ASHEVILLE – The nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has been awarded a $10,000 Rural Digital Advocacy grant to build an online mapping and data visualization website for nonprofit organizations in Western North Carolina.
Awarded by the Rural Policy Action Partnership, the grant was one of six national awards to organizations to demonstrate the use of digital tools for rural advocacy and policy change. The partnership includes the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State, the Center for Rural Strategies, and Network Impact, Inc., with funding provided by the Kellogg Foundation.
The project, entitled “Mapping Our Issues: Data Visualization Made Easy for Rural Activists,” has two phases. In phase one, MAIN will build a web-based mapping and data-visualization tool to enable WNC residents to document the availability, cost and performance of broadband Internet access in their locale. The tool will allow residents to compare their broadband experience with availability data provided by incumbent telephone and cable companies to the Federal Communications Commission.
In a report published Aug. 21, the FCC estimates that more than 48,000 residents of 16 mountain counties live beyond the reach of broadband lines from a cable or telephone provider. The number of WNC residents without broadband is even higher when cost and affordability are factored, the report said.
Phase two of the project will provide training for rural activists in how to use digital mapping and data-visualization to deepen public understanding of their issues. This training will initially focus on staff and volunteers from four local nonprofit partners: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Canary Coalition, Disability Partners, and the Western Region Education Services Alliance.
“Digital mapping and data visualization have long been used by Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to promote their issues and policy solutions,” said Wally Bowen, the project director and founder of MAIN. “With advances in open-source software, it’s now possible for grassroots organizations to harness the power of digital mapping and data visualization,” he said.
Digital mapping, often called GIS for “geographic information systems,” has been around for more than 25 years. GIS can map everything from the spread of communicable disease or environmental pollution to the geographic distribution of tax breaks and campaign donations. Open source GIS is free software developed and refined over time by programmers from all over the world.
“Sets of data can be dry and intimidating,” said Bowen. “Data visualization brings out the story hidden in data, and GIS can relate that story to a specific place on the map.”
“There are tons and tons of public data available on any issue you can name,” said Neil Thomas, an Asheville-based GIS consultant. “GIS and data visualization allow you to analyze and present this data in ways that inform citizens and advances the public discussion around critical policy issues,” he said. Thomas’ firm, Resource Data Inc., is a consulting partner for the “Mapping Our Issues” project.
The project’s technical director, Richard Civille, calls open source GIS “the most important innovation in nonprofit technology since the advent of social media” to boost public understanding of critical issues and to empower public participation. “Like social media, these tools can be used for crowd-sourcing to create and present local data about local issues,” he said.
Civille noted, however, that grassroots organizations still face a “learning curve” in using GIS and data visualization. “It’s important to find local technical volunteers and partners who can help, and nonprofit leaders need to understand these new opportunities and challenges, and embrace them,” he said. Civille is a co-founder of Navigating Our Future, a nonprofit developer of civic IT infrastructure based in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, WA.
Bowen called the “Mapping Our Issues” project “an important step in MAIN’s mission of supporting local journalism and citizen voices” through the local ownership of media and IT infrastructure.
The project builds on Civic Navigator, a prototype GIS website launched earlier this year by MAIN, Navigating Our Future, and two other community media organizations, Access Humboldt in California and Chittenden County TV in Vermont. That effort recently took second place in the Knight Foundation’s Civic Data Challenge.
The “Mapping Our Issues” website is expected to launch by mid-October. MAIN’s Civic Navigator website is available at: http://www.main.nc.us/civic.
For more information, contact Wally Bowen at 828.255.0182 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on becoming a technical volunteer for “Mapping Our Issues,” please visit: http://www.main.nc.us/mapvol.