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Mapping Community Information - Using Geographical Info. Systems (GIS)

INTRODUCTION to "Mapping Community Information" with GIS for

Health Promotion

By Alison Stirling

Before I went into Health Promotion, I had studied and worked in environmental studies and regional planning in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. "Mapping" was a means of tracking information over space, and it was usually done by experts who studied a place, then produced their visual interpretations. In the early 1980s, two events showed me an alternative way of viewing data and maps from a community-owned perspective. A close friend went to northern Saskatchewan to work with a First Nations community in producing their first land-use resource inventory. All the oral histories of the way the residents used the land, the demographic changes, the housing stock, the economic development patterns and cultural histories were inventoried and mapped together into a new view of their "community resources" over hundreds of kilometres. I learned that every person can be part of making a map that matters to their livelihood.

Secondly, John McKnight began promoting "asset-based mapping" that begins with the associations, institutions and individuals in a neighbourhood or community. When completed, the community inventory is used to create a map. The power of capacity mapping comes with what happens after the resources have been identified and mapped. It was the ONGOING input of data, the matching of records and constant revision of those maps - combined with community action on the basis of that information, that has made the match of mapping with information systems, using Geographical Information Systems, an important aspect of acting on community capacities.

About two years ago, a group of us started the Ontario Community HP Mapping project, to "map" the activities of community health promotion activities using the tools of computers, and the Internet for communications and promotion. That project has been reported in earlier issues of the OHPE Bulletin (#1, #35 and #60, which also focused on Community Capacity Mapping) and is noted on a web page at One of the participants of that project is the North Victoria Healthy Communities Coalition, whose chair, Peter Jones, has been calling for community-linked data, asset maps and support for rural and urban communities access to computers and the Internet. He pushed for more linkages between those agencies with information systems and data about communities, counties and regions; and those groups and organizations who were tracking the less 'formal' resources of people, associations and places. He suggested that Geographical Information Systems - GIS for short, were a way of putting together demographic, land-use and health information to help in planning and creating healthier communities with residents. This feature is an introduction to GIS and it's uses for mapping community information. It draws heavily upon the experiences of several individuals, organizations and community groups; unfortunately without the opportunity of extensive prior consultation. I hope that these notes do justice to the wealth of knowledge and experience that is resident in so many communities.

WHAT IS G.I.S? - Geographical Information System definition from GISLinx: "Essentially, a GIS is a computer-assisted information management system of geographically referenced data. It contains two closely integrated databases: one spatial (locational) and the other attribute (statistical). The spatial database contains information in the form of digital coordinates, usually from maps or from remote sensing. The attribute database contains information about the characteristics or qualities of the spatial features, for example, demographic information, poverty rates, and number of teachers at a school. Different definitions have evolved through the years. GIS is sometimes seen as a set of tools for analyzing data about a place."

In early 1998 the community mapping project heard about some innovative ventures of GIS and public health, with Capacity Net in Waterloo Region. As reported in OHPE Bulletin #60.1 in June 1998:

"This initiative has started using GIS databases. These Geographical Information Systems [GIS] Capacity databases of social infrastructure or health promotion infrastructure, are not about individual resident capacities - but neighbourhood readiness and supports. For examples, they've geo-coded all church programs, community centre programs, collective kitchens, community gardens, parenting rograms, breastfeeding support sites.... information related to family support. Now they can run maps which can overlay any combination of variables from these databases for any given boundaries.

They have also now arranged compatability with all the databases that their region has (so -- every residence or building is geo-coded for tax rolls; environmentally sensitive areas, vacant lots, different land use zoning, road and traffic stuff, schools, any institution, wells and waterwways....). It is quite powerful stuff, working to link as much as feasible (some databases will be protected) via a web page so visitors can run searches and create their own maps."

Recently, two more suggestions about GIS and community mapping in British Columbia were offered:

1) The Community Mapping Project of the Kamloops Active Support Against Poverty Society BC, described on a web-site at

2) The Long Beach Model Forestry Program in Uclulet BC on a web-site at

The Long Beach Model Forestry Program made an eloquent statement of the importance of Geographical Information Systems. It reminded me of the land-use inventory maps of northern Saskatchewan, and the reasons why computers can be helpful tools for all communities.

[by LBMF Program] "For those of us who started life before the age of computers, GIS is nothing more than a modern-day record keeping system for resource information. A record system accessible to local people and communities.

WHY A GIS PROJECT? In these days of intense interest from so many people, from around the world, over what happens within our forests [and communities], GIS takes on extraordinary importance.

Resource data has to this point been centralized in offices of agencies and companies far away from and inaccessible to local communities. Inventory data was not readily available to local communities. With the coming of powerful and modestly priced computers, the means now exists to bring all that data to local communities. Communities become experts in a very real sense. Reliance upon outside experts to provide and interpret information is diminished, if not eliminated.

