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Data driven: Students use mapping to solve community issues

Senior Jacob Dietch works with Lockerly Arboretum's Executive Director Jennifer Pollard.

It starts with data, which then turns into a point on a map—or several thousand points.

“It’s not common for people to think of addresses as a type of data,” said Cat Cronlund, senior geography major. “But addresses are a simple example of geospatial data.”   

Cronlund is one of two project managers in Professor of Geography Dr. Doug Oetter’s Intro to Geographic Information course, funded by a community grant program through the Office of ENGAGE. The course is an introduction into the world of geospatial science, using data that identifies features and boundaries of a particular area. In this class, students work with data to map coordinates using software to eventually create a final mapped project to present to clients.

“Geographic information is a critical need for today’s rapidly expanding world,” according to Dr. Oetter.  “We make every effort in the Geography Program at Georgia College to prepare our students with skills that will translate into job opportunities and community service.”

Students are in groups and have clients ranging from Lockerly Arboretum, the Oconee River Greenway, the City of Milledgeville and more. Seniors Darcie Scales and Steven Vick are working with the City of Milledgeville to map internments at Memory Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of famed GC alumna and author Flannery O’Connor.

“No work has really been done with mapping new internments since around 2012,” said Vicks, a double rhetoric and geography major. “So we’re working on a database that will help the city when it comes to understanding which plots are actually available.”

Seniors Jacob Dietch and Lauren Gorham are working with Lockerly Arboretum, a public garden and educational resource in Milledgeville.

“Right now, Lockerly has identified more than 1,000  individual trees and shrubs on the grounds, and we’re working to match place names with locations that will eventually become data points on a map,” said Dietch, a environmental science major.

The group hopes the map, which will have an interactive element allowing users to click and retrieve information on that particular plant, will help the local arboretum go from level 2 arboretum accreditation, to level 3. That designation would make it the only level 3 in the state of Georgia.

Gorham, an environmental science major, said being able to work with clients to create a finalized map is more than useful when working with botanical gardens, where she sees herself building a career.

“Any job you work in, you will need a basic understanding of mapping,” said Gorham. “When it comes to gardens, it’s essential to know what’s planted where and how much—it’s such a useful skill to have.”

Cronlund said the real world applications of geographic information analysis is what makes the field so versatile—and why she plans to become an analyst once she graduates.

“I liked the idea of having a structured formula for problems, but at the same time, every problem is so different,” she said. “I like the structured process, but I won’t be working with the exact same thing everyday.”

Jacob Dietch works on his group project on the grounds of their client, Lockerly Arboretum.

Cronlund will graduate with the newly created Certificate in Geographic Information in May 2018. To receive the certificate, she took extra classes and will complete an internship with the Baldwin Board of Commissioners next spring.

Working with the community is integral to the course, which was important to Oetter when creating the outreach experience of the class.

“Milledgeville and the surrounding areas are fertile training grounds for tomorrow’s geographic specialists,” said Oetter.  “We have a wealth of local governments and non-profits that could benefit from what our students are capable of producing.  The ENGAGE Office provides us with an exciting way to create relationships and serve the greater population around Georgia College.”

Savannah Harrell, senior environmental science major, is part of a group gathering data to plot names and addresses of people who are interested in beautification of their property. The organization behind the effort, Birthflowers Inc., aims at creating a botanical garden that will attract more people to the city.

“It’s been about targeting properties that have aesthetic appeal and finding out if it’s something they might be interested in,” said Harrell. “Once we have that data, we’ll have a map that our client can use to gauge where the interest for the project lies.”

“The project has also been a great opportunity to get into the community,” she said. “It is helping us connect with them and not feel so closed off on campus—I wish I had more classes that let us do this type of outreach.”

The groups will present their final projects to their clients near the end of the fall semester. 

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