Tech in the Commons: A Toolkit for Place-Based Nonprofits
Case Study – Summer of Maps
How this GIS fellow may have helped save lives with data storytelling.

Nonprofits use data every day, whether they realize it or not.

Ticket sales, event signups, newsletter open rates — all data that can help an organization better understand its target audience, and thus, do its job more effectively. But sometimes, data can even save lives.

As of 2018, Annaka Scheeres works as a research and evaluation associate at the Department of Public Health, but she got her professional start in Philadelphia as a 2016 Summer of Maps fellow with geospatial software and data analytics B Corp Azavea.

The paid fellowship program enlists recent college grads to work on social impact projects for nonprofits and government agencies based on their own collected data. Alongside those organizations, the fellows co-determine a scope of work and deliverables, including some type of online mapping application and a report with statistical analysis. The orgs could then use the resulting maps to inform their work in some way.

During her fellowship, Scheeres worked on digital projects for both the American Red Cross in D.C. and Science History Institute in Old City.

The former was conducted in coordination with the West Africa Mapping Project within the Missing Maps project led by the American Red Cross, British Red CrossDoctors Without Borders and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team which sought to more accurately map the physical landscape of communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — the areas hardest hit by the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Those rural communities may be listed on, say, Google Maps as a town name and collection of roads, but not much more, making it hard for humanitarian orgs like Missing Maps’ partners to know where to send aid in the case of future disasters.

Missing Maps convenes volunteers to work on the ground with community members to collect data on other infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and sanitation. Humanitarian organizations then use the data to plan “risk-reduction projects to improve people’s lives in those communities.”

Scheeres task was to dive deeper into the data to identify areas of highest priority via a vulnerability index and then present that information on a digital map. For example, if a community has a high population but no health clinics and few accessible roads, that community would be more vulnerable to another Ebola outbreak and have a more difficult time receiving aid.

See the interactive mapping application she worked on here.

“I think with this specific project, its pretty easy to see that better maps improve quality of life — that better data improves quality of life — for these individuals because they’re able to get resources more quickly, and the American Red Cross is able to make more informed and more accurate decisions,” Scheeres said.

But the need for informed and accurate decisions can apply to any mission-minded organization, not only those dealing with life-or-death scenarios.

“Often, nonprofits and other organizations will collect a lot of data as part of their work, but that data doesn’t always get used effectively or used as much as it could,” she said. “I think for any type of nonprofit, regardless of whether they’re working in health or the environment [etc.], the ability to take data they’ve collected and turn it into some cohesive narrative to make more informed decisions is such a crucial process.”

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