutes for the Environment (PSIE) and I have gathered many of these marker points on our travels around the state.

Several years ago PSIE was approached by WITF, the public broadcast system station for the south central region of Pennsylvania.WITF and the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC), the caretakers of the PA Historic Marker program, and other partners had undertaken an effort to promote history education in Pennsylvania by developing a web site, Explore PA History.

The Explore PA History Homepage (Click for larger image)

The Explore PA History site uses the basic information provided in the historic markers, identifies historic themes such as the underground railroad, jazz, religion, the French and Indian War, Lewis and Clark, the Civil War and other topics, and provide background, information and teaching resources on those subjects.But the key was to locate the points, so they could be displayed using a map interface.Some of this data was retrieved from PSIE, some was acquired by PHMC, but there were still many more marker points that needed to be recorded.

An interactive mapping interface was developed by Avencia to help collect the content and stories told by the historic markers.

Mapping the Markers (Click for larger image)

Since that time, volunteers from throughout the Pennsylvania GIS community have contributed hundreds of marker points and digital images of markers.Not only does this effort contribute to the Explore PA History project, it also helps the PHMC build its historic marker database.

The 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas
The 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas (PBBA) is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, with principal funding from the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service's State Wildlife Grants program.The atlas program has thrived under the development of new Web GIS technologies and applications that support the many volunteers.

According to Robert Mulvihill, Director of Field Ornithology at Powdermill Nature Reserve of the Carnegie Museum, and 2nd PBBA Project Coordinator, "The statewide 2nd PBBA project is among the most ambitious volunteer-based bird surveys of its kind ever attempted.One of the great advantages we have had in implementing the 2nd PBBA has been the availability of large amounts of centralized GIS data through the state's very accessible GIS clearinghouse, the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA).

The Pennsylvania Second Breeding Bird Atlas Homepage (Click for larger image)

Mulvihill also states that, "With a great deal of help from staff at the PSIE, we have been able to gain access to and employ current GIS data for many aspects of our five-year study, ranging from simply locating survey blocks by street address or geographic location, to producing customizable maps of Atlas blocks for use by volunteers, to identifying and plotting random roadside coordinates for conducting abundance point count surveys, to determining percent coverage of modeled habitats for all breeding bird species in order to arrive at more accurate predictions of bird species occurrences at the 10-square mile scale of our survey."

The 2nd PBBA has been a collaborative project.Cornell University Ornithology Laboratory provides storage for the incoming data.Ryan Baxter, a member of the PSIE research faculty, developed the Web GIS capabilities that allow volunteers to view their blocks and access pdf-based maps of their survey areas.

The BBA "get maps" page (Click for larger image)

And, most importantly, it is the thousands of bird watchers and volunteers who will enter the data via a Web interface using resources that were unavailable in previous years.The results of this effort are far reaching.Many organizations and agencies will use the 2nd PBBA data, as they have the 1st PBBA data (the first PBBA data is available in digital form from PASDA), to refine knowledge of bird habitat relationships, conservation and natural resource planning and ecological assessments.

Stream Restoration Inc
Stream Restoration Inc. (SRI) is a non-profit organization whose mission focuses on the restoration of streams impacted by abandoned coal mine drainage.The problems resulting from degraded streams in the region might have seemed to some to be beyond help.But SRI has excelled at developing exceptional relationships within their community to help restore the damage done by these mines.SRI has developed effective public-private partnerships involving industry, government agencies, academia and grassroots.Having personally spent time with members of this organization on the sites - before and after - that they have enhanced, I can attest to their incredible success and commitment.The organization addresses many issues and impacts, from construction of passive treatment systems and stream reconstruction to creation of wildlife habitat.They actually built a bat cave, or hibernacula, in one of their restored wetlands that houses more than 5,000 bats.

SRI has embraced technology in general, and GIS in particular, in many ways.They serve as technical advisor to many other organizations that need assistance with GIS and they have developed Pennsylvania's first GIS enabled database that allows users to upload and view their data.

The SRI Datashed interface (Click for larger image)

Datashed is a fully featured, GIS enabled, Internet database designed to assist watershed groups, academic institutions, private industry and government agencies.The system is powered by open source software and, according to SRI, it provides a cost-effective and reliable solution for managing data associated with environmental efforts.

Natural Lands Trust and Smart Conservation
One of the most novel and interesting projects to come out of the non-profit sector is the Smart Conservation project spearheaded by the Natural Lands Trust (NLT).NLT is involved in a broad spectrum of community-based efforts in land management and conservation, protection and nature preserves.The Smart Conservation model - as it appears now - arose from many meetings and stakeholder session with conservation experts, biologists, ecologists and land conservation professionals.

The Smart Conservation online tool, developed by NLT and Avencia, uses tiered assessments and base GIS data such as aerial photos, parcel data, roads, well as specialized biodiversity and localized data, to allow users to digitize an area online (the project covers the greater Philadelphia region).The model then returns an ecological ranking for the digitized area and can facilitate preservation decisions.This system allows anyone with an Internet connection and login to utilize GIS and data, as well as analysis capabilities, without requiring advanced GIS skills.The model and tool do the work for you.

The Smart Conservation Homepage (Click for larger image)

This is where I will take a moment to step outside the Commonwealth, cross the Delaware, and highlight an organization from Camden, New Jersey.
"Camden, New Jersey?" you ask.Well, believe it or not, GIS is alive and well, and thriving in Camden.HopeWorks is why.HopeWorks was created to help provide educational opportunities for Camden's youth, specifically African-American and Hispanic youths between the ages of 17 and 25 who have dropped out of school.According to the HopeWorks web site, "The high school dropout rate [in Camden] is more than 70%.Thirty-four percent of the city's young people are unemployed.Nearly 50% of the city's young people live in poverty."

So what does HopeWorks do? Among many things, HopeWorks provides training for young people in GIS.These youths then go on to do parcel mapping and data collection, map creation and Web-based GIS.

The HopeWorks Homepage (Click for larger image)

Students from HopeWorks have attended and presented at many GIS conferences, including the Pennsylvania GIS conference, and this year, according to Todd MacDonald, the GIS Director, "HopeWorks will be taking four youths to the 2005 ESRI Education Conference to do a presentation and meet other youths doing GIS in the country."

Other Organizations
There are simply too many non-profits to list in this article.The Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Heritage Conservancy and the many small watershed organizations throughout Pennsylvania continue to surprise and impress.I find myself consistently amazed by the dedication and, even more now, by the incredible advances in GIS that these organizations have made - often on less than abundant budgets.Many of these organizations have benefited from state funding from the Growing Greener program as well as private foundations. Institutions within universities, such as the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon, the Cartographic Modeling Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, and others have provided support for non-profits and volunteer organizations using GIS throughout the state. But now, more than ever, these organizations have moved from needing support for their GIS development, to providing support to other non-profits.

Published Tuesday, August 2nd, 2005

Written by Maurie Caitlin Kelly

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