Geotagging Memories? A Brief Exploration of Social Work Implications

panoramio-geotagging
Photo Courtesy Panoramio.com

Sometimes social workers ask me how they can connect Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or spatial analysis to their work. For macro social work, the connections are easy. We can visualize community assets, identify crime hotspots, look at the ways in which environmental hazards cluster in certain communities…the possibilities are endless. But, for clinical and micro focused social work, the connections are not as easy to draw. In this article, I want to open up this discussion in order to consider the ways place and space shape our memories and how they may hold broader implications for the use of spatially oriented technologies in social work practice.

When I reviewed an article suggested by Nancy Smyth, the dean at the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo SUNY, I was drawn to the potential implications for social work. The article was on a recent study conducted by Michael Kahana and his colleagues at Penn State University where the participants used a game-based simulation in which they walked around a virtual town dropping off packages. The researchers then measured participants’ brain response when asked to recall where they had dropped off packages. They determined that neurons in the hippocampus act as a “brain GPS device” that stores and “geotags” memories. Put simply, their tests and brain images revealed that during the recall process, these memory geotags activate just before the participant recalls a memory.

Their interest is in the role of the hippocampus in cognition; I’m interested in some of the practical implications of these findings for social workers. Micro social workers might be able to use these types of findings to better understand how the macro environment and the notion of “place” can shape their clients’ well being. How do we work with a client who experiences a traumatic event in their home or community? If memories contain geotags, these place-based triggers could be an important area for intervention especially if they are places the client cannot avoid.

From a macro perspective, could community locations trigger collective trauma? In my work in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I’ve observed how places can shape and inform collective memories. In the middle of the once thriving neighborhood business district lies a vacant building bearing the telltale shape of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Years ago, a teenager was shot and killed there while in the drive through with his mother. The restaurant closed but the building remains a scar on the landscape; a geotagged community trauma yet to be healed.

What other social work implications might the concept of memory geotags lend itself to?

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5TRU9A1t9k[/youtube]

Using GIS Mapping to Tell a Better Story

Social Workers and other nonprofit professionals are regularly called upon to improve transparency and prove that their work is having some effect on the communities that they serve. It is also important that nonprofit professionals understand the needs and influences of those communities. Gathering this data can be tedious ,and analyzing it can be even more of a challenge. Once you overcome those hurdles, it creates a pathway to reporting the information in a way that tells an effective story, and GIS mapping is one of the tools that can assist you with this process.

What is GIS Mapping?

Example of a GIS Map
Example of a GIS Map

GIS Mapping is a tool that many other disciplines use for a wide variety of purposes. Programmers use the software to develop maps for games or simulations. Ecologists use it to study plant and wildlife populations and migrations. Human service providers can use GIS maps to learn about the communities that they work with.

GIS Maps can show a great deal of data in a way that is easily recognizable and understood. You can track the number of people who live in a set radius that use your services. You can track demographics- age, race, gender, income, etc. You can even track other service providers in the area to identify assets and gaps. The picture posted with this article shows access to green spaces for minorities in LA. If it’s geographically based- you can track it and tell about it.

Where does the information come from?

Many nonprofits are already using database software, such as SalesForce or Raiser’s Edge, to track demographics and statistics of their clients, volunteers, and donors. Adding those numbers to a GIS Mapping software is as simple as exporting the file from a database (or creating your own using Excel) and uploading it. Sure, there’s more to it than that but essentially- that’s all it is. The file needs to be structured a certain way (e.g.: [street address], [city], [state], [zip]) and it has to be the right type (.csx). The SalesForce database I personally work with does this automatically. It’s likely that many others do as well.

Your agency’s personally gathered information is then layered onto a special geographical map file called a ‘shapefile’.  Shapefiles contain geocoded information including: GPS, streets, boundaries, and more. Those shapefiles are available on many government databases for free. For example, to find a shapefile for San Mateo County, a quick Google search of ‘san mateo county shapefile’ led me here. The Census hosts a large wealth of information broken down into just about any possible way you’d want it- and pretty much all of it is possible to export into a GIS Map. Data broken down into counties, cities, jurisdictional districts, and even neighborhoods is available for your use.

What Can Nonprofits Use This Information For?

GIS maps are able to show impacts, needs, and assets. They can help you answer questions such as:

  •  “What is the relationship between service provider’s locations and the population they serve?”
  • “What public transportation options are available for my service community?”
  • “Where have we lost consumers? What’s different about their locations?”
  • “What problems do people in this neighborhood report that the next one doesn’t?”

Maps are easy to understand and show more information. Showing someone a pie-chart of the cities you serve isn’t as powerful as being able to break it down by neighborhood. Readers can point to where they live and think- “Wow, people I live near need these services too”. Maps click with people in a way that graphs and charts can’t.

Where Can I Get GIS Mapping Software?

Probably the most popular and potentially most versatile platform is Esri’s ArcGIS.  You can use this on a computer or mobile device. It’s about $2,500 a year for what most nonprofits will use- discounts may be available for 501c3’s.

There are other Open Source projects that are free, and sometimes provides support through an online community of users. A popular Open Source GIS program is QGIS : http://www.qgis.org/en/site/

You can see a great comparison of popular GIS software on Wikipedia.

Shapefiles and data files are available all over the place. The Census has a wealth of information on demographics. Local (or not so local) universities collect data in their Urban Planning departments that they are usually generous in sharing. I can speak to the University of Michigan offering this information to non-students. You can usually find specific state or county shapefiles on their government websites. If the geographical file is too large, you can only find a state shapefile despite needing a county shapefile, you can cut out the parts you don’t need and use geocoded information such as census tracts.

What are the Downsides to GIS Mapping?

GIS mapping requires the ability to use a computer. It requires time and an understanding of the information you’re trying to display. Some people are turned off by having to learn newfangled things.

GIS Mapping is limited to geospatial data. If you’re trying to show an outcomes that isn’t somehow tied to a geographically based variable, GIS is not for you.

Esri has taken the time to write a little report specifically on the uses of GIS in human services. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest you check it out.

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