Racial Justice, Social Equity, and Sustainability Shine Through at 15th Annual GIS Day

GIS Experts and Students Weigh-In on Creating a More Equitable World

By: Olivia Frasca

CSI’s 15th Annual GIS Day highlighted the pivotal role of mapping technology in establishing sustainability initiatives, pinpointing community trends, and bridging the gap of racial inequities. Credit:

The campus community gathered virtually on November 18 and 19 for the college’s 15th Annual GIS Day. For two evenings, geography experts throughout the nation and undergraduate students at CSI presented their research and engaged in open discussions on the intersection of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and racial, social, and environmental justice. 

GIS is proving to be useful in all spheres of study in 2020 by serving as the backbone of data-driven decisions and policymaking.

Day 1

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Professor and Economist at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, delivered a speech on how mapping technology can address today’s pressing agenda: climate change reform and infectious disease management. 

Dr. Sachs highlighted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a group of 17 initiatives agreed upon by member states in 2015 to address rising inequalities and environmental threats. 

“The idea of those SDGs, the 17 of them, is to reset the way that the world economy works and [the way] that each of our national economies should work … so that we not only produce economic growth but that it actually should benefit all of society, not just a small, rich part of society,” according to Dr. Sachs. 

The SDGs range from eliminating poverty, expanding access to healthcare, prioritizing climate action, and strengthening global cooperation. An early step in achieving these goals and creating a sustainable world that leaves no one behind involves the use of maps. 

“We now know that everything about the dynamics of an economy, just as with the dynamics of a biome or ecosystem or climate system, has a strong geographic dynamic and logic to it,” Dr. Sachs explained. “We now have powerful tools to use that mapping to help guide our state of knowledge about where we stand with these goals in comparison with where we want to go.”

Insights gathered from GIS are not only helpful in launching sustainability initiatives but also useful in addressing public health challenges. Dr. Este Geraghty, Chief Medical Officer at Esri, breaks down the nature of GIS: “I would say that GIS helps us to go beyond collecting the dots. Something, by the way, that health organizations are very good at, and lets us connect the dots by using place and location analytics that create new insights and new information that helps to inform action.”

As the country grapples with the second wave of coronavirus, maps are a visual representation of COVID-19 cases and contact tracing patterns, both of which can determine testing sites and high-risk infection zones. 

Dr. Geraghty also spoke about how mapping can put forth equitable vaccine delivery and availability of health information to minorities, which are crucial factors when acknowledging the history of structural racism in the U.S. health system.

Day 2

Dr. Verónica N. Vélez, Professor and Founding Director of the Education and Social Justice Program at Western Washington University, kicked off the second evening with a presentation on Critical Race Spatial Analysis (CRSA), a study that illuminates education inequity and the degree of opportunities given to students via mapping technology. 

Dr. Vélez recognized flaws in data sources as a grassroots organizer in her hometown of Pasadena. In identifying a hotspot of poverty located in the northwest area of Pasadena, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, “…the data sources used attributed poverty to individuals, not structural conditions,” she stated.

“…The construction of GIS maps had to be deeply attuned to the ways that data sources may inadvertently contribute to racist narratives, producing maps that fail to underscore causality for the material realities like poverty that disproportionately affect black, Latinx, indigenous, and other communities of color,” Dr. Vélez concluded.

The campus community gathered virtually on November 18 and 19 to celebrate GIS Day. Credit: Twitter: @techincubatorsi

Christen McNamara Watts, GIS Manager at the City of Asheville, shared how GIS technology is repairing acts of redlining that plagued this North Carolina city over the past century. 

McNamara Watts shared an early 20th-century map of areas in Asheville divided by their level of creditworthiness under a government agency called the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation. The creation of these maps put predominantly black communities in low-creditworthy zones, which often prevented African Americans from owning homes.

Although the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 to stop housing discrimination, “At that point there had been generations of people that hadn’t been given opportunities to own homes and there’s no way to catch up … homeownership in the U.S. is the number 1 way to generate wealth and pass wealth on,” said McNamara Watts. 

The conversation shifted to New York City when Professor of Finance and Data Analytics at CSI’s Chazanoff School of Business, Dr. Jonathan Peters, brought awareness to social injustices taking place in local transportation infrastructure. 

The new Goethals Bridge carries a heavy toll and no mass transit, posing a challenge to individuals that are low-income from traveling over the bridge for work opportunities. 

Using GIS, Dr. Peters also demonstrated how the Second Avenue Subway best serves an area of Manhattan where people have the shortest commute times and higher income per capita compared to other boroughs. Most NYC subway routes were designed by the early 20th century and were not beneficial for the outer boroughs, especially on Staten Island where commuters suffer from extra-long travel times. 

Government agencies are also largely unaware that they are responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on transportation, Dr. Peters added. 

Student Presentations

CSI geography majors took the floor to showcase their senior projects on racial, social, and housing justice in New York City using GIS. 

  • Dale Henderson referenced CompStat to map out arrests for major and minor types of crimes. His findings revealed discrepancies between white and black populations in areas that were overpoliced versus areas that were not. 
  • Aurora Collado’s project focused on the Hurricane Sandy disaster response on Staten Island. Collado’s maps depicted areas of the storm’s impact, the geography of different demographics, and the region of recovery for NYC’s Build it Back program.
  • Luciano DiFrancesco, Intern at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, presented her findings on the relationship between race and geography of affordable housing units in NYC.

CSI’s 15th Annual GIS Day highlighted the pivotal role of mapping technology in establishing sustainability initiatives, pinpointing community trends, and bridging the gap of racial inequities. GIS is a powerful tool that continues to inform decision-making and policy implementation in the five boroughs and beyond. 

Quotes have been lightly edited for readability.

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