Village Earth

5 Ways Mapping Can Help Empower Your Community and The Tools You Need to Do It.


If you’re a community leader, organizer or researcher it’s likely you’ve heard about the growing role that mapping is playing in community development, advocacy and research. It’s also likely that, while intrigued by the concept of community mapping, you don’t yet understand how mapping could be used in your particular issue or community context. But it’s likely that an even bigger barrier to community mapping is the belief that you need formal training in Geography or GIS to utilize mapping in your community initiatives. My goal in this post to begin demystify community mapping by showing you some of ways it can be used and some of the tools that can be used to do it.

5 ways community mapping can be used to help empower your community. 

  1. Defending territorial rights– It’s a common situation where communities/individuals have certain rights within a particular territory but have difficulty defending those rights or restrictions because they can’t prove if a violation is occurring within that particular territory. For example, indigenous Shipibo communities In Peru’s Amazon basin have territories that were assigned to them in the 1970s. Within those territories they have certain rights to regulate oil a gas extraction, logging, settlement development, etc. However, it’s one thing to point to a boundary on a map and another thing entirely to identify where that boundary exists on the ground. With simple low cost, consumer-grade GPS (or GPS smartphone apps) or even a compass, they can determine if a violation of their territory has occurred and have the evidence needed to alert local government officials. Other examples of territory defense include: indigenous mapping and counter-mappingPeru Community Mapping Workshop.
  2. Revealing Socio-economic Disparities – Visualizing socio-economic disparities with maps can be a powerful tool for influencing the public, policy-makers, and donors. Socio-economic data such as the availability of low-income housing, areas under heavy gentrification pressure, crime and policing, domestic violence, exposures to pollution, traffic or transportation patterns, etc. can all be mapped and by doing so can reveal disparities experienced withing and between communities. In fact, any data that has associated geographic markers (coordinates, addresses, neighborhoods, census tracts, cities, counties, etc) can be used to populate associated geographies on a map – using various fee GIS software such as Quantum GIS and/or free online mapping tools such as Google Maps or QGIS CloudMap created by Village Earth using freely available data from the USDA to map the relationship between food insecurity and agriculture production. .
  3. Individual / Community Planning – You no longer need to be a government agency to utilize mapping tools for community planning. In fact, empowering undeserved communities to do their own planning and mapping can be a powerful hedge against impositions from the top-down. On Native American Reservations across the United States, many Native American landowners possess land allotted to them during the General Allotment Act of 1887 but because of various exclusionary policies by the Federal Government, have not been able to utilize them for agriculture, housing, etc. Despite the fact that many Native landowners would like to live on and utilize their allotted lands there are numerous hurdles to doing so. One of the largest hurdles is the lack of information available about their land holdings. In an attempt to remedy this situation, Village Earth developed a map book and later an online mapping resource. The purpose of these tools is to take freely available (but difficult to find and compile) information and make it easily available to Native landowners. This information can be used to locate their original allotments scattered around the Reservation which is the first step required to consolidate them.AllotmentMapBig
  4. Monitoring Lands – The proliferation of high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery through websites sites like Google Earth has made it possible for anyone with a computer (or smart phone) with an internet connection to monitor vast and remote tracts of land for such things as illegal logging, overgrazing, settlement expansion, deforestation, ocean health, expansion of urban slums – the possibilities are endless. Plus, few people realize that you can access nearly 30 years of historical images allowing for historical comparisons for this like forest loss, agriculture development, rates of urbanization etc. and you don’t need to be a GIS expert to access it.Village Earth developed a tutorial for how Native American Tribes can monitor their Reservation lands for overgrazing.
  5. Discovering and/or Revealing Spatial Relationships  – The proliferation of high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery has also made it possible to map previously unmapped geographies from your desktop computer or smart phone. For example the freely available Google Maps or Quantum GIS make it possible to map in high resolution “polygons” (e.g. the boundary of a forest or farm), “lines” (e.g. roads, rivers, trails) and “points” (e.g. housing units, well locations, latrines, car crashes, police incidences). These things can be mapped as a layer directly on top of an aerial in Google Maps or Quantum GIS or on site using a smart phone. Once these things are mapped, QGIS or even MS Excel can analyze this data against other data sets. For example, you could perform the following queries; What is the average distance of wells from households?, What is the average number of grocery stores per mile on Native American Reservations vs. non native communities?, or What is the average number incidences of police use of force in majority black communities vs. majority white communities.

Map developed by Village Earth using Quantum GIS combining freely available USDA food security data and agriculture census data.

To get started with community mapping it’s a good idea to clarify the question you are trying to answer OR the message you are trying to convey.

Types of questions that can be answered through mapping:

  • How much territory are we losing each year?
  • How do we know if our lands are being degraded?
  • Does where you live determine the quality of policing, food, water, transportation you have access to?

Types of messages that can be conveyed through mapping:

  • This is how much forest we’ve lost over the last 5-10-20 years
  • These are our ancestral lands that have been stolen
  • This is how much tiger habitat has been lost to deforestation
  • This is the decrease in areas of low-income housing over the last 10 years.

If you would like to learn more about community mapping including the different applications, tools, ethics, and methods check out Village Earth’s online Community-Based Mapping training which is part of our online Certificate Program in Sustainable Community Development.

Upcoming Courses in the Village Earth/CSU Online Certificate Program in Community-Based Development

Fall I Session

GSLL 1518 – Community-Based Food Systems

During this five week course, you will learn about various approaches to building community-based food systems and movements for food justice around the world. Together, we will evaluate successful efforts at food system relocalization and the protection of community food resources, as well as the factors that threaten these efforts.

Register Now »
Summer II Session

GSLL 1510 – Community-Based Mapping

This course explores theories, ethics, applications, and methods of community-based mapping and its role in participatory learning and action as well as larger processes of integrated community-based development.

Register Now »

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