UW News

May 21, 2015

Students put GIS skills to use on social justice projects

News and Information

Sarah Elwood talks with her GIS Workshop class, which is using data skills to help local nonprofits.

Sarah Elwood talks with her GIS Workshop class, which is using data skills to help local nonprofits.Meryl Schenker

Geography professor Sarah Elwood sits at the front of a University of Washington classroom on a recent afternoon, listening and making suggestions as students discuss the data challenges they’re having.

Some are wondering how to put data in a particular format. Others are muddling through the process of mapping data, or figuring out where to source information.

“Think about who has the data you need, and how do you shake it loose from them?” Elwood says. “There are many public and nonprofit agencies that may be holding data they’d be willing to share with you.”

The juniors and seniors in Elwood’s GIS Workshop course are applying lessons learned in class to projects with local nonprofits ranging from food banks to criminal justice organizations. The course isn’t new, but this quarter is the first time nearly all of the 10 class projects have an inequality or social justice aspect to them.

That focus is intentional: Elwood is the co-founder of the Relational Poverty Network, a UW-based international coalition she launched with fellow geography professor Victoria Lawson to reframe how poverty is perceived and researched (read a story about the initiative here). The class projects, Elwood says, dovetail with that goal and offer benefits on both sides.

Students are partnering with organizations ranging from food banks to human rights groups.

Students are partnering with organizations ranging from food banks to human rights groups.Meryl Schenker

“It’s best-practice learning for everybody, because the students are collaborating on a real project. They may not know anything about the Salvadoran Civil War or human rights advocacy, and the community partners might not know much about GIS,” she says.

“It’s a very consultant-like, community organizer-like experience for the students. And it’s a way for under-resourced nonprofits to maximize what’s possible for them.”

A geographic information system, or GIS, is designed to capture, analyze and map various types of spatial and geographic data. Elwood’s students are using GIS applications in different ways to meet specific needs identified by the partner organizations. One student team is analyzing census and client data for a coalition of Seattle-area food banks to determine whether they are reaching areas with the greatest need, and to make recommendations on where to locate summer food programs for children and mobile van drop-offs for elderly clients.

Another project is using social media data to examine how public space is used around Pioneer Square, while another seeks to identify areas in three Washington counties where outreach would most benefit former inmates.

Stella Jones is part of a three-person team working with Real Change, a Seattle organization that publishes a weekly newspaper sold on the streets by low-income and homeless people. The students are analyzing data to identify which factors make some sales locations more successful than others and to develop a map showing untapped “hot spots” where vendors aren’t yet selling.

“This project is showing me how we can apply technology to various social issues in a way that can aid different organizations in their work,” says Jones, a junior and geography major. “It really fits my interests as far as where I see myself working in the world.”

Elwood meets with students Stella Jones, left, Jackie Divita and Kendal Dressel to discuss their project.

Elwood meets with students Stella Jones, left, Jackie Divita and Kendal Dressel to discuss their project.Meryl Schenker

Another student group is working on the UW Center for Human Rights’ Unfinished Sentences project, which is documenting atrocities committed during the El Salvador Civil War from 1980 to 1992. The students are creating an interactive map that will show where massacres occurred throughout the country and enable users to click on locations and get detailed information.

They are also making recommendations about low-cost, low-tech methods researchers can employ to gather geographic data while they’re in the field — for example, using paper maps to jot down where bodies are buried or where survivors were when incidents occurred.

Angelina Godoy, the center’s director, says the work will put the brutality of the war into a visual context that words alone cannot convey. And looking at the data in new ways, she says, might help identify new patterns or insights.

“It’s one thing to see it in an Excel file and another to see it across a map,” Godoy says. “I’m very interested in hearing what [the students] have to say, not only about our basic operational details, but also how to think a little more expansively about how to go about our research.”

Student Wyatt Hoffman, a junior in the UW’s Community, Environment & Planning Program, says working on the Unfinished Sentences project is a more meaningful way to learn and apply GIS skills than just following a tutorial.

“I feel like I’m working on something significant,” he says. “This has a real-world impact on people.”

Students have also spent class time learning about team leadership, conflict resolution and collaboration, which means working not just with partner agencies, but also with peers who may come from very different economic backgrounds. Students who grew up in poverty, Elwood says, develop firsthand knowledge their more privileged peers may not have.

“For a student whose family relied on a food bank growing up and maybe still does, they understand in an experiential way what these agencies are doing,” she says. “It puts them in a position of authority.”