GIS and an accessible decision support provides the opportunity for all of us to become knowledgeable about what is "out there." Educational kits for schools can be developed. Any time a local community group needs information about an area, the appropriate maps can be printed.

A community-based GIS capabability means training local people to collect resource information to add to the local database. It means that when outside experts come into our area to do research and

collect data, the data will be added to the local database and be immediately accessible to communities.

GIS is part of what is called a 'decision support system'. It is a tool for local communities. If it helps us make better decisions, then GIS is beneficial." Long Beach Model Forestry program


Haliburton Community Capacity Mapping

Peter Jones of North Victoria Healthy Communities Coalition has urged a number of us to think about the potential of using GIS for mapping and cross-referencing valuable information for communities. He reported to the discussion list, Ontario Community Capacity Mapping (OCCM-L) on a meeting about this issue held in Haliburton in late September:

"On September 30th a number of individuals and organizations gathered to discuss the idea of community capacity mapping in Haliburton County. The day was facilitated by Carolyn Bray of the

Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition.

What became apparent rather quickly was the differences in ideas re community mapping and capacity building. Some had come with the idea of a GIS map which could display the various information that you required on a geographic map. Others wanted simply to be able to share information and were not interested in a 'map'. Others wanted help in transferring their data to a graphical format.

One of the interesting points brought up was that in order for the county to begin to share data that there has to be a form of metadata developed. Metadata is data about the data. In other words, the first step is to begin to develop a metadata catalogue of the data available from the local organizations.

This needs to be in a format that can be easily input into electronic format. Once the information is available in the metadata catalogue - issues such as security can be addressed.

So this is where it is starting - now the work is to be able to collect the data from various sources - we are looking at students, Master's programs, etc. in order to develop this. The MNR is going to present a meeting to demonstrate GIS mapping and its capabilities. It was thought that there could be opportunity under the TAP project to receive financial assistance to wire the communities and receive

assistance in order to allow for the sharing of info. " E-mail: [email protected]

Capacity Net

Theresa Schumilas [[email protected]] added her comments on the Ontario Community Capacity Mapping List (OCCM-L) in mid October:

Re - the mapping bit - "The connection is that - here at the health unit, we've worked with about 15 specific, vulnerable, neighbourhoods for a long time (15 years in some cases). Recently we've begun to develop a data base of social and physical infrastructure in these locations (family resource centres, locations of peer health workers, collective kitchens, community gardens, church programs etc. etc.) We are developing a user friendly interface so people (anyone) would be able to search and access this information, and map it geographically. So, "tell me what programs for mothers with new babies exist in the Highland Stirling neighbourhood, and give me their hours of operation." or "Tell me how many community gardens there are, and show me where they are located." Or "I have a client who lives at X address - what family support programs are closest for them?" or "How do you get the

caramel in the caramilk bar?"

The new Capacity Net, assisted by the public health department did launch a GIS linked inventory of family support programs/services in the Region on

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The following comments from T. Schumilas about issues in community focused GIS are shared by others trying to set up similar initiatives - "This [Mapping of the Community Data] is partly 'live' on our Intranet now, and we are just concluding a test phase. We need to make a lot of changes before it is live on the Internet. BUT - we have a number of obstacles now:

1. Good People Are Hard to Find Issue - Our technical consultant just quit. We have another possible consultant but that'll cost even bigger bucks. So, we are weighing priorities - what part of this do we

do first.

2. Who Owns The Data and Will They Share It? Issue - The Region is clarifying aspects of their agreement re: use of MAP Info and other applications and some related negotiations. Is this is a problem or not yet [is unknown].

3. The Storage Space Issue - The connection with Capacity Net, is that these databases would be searchable via that home page - I think. We are still discussing which server this should go on."

Data ownership is also an issue for groups trying to access municipal planning data, provincial transportation maps, or health information being developed and collected by the Health Information Partnerships - control and security of the data. Rowland Tinline, director of Queen's GIS Laboratory [] remarked, in his presentation "Web-Based Interactive Mapping Resource for Eastern Ontario" at OPHA conference in November 1998:

Our goals are based on 5 premises

1. It is easier to move information than people

2. Better, faster information is necessary to coordinate multiple agencies

3. Health information should not be secret - we need more, better and accessible data

4. Current hardware and software is more accessible and

5. The new software is easy to use, offering improved response time, planning and research tools and increased public awareness.

One of the biggest barriers is knowing "who is the Public" and "what is Information" that is shared - balancing security versus 'need to know'."

Dr. Tinline agreed that the pressure for server capacity and storage remains a critical question. He suggested that community groups working on GIS issues determine, together with their partners, the 'best' model for their needs - an area wide server that holds all the GIS data versus distributed local servers that require more maintenance and people skilled in the systems. These may be some of the bigger challenges over the next few years - being able to agree on how we share information, rather than the tools that we use to collect and visualize it.

