GIS/Mapping Primer for Nonprofits
This article is intended to provide a very high-level conceptual overview of GIS software and geographic/mapping applications and their benefit to nonprofit and community organizations. This article is the successor to a presentation we used to offer, entitled "What is GIS and Online Mapping and Why Should Nonprofits Care?" We're going to discuss a lot of the same content, but with a somewhat less confrontational title!
What is GIS?
"GIS" stands for "geographic information system" and the simplest definition is "software that helps us manage information about locations." Traditionally, GIS referred to complex and expensive software used by governments, large companies, and academic institutions for things like community planning, transit development, or business siting.
These days, thanks to the spread of the Internet and rapid advances in mapping software, many of us use a more accessible type of GIS application on a daily basis: the online map. From weather reports to travel directions, election results to coffee shop locators - new applications for online mapping are being created every day.
Why are maps so important?
Maps are a tool to visualize our communities and our world; they are a way to easily display and manage information about people and events with respect to place. Maps are an incredibly effective tool for transforming columns of data and statistics into powerful and visible stories about our communities and our organization's place within the community. This is true whether we're referring to traditional geographic communities such as neighborhoods and cities or broader communities of affinity that may be geographically dispersed.
The use of maps can have very powerful consequences, especially for traditionally underserved communities. Struggles over tribal treaty and territory maps, politically manipulated voting district maps, and the use of demographic data in discriminatory ways are all examples of the impact that maps and geographic data can have on communities and the people within.
How can GIS/online mapping tools benefit nonprofit and community groups?
Nonprofit and community organizations use maps in a variety of ways:
- Program/service delivery: organizations that provide services can use GIS and mapping software for pragmatic purposes, such as planning program or project site locations, creating maps of constituents, creating logical route maps for deliveries or mobile service programs, or coordinating events.
- Research: for organizations actively trying to learn more about the communities they serve, maps and geographic analysis tools can be invaluable for collecting and visualizing geographic data. In addition, projects related to the concepts of "participatory GIS" and "bottom-up community mapping" are providing new ways for constituents to share information about their community in a geographic context.
- Fundraising/development: organizations are striving to gather and to effectively use more information about their donors, as well as trying to forge closer ties with members of their community; mapping and geographic tools can provide ways to analyze this information during the development planning process.
- Advocacy/activism: in addition to the empowering benefits of community-driven mapping, GIS and mapping projects can serve as incredibly effective platforms for digital storytelling - being able to "see" the people and places in a community from a bird's eye perspective naturally helps increase the awareness of community and the power of place.
What is involved with a GIS/online mapping project?
Like any other technology-based project, working with GIS and online mapping tools has advantages and disadvantages. In general, the basic steps of implementing an online mapping project involve:
- Planning - the most important step is to determine the central question that your map is intended to address; what is the point of your map or application? What data will be needed to create this map and how will you acquire it? What tool or technology is most appropriate for the type of project you are planning? What resources - human, financial, and technical - do you have to accomplish this project?
- Gathering Data - this can be the most significant phase of the mapping project implementation by far, depending on the goal of your map, especially if you don't already have the data in-house in a usable format. Data that will be represented on the map will need to be collected and then validated. Depending on the technology and the project in question, validation usually refers to making sure that your sets of data are complete, accurate, and in a format suitable for the project. "Participatory GIS" or "community-driven mapping" projects also must take into account that users in the community will be contributing at least some of their project's data as well - this can increase the complexity of the data gathering phase by several orders of magnitude.
- Implement Tool or Application - many resources are available, on this site and others, for learning about and selecting GIS software and tools. Once a tool, software package, or application framework has been implemented, data still needs to be imported/migrated and integrated into the mapping application. Any customized reports, output, interfaces, etc., likewise need to be implemented. An important consideration is long-term maintenance and planning: will your organization have the skills or financial resources to support this application throughout its expected life-cycle?
- Quality Assurance / Outcomes - once the project has been implemented, we'll need to assure quality: does the data in the application have integrity (complete, accurate, etc.)? Does the application function as specified? From a larger perspective, does the project fulfill its overall goals, especially with respect to the mission of the organization or community?
The MapTogether.org site offers a variety of articles and documentation exploring all of these concepts in greater detail. Check out our resources page to start learning more!