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Master’s student Bria Hamilton uses community mapping to foster connection

Software tools like ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Survey123, and ArcGIS Hub can help to foster community connections. Bria Hamilton, a student in York University’s MES-Planning program, recently completed a Mitacs internship with Esri Canada and the Centre for Social Innovation Institute where she demonstrated how GIS tools can be used to map communities for connection.

I worked closely with Bria on her project and was curious to learn more about her and what motivated her to study community mapping. She shared her background and interests with me through a series of meetings and emails.

Can you tell us more about yourself? We’d love to hear more about your background, and research interests.

I am in the second year of my Master's of Environmental Studies in the Urban Planning Stream. My work focuses on the use of Black Feminist Geographies as a theoretical lens for urban planning. Black Feminist Geographies are place-based thoughts, tools, and practices that centre the voices of Black women, who sit at the intersection of racialization and gendered oppression, to create more equitable spaces. I am a Queer, Black, and Disabled woman, and thus, this work is deeply personal and important to me. I live in and contextualize my work on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, Chippewa, Anishnabeg, Wendat, and Haudenosaunee peoples, in the area now known as Toronto.

Why did you choose to earn your master’s with York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC)?

I did my undergrad in the EUC faculty as well, and I wanted to continue at York because there's so much flexibility in what I can study, and room for creative, innovative, and impactful research. At EUC, we get to design our program and have several options for what the output of our research can look like. My final project is called "Blackening The City: Counter-Cartographies as a Tool for Community Planning," and will use GIS to create a counter-cartographic tool that visualizes a community in Toronto through the voices of Black women and people of other marginalized genders.

Had you used GIS before starting your master's work? What made you decide to use it for your research?

I first learned to use GIS in the third year of my undergrad. I typically prefer qualitative data collection through hearing stories and knowledge from marginalized communities. I fell in love with GIS as a method for contextualizing qualitative data in quantitative data, and visualizing socio-spatial realities. Maps are not generally created and populated by people who are not planners or cartographers, but they are generally used and interpreted in everyday life (such as with GPS). I'm intrigued by the idea of socio-economic power subversion, and I see counter-cartographies (maps drawn, populated, and controlled by community members), as a method of working towards socio-spatial equity.

You use the term “counter-cartography”. Can you explain what that is for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Maps are often seen as something rooted in reality, factual, and incontestable. I don't believe this is the case. Maps are inherently biased. Someone chooses how they are distorted, what is represented on them, what is left out. When this 'someone' is outside of the community the map is intended to represent, they may not capture how the current spatial articulation of the community impacts its members. Traditional cartographers may not adequately represent the significant locations in a community, as well as why or how they are significant. Counter-cartography, or counter mapping, is the process of community members creating maps that represent their realities, pasts, and futures. Counter maps create visual narratives of how communities interact with the spaces they occupy as well as if, when, where, and how they experience joy, safety, fear, desire, trust, and distrust. I think many planners need to do more work on understanding and collaborating with marginalized communities, and I think counter maps can serve as a baseline for this.

Describe the project you worked on for your Mitacs internship. What was your role?

My internship with Esri Canada over the summer of 2021 was a community partnership with the Centre for Social Innovation Institute (CSII). I worked on a project that was a part of CSII’s ‘Every One, Every Day’ (EOED) initiative that sought to provide opportunities for community connection, which became particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regent Park is a heavily researched community, and this project subverted the top-down approach to research and engagement through connections created by and for community members.

As a part of the project, community members could sign up for kits that provided tools for activities such as gardening, hosting a potluck, reading programs for children, and neighbourhood knowledge sharing. Community members were also invited to participate in a survey that asked about their experiences within their community. Many of the questions on this survey were place-based and asked about locations where community members experienced joy, where they would want more resources, and what and where were the most vital aspects of their community.

My role in this project was to use the data collected during the survey and kit activities, as well as collect additional useful data for the community, to create an online resource that CSII would host and that the community would be able to use and contribute to. I began by looking at publicly available data using the Toronto Open Data Portal. Working from Toronto’s address points layer, I cropped the data to the Regent Park Neighbourhood and created a layer that listed the housing types available in Regent Park. I also found other important layers, such as Indigenous organizations, community housing, youth services and organizations, places of worship, and schools, and cropped this data to the Regent Park community. I used Esri’s ArcGIS Hub platform to create the Regent Park EOED Hub to share the data.

