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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 Thomas UlrichContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2005


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.

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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?"

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.