How computer maps will help the poor

By using high-tech tools, San Jose residents hope to gain a stronger voice in planning decisions.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

This winter, residents from some of the poorest areas of this city will canvass their communities with pocket PCs, GPS receivers, and digital cameras. The goal: to survey some of San Jose's most neglected neighborhoods and build a map of 19 underserved communities.

The effort could eventually shape the next generation of redevelopment strategies for poor urban areas across the United States.

"Community mapping projects hold great potential for giving a voice to community members who are typically underrepresented in planning and development decisions," says Hollie Lund, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. "These tools are a practical solution to a vexing problem. How does democracy engage low-income residents to speak out on matters that are vital to their communities so that government can understand and then remedy neighborhood issues?"

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While information about the location of sidewalks, traffic lights, and parks is readily available at City Hall, the condition of most publicly maintained resources is not. Many poor neighborhoods lack the political framework to voice concerns. With computers and GPS receivers in hand, residents from these areas can report specific problems to city officials and expect results.

A team of planners, students, teachers, and volunteers launched the community mapping project in 2003. This spring, students from San Jose State University (SJSU) completed this first-of-its-kind survey of one community.

"We wanted to explore how mobile computing could break down barriers between the campus and the community," says Malu Roldan, associate professor for management information systems at SJSU.

The students surveyed the Five Wounds-Brookwood Terrace area to learn more about how residents perceived their eastside community. Portuguese culture has defined the neighborhood for most of the 20th century. But more recently, Latino, Vietnamese, and Cambodian families have immigrated to the community. Without a large supermarket and few public parks, the area contains some of the most neglected neighborhoods in the city.

"Historically, the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace community has not been well served," says Paul Pereira, a city employee and local resident. "A neighborhood of immigrants, many residents do not speak English and have difficulty making their opinions known."

By the end of 2004, students converted a written questionnaire into an electronic form and began to canvass the neighborhood with GPS receivers, digital cameras, and tablet PCs.

Students interviewed residents about the needs of the neighborhood, observed local landmarks, and recorded their locations with GPS receivers. Afterward, they reported results to city representatives and officials at Health Trust, a nonprofit group that supports and provides health services in Santa Clara County.

"The community is our textbook," Professor Roldan says. "Tablet PCs make it possible to gather information and reflect on a variety of ways to improve the lives of some of the city's poorest inhabitants."

A search for answers

During the spring of 2005, Professor Roldan assigned a team of computer and engineering students to transfer the neighborhood survey from the tablet to pocket PCs. The latter contains a scalable map of the district, a menu for specifying residential, mixed-use or green space, and data fields for evaluating bike lanes, graffiti, sidewalks, streetlights, trails, traffic lights and trees. It also includes electronic forms for submitting digital photos and field notes about local landmarks such as a community center, grocery store, or park.

Before the end of the school year, students walked the neighborhoods block-by-block - recording their impressions of the urban landscape with digital cameras and pocket PCs. They uploaded the information onto laptop computers and then transferred the data to a server located at Health Trust, where students and planners evaluated the results.

Following patterns established by the community mapping project, the city is now working toward making the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace community a better place to live. As a first step, the city is now adding new streetlights, sidewalks, and traffic signals. It also plans to add 17 acres of parkland to the area by 2008.

The effort is also changing how city officials and some of San Jose's poorest residents view their neighborhoods. Like so many profound changes from the city that calls itself the capital of Silicon Valley, technology has led the way.

San Jose is now expanding the community mapping project to include 19 underserved communities. Members of each community, not students, will gather data and help city planners and project managers decipher the results.

"Citizens must have a voice in decisions that affect their neighborhoods," says Kip Harkness, director of San Jose's Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, a city program that aims to create cleaner, safer neighborhoods. "By allowing residents to ask important questions about their neighborhoods through the community mapping project, they can provide us with compelling answers to problems that have troubled their communities for decades."

Local connections

The initiative has been working with Neighborhood Advisory Committees, which provide a forum for residents to express their opinions about community issues.

Made up of representatives from business groups, faith-based organizations, neighborhood coalitions, nonprofit groups, and schools, for example, the committees help determine how redevelopment money designated for their neighborhoods is spent.

"We are excited that we have a voice in shaping the vision for our neighborhood," says Joan Rivas Cosby, chairperson of the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace Neighborhood Advisory Committee. "Many of us have never been active in the community before, but the city's commitment to the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative and the community mapping project has convinced us that we have a place at the table - that City Hall is listening to what we have to say."

Redefining the community

Following the recommendations of the Five Wounds - Brookwood Terrace Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the city is encouraging shop keepers to revitalize ethnic grocery stores with help from San Jose's Office of Economic Development and combating crime by reinvigorating community watch programs in languages that members of the community understand.

"Our goal is to break the boundaries of the university by showing that mobile technology can transform neighborhoods," Professor Roldan concludes. "This project has taught us that mobility is not just about bringing technology to the community. Ultimately, it will lead to social and economic mobility for residents of the communities we serve with the applications we build."

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