What did you use to collect survey data and why? What did you do with the data?

Survey data were collected using ArcGIS Survey123 during the Every One Every Day project. This survey was available online for community members to access, as well as in local spaces using tablets and computers. I created maps to visualize the results for questions about specific locations and changed the size of data points to be larger or smaller to represent places that were mentioned more often or less often, respectively.

A map showing how community members answered the question “What community-building resources in Regent Park have brought you the most joy?” The symbols are larger on locations that were mentioned more.

This is one of the maps that can be found in the Regent Park EOED Hub. It shows how community members answered the question “What community-building resources in Regent Park have brought you the most joy?”

Some of the survey questions were not related to specific locations, such as demographic data, questions about community cohesion, and socioeconomic barriers to community participation. I represented this data in the Hub using images, numbers, and graphs.

Why did you decide to use ArcGIS Hub for this project? Can you describe your thought process when designing and building the Hub?

I learned about ArcGIS Hub and the different features it offers as part of this project. ArcGIS Hub is a cloud platform where different types of data, information, and interactive tools can be accessed and shared. It is extremely configurable, with tools for changing the site's layout, adding images, changing the background colour, adding icons, and adding links to resources. The Hub we created for the EOED project shared all the data, surveys and results, and interactive maps that I created.

I came up with the concept of dividing the Hub into three major pages, ‘Listen,’ ‘Act,’ and ‘Discover.’ The Listen page hosts the results of the community survey and provides the opportunity for visitors to contribute more responses to the survey. The Act page provides a map where community members can share and find opportunities to get involved in Regent Park. The map shows the location of these opportunities and includes contact information. The Discover page provides a map where users can add data sets and visualize community data. It also has spatial data available for download, and guides on how to visualize spatial data.

I followed CSII’s design guidelines for an on-brand website and I used CSII’s branding colours in the creation of icons and other visualizations for the Hub design.

Regent Park Every One Every Day Community Hub homepage. There are links to the three major pages, ‘Listen’, ‘Act’, and ‘Discover.’

The homepage of the Regent Park EOED Hub. Here you can access the three major pages, ‘Listen,’ ‘Act,’ and ‘Discover.’

The site went through multiple rounds of feedback and updates. Members of CSII discussed how well the site fit in with their brand and mandate, and Esri Canada's Education & Research Group provided feedback on the user-friendliness and overall design of the site. Using feedback from CSII and Esri Canada, I corrected language on the site, changed icons, updated the overall layout of the site, and added additional maps where needed.

What were your big take-aways from this project?

My experiential learning internship provided an opportunity to learn new and innovative ways to use ArcGIS software for community engagement. Community collaboration is essential to creating spaces that represent the needs and wants of community members. EOED provided a reciprocal, community-led program for story sharing, elevating community narratives, connecting during the pandemic and identifying spatial stratification due to gentrification. Through my experience with EOED, I learned a plethora of mapping techniques that can be used to translate the conditions, thoughts, and desires of community members into a commonly used urban planning tool. In this project, the Hub platform and Survey123 were used to create a bridge between the community knowledge of neighbourhood residents and the technical policies and by-laws required by the Ontario Planning Act and municipal legislation.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

I’m really intrigued by the idea of restructuring traditional top-down urban planning tools, like maps, official plans, and zoning by-laws, to be more accessible to and representative of the needs and desires of community members. As I mentioned, my master’s degree research focuses on using Black Feminist Theory in conjunction with participatory mapping to create maps that visualize community from the position of Black women. After I graduate, I want to continue to create planning engagement tools and opportunities that prioritize marginalized community voices as an urban planner. I hope that my work can lead to creating communities and cities that provide for the socio-spatial needs of its citizens.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Susie Saliola is an Education Specialist at Esri Canada. She works with education-focused organizations and community groups on using GIS for community engagement. Having experience as a school board planner, Susie also helps school boards apply GIS to analyze data, predict future enrolments, track development applications and plan for their communities. She has done GIS work for municipalities, school boards, public health institutions and international non-profit organizations. Susie holds an M.Sc. in Physical Geography and Forestry from the University of Toronto, a Graduate Diploma in Urban Planning from the University of Waterloo, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from York University. When she’s not outside with her dogs, Susie can be found baking and decorating cakes. She delights her co-workers with a new geography-themed cake for GIS Day every year.

Profile Photo of Susie Saliola