The possibilities are considerable, and there are many positives for using 'interactive internet mapping' that links together some of the excellent maps that already exist (sewer, water, hydro, transportation routes, hazardous materials - the Ice Storm of 1998 showed the necessity of having such linked data in visual formats).

[see next message - #87.2 Resources for contacts]

D. GETTING STARTED - What Software is Being Used, How to Find Out More

L Wagner of Capacity Net notes: "We use Microsoft Access to create our own databases.

We are using Access because it seemed to be the most "open", that is we could move it to Oracle or a dbase format which is used by Mapinfo. We also use databases created by the Region of Waterloo which are Oracle databases.

Our GIS software is Mapinfo or MapX for the internet applications. Our GIS software is dictated by what the Region of Waterloo uses/purchases


The site provides downloadable information such as Microsoft Access such as software that can be used to create your own databases.


**This site is very commercialized. This site provides services, seminars, and products on creating maps. For more information contact:

MapInfo Corporate Headquarters

One Global View, Troy, New York 12180

Phone: 518.285.6000, 1-800-FASTMAP Fax: 518.285.6070

Peter Jones - Haliburton and North Victoria County - "The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR)suggested that we use the ED system that they use - apparently the ED software is available free to municipal governments and it proposed to be a common platform for various government agencies. It is geographically based so it lends itself to GIS mapping."

He added that: "Ministry of Natural Resources [MNR] uses ARCview for most of their applications and metadata is recorded using their own system called ED. The data input page is based in HTML so that you can either input to a local system or to a remote server."

ARCview is sold (and used) by ESRI Canada, the company that sells GIS software. They do have available a free GIS viewer that you can use - also some CD-roms that have the ability to manipulate data>

THE QUEEN'S GIS LABORATORY uses a variety of software for the Interactive Internet Mapping project. This project is aiming to provide up to date information on health services for public and

decision-makers; allowing planners and public to monitor and measure outcomes and to improve coordination of agencies and efficiency of services. To meet these intentions, Dr. Rowland Tinline and colleagues have used:

- MapGuide from Autodisk for their interactive maps

- Cold Fusion from Allaire

- South East Ontario Health Services Committee (SEOHSC) for patient data collections

- QTI-CACC from Bell Canada for ambulance, hospital and helipad locations.

A fascinating example of how the Interactive Internet Mapping works is available on the Queen's GIS Laboratory web-site with the Rabies Reporter project (developed with the Ministry of Natural Resources), tracking the movement of rabies over an area, and enabling the visitor to select by date, species, layer the maps and query the database. See it at

For the two British Columbia projects mentioned above - see

COMMUNITY MAPPING PROJECT - KAMLOOPS [last update September 1996]

In 1995, Kamloops Active Support Against Poverty Society received funding from Community Housing Initiatives, a component of the HOMES BC program of the Ministry of Housing. Because of a change of focus and the methodology used to continue this work, the group receiving funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC in July 1996 to continue the work.

The Kamloops Community Mapping Project's goals are to compile an inventory of local housing assets and capacity in the City of Kamloops to promote the development of affordable, accessible and special

needs housing.

The Kamloops Community Mapping Project follows the asset based, relationship driven approach. It provides for a link between institutions, individuals and local groups to work together towards the

common goal of rebuilding the community. By first mapping a community's asset base, it is easier to find creative solutions to fulfill current and future needs.

July, 1996 phase involved creating user-friendly hypertext reports consisting of maps and descriptions showing current residential, housing and service (shops, transportation, institutions) patterns and

relationships between them. These reports serve as a base for several community resource groups. For further information, contact the community mapping project at [email protected]

LONG BEACH MODEL FORESTRY PROJECT - mapping and GIS with First Nations

The Long Beach Model Forest Society is committed to establishing a computer-data decision support system that:

* ensures the creation of an integrative data management and information analysis system to serve First Nations and other communities' interests;

* to attract long-term research to the area;

* provide a practical data exchange linkage between all communities;

* develop educational and public information applications from this technology that benefits First Nations, local students, businesses, and individuals, and

* provides on-site training for local people to learn the computer technology, and collect field inventory data that will improve future decision making. This will include a central data management system and

smaller computer systems in the communities giving local people immediate access to the latest resource inventory information.

GIS is about information. It is about wildlife, timber, water quality, recreation, cultural values such as First Nations place names, history, economics, tourism, etc. In fact, GIS is about everything there is

to know about forests [and the way we work and live].


243 Main Street, P.O. Box 1119,

Ucluelet, British Columbia Canada, V0R 3A0

Phone / Téléphone: (250) 726-7263

Fax / Télécopieur: (250) 726-7269

email: . [email protected]


This feature has been written, compiled and edited by Alison Stirling, with grateful appreciation for the contributions of members of the email discussion list - Ontario Community Capacity Mapping (OCCM-L)