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GISCorps Volunteer teaches GIS to Gulf Coast Community Design Studio team in Biloxi, MS

By Christine Cerqueira Gaspar, GCCDS

The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio (GCCDS) is a nonprofit organization, affiliated with the Mississippi State University College of Architecture, Art + Design, and established soon after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Working primarily in Biloxi, in close partnership with the East Biloxi Coordination, Relieve & Redevelopment Agency, and a host of volunteer construction organizations, GCCDS provides architectural design and community planning services to those recovering from and rebuilding after Katrina.

Pictured from left: David Allen, Kristen Zeiber, Sara Naughton, James Wheeler, Jessie Zenor, and Christine Cerqueira Gaspar.

Throughout the two years since Katrina, GCCDS has conducted periodic assessments of the housing and structures in East Biloxi, a low-income community in which over 90% of the buildings were inundated with water during the storm. In the summer of 2007, GCCDS undertook its most comprehensive assessment to date, using volunteers to canvass every parcel of land in East Biloxi, recording not only visual information but conducting interviews with as many residents as possible. The result, over 5,000 data points with a score of related attributes, was entered in an Excel database. GIS software was available to us, through the university, but our capacity to analyze the data was limited, and most of the staff lacked any experience with GIS whatsoever.

Faced with this challenge, I began to look for ways to build our capacity, as an organization, to process this kind of information and encourage each staff member to find ways to explore the data. I first contacted a former professor at MIT, from whom I had first learned GIS. He told me about GISCorps and suggested I contact them. Within a few days, Shoreh Elhami was hard at work to identify a GIS professional who could help us. Less than two months later, David Allen of Euless, Texas, joined us in Biloxi.

Figure 1: A status map created by GCCDS team after the training

Before David had even arrived, boxes of books appeared on our doorstep. David had convinced ESRI and the South Central Arc User Group to donate several copies each of various text and reference books to our studio. He later would also provide us with copies of his own manuscript. David is a gifted instructor, and during his four days with us, he not only got every one of the five staff members participating in the tutorial to be competent in the software, but he also got everyone excited about its capabilities. By day three we were all working on our own analyses of the housing assessment data we had been collecting all summer. Within a week after David left, we produced a score of maps showing the latest information, and showing the changes in East Biloxi since the first assessment in May of 2006.

From early on, the usefulness of GCCDS's work to the community of East Biloxi has stemmed from our capacity to provide information that helps articulate the conditions on the ground, both to those working to improve those conditions, and to those who might fund such efforts. Prior to their assistance, we had one staff member with limited knowledge of ArcGIS; now we have five people capable of producing useful, timely maps. The generous contribution of time and resources of GISCorps and David Allen have radically increased our capacity not only to produce maps, but to analyze the data we collect and put it in front of our partners in meaningful ways.

Figure 2; A Flood Plain map created after the training

Critically, the fast response time of the Shoreh and David allowed us to generate our maps in time to share them with the media and various guests that arrived for the events commemorating the 2-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We will share our work with dozens of other nonprofits, and the impacts will ripple out across the Gulf Coast community. This experience is the very definition of capacity-building.

"The students at GCCDS were very eager to learn this technology, and were immediately applying it to their data to make maps. Before I left, they had each produced a map on their own that showed something about the data that was not previously apparent.... We all watch the news and see the tsunamis, the forest fires, the hurricanes, the floods, and naturally want to do something to help. The GISCorps is giving us the opportunity to take our unique skill set as geospatial analysts to the heart of a problem and impact the way problems are solved."

David Allen, GISCorps Volunteer