The power of geographic information systems is usually associated with some typical applications in such areas as government, utilities, retail, health care, environmental, or high tech. But GIS has many more applications, including in non-profits where greater profits or better marketing aren’t even a question. Even if someone in the middle of GIS training plans on a more traditional use of the technology, an examination of non-profit implementation can teach a lot.
For example, social workers need to understand the communities they’re trying to serve. So do other non-profit professionals. But that can be difficult. Seldom do case workers or field personnel have the same background as they people they try to help. So the professionals need to undertake the time-consuming, difficult, and complicated process of gathering data and then trying to analyze it.
GIS technology can create significant understanding about communities that would not be so obvious in other ways. The reason is underlying ability of the systems to relate otherwise disparate data that have location as a common characteristic.
For example, a given community will have demographic characteristics such as race, age, gender, and economic status. You could include health statistics, education, occupation, and whether the social agency in question has a relationship with a given person.
You can even track other service providers in the area to identify assets and gaps. The picture posted with this article shows access to green spaces for minorities in LA. If it’s geographically based– you can track it and tell about it.
Agencies can use internal data from their existing databases and then incorporate information from other sources, including U.S. Census, federal and state employment data, and local data on regional government services like schools, transportation, and street maintenance. [incl-event tag=”gis”]
The wealth of information allows an organization to look at the key similarities and differences between different areas to try and understand how they differ in reactions to problems, why there might be a higher drop-off of clients in one area versus another, and see selected information in a graphical form that lets experts see important relationships more easily than lists of data.
The geographical displays of information can help professionals monitor and evaluate situations, perhaps pinpointing growing changes in areas that parallel changes in population. They also have other advantages, such as easier collaboration with other social needs organizations and even the ability to more easily communicate an organization’s mission and impact to government officials or potential donors. There is a catch, of course. Using GIS in a non-profit world still requires GIS learning with personnel — whether staff, consultants, or volunteers — who know how to apply the technology to the organization mission and the people it serves.