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Geography Awareness Week in Review

November 2020 featured a very successful Geography Awareness Week virtual series. We appreciate all of the virtual attendees who joined us at our events! The theme for this year was geography and social justice, and we prepared a series of blog posts highlighting work by members of the WashU community. We held several GIS workshops, which focused on ArcGIS Pro, QGIS, Streetmap Premium, and R spatial.

A panel discussion on mapping and social justice was the most popular event of the week. The panel included John Cruz, Data Management Coordinator at Rise STL, Caitlin Lee, researcher, writer, and designer, Marguerite Madden, Director of the Center for Geospatial Research and professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia, Gena Gunn McClendon, Director of Voter Access Engagement and Financial Capacity and Asset Building Initiatives at the Center for Social Development, and Geoff Ward, professor of African and African-American Studies, Sociology, and American Culture Studies at Washington University.

The panel answered questions regarding the importance of mapping to their work, the data challenges they are facing, and how they include and share data with the community. A common theme among the panelists was how mapping allows one to visually see relationships which can make them easier to comprehend. According to Cruz, “[Mapping] allows people to establish relationships from a visual perspective which might not be there with just words on paper.”

Even though maps can be an accessible means of understanding an issue, there are some data challenges that occur when it comes to these projects. One of these challenges has to do with data cleaning and the merging of data sources. For Lee’s story on exploring the predatory practices of Nathan Cooper, a landlord who owns several properties in Southeast St. Louis City, it was not easy to see which properties he owned. Part of this was because Cooper owned properties under various LLCs but another reason was that pertinent information was not readily available. As a result, Lee had to compile data from various sources to create a database of all the properties that Cooper either owned or had a stake in.

For the Voter Access and Engagement (VAE) project, McClendon mentioned that information about race is not requested on the voter registration form, so they had to make inferences based on Census demographic data. Involvement with the community manifested itself in many ways. Madden hired two high school interns to work on the Athens Layer of Time project. She also shared the maps through community forums where she received feedback. Ward organized a bus trip to Montgomery with members of the Jewish Relations Council and Archdiocese of St. Louis. They travelled to sites important in various equal rights initiatives such as the Civil Rights Memorial Museum. Ward also created a mapping app called “Pursuing Justice” that identifies Confederate monuments and acts of racist violence along the route. As a result, the participants were able to see the commemorative landscape throughout the trip.

McClendon envisions the mapping being done for the VAE project to be useful for policy makers and voter registration campaigns. For instance, by creating maps that identify areas where high rates of ballot rejection occur, local election authorities and voter advocates can target efforts to educate voters on absentee or mail-in ballot procedures.

Stories from panel members highlighted other important issues, including personal impact and technology considerations. Ward mentioned the emotional toll the Racial Violence Project, an online database of incidents of racial violence, had on Black and Latinx students. Cruz mentioned the frustrations of dealing with the ArcGIS Pro software, while Madden mentioned the creation of a platform that can be utilized by those with only a basic familiarity in GIS. All the panelists expressed the importance of collaboration in these mapping projects and how working together can allow one to utilize the knowledge and resources of others.

If you missed the workshops or panel discussion, don’t despair! Recordings of all events can be found on the Data Services YouTube channel on the Geography Awareness Playlist.