From Handwritten to Handheld

USGIF contributes to the GIS data collecting efforts needed to help rebuild New Orleans


In February 2006, Denise Thornton, along with her husband, Doug Thornton, founded the Beacon of Hope Resource Center at their rebuilt home in New Orleans. Thornton’s mission was to share what she learned through her personal recovery and rebuilding process with others affected by Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to serving hot meals, providing phone and Internet service, and hosting seminars on issues such as mold remediation, Thornton set out to track property conditions and the overall recovery process in her neighborhood. She conducted property condition surveys by hand, using dry-erase markers and later entering the information into Excel spreadsheets.

Since 2006, Beacon of Hope has expanded to include numerous neighborhood resource centers, or “beacons,” throughout the city. Responsibility for property condition surveys now falls under the organization’s neighborhood development program.

Beacon of Hope’s property condition surveys are essential to its purpose in many ways, such as addressing blight, identifying residents who need assistance, coordinating volunteers, creating green space, promoting economic development, and encouraging re-population. The nonprofit is now evolving from paper to digital data collection, a process made possible through a partnership with USGIF.

Making the Connection

In 2010, USGIF’s Young Professionals Group (YPG), which unites defense and intelligence professionals age 35 years and younger or with less than five years’ work experience, reached out to Beacon of Hope to explore the possibility of collaborating during the GEOINT 2010 Symposium in New Orleans, for the YPG’s first service project.

Laura Mellem, Beacon of Hope’s neighborhood development program manager, said she was thrilled to have a set of volunteers to assist with mapping. In November 2010, 40 YPG volunteers spent a day collecting data on 852 parcels in the Fillmore Gardens neighborhood. After seeing the data collected by the YPG, the Fillmore Gardens Neighborhood Association launched a vacant property campaign to address ongoing issues with vacant and blighted properties since the hurricane.

During the service project, Jason Stopa, a Beacon of Hope project manager, mentioned that the nonprofit often had a wait time to turn around large-scale maps following data collection. They would either have to pay for maps to be printed or borrow time from the city planning commission in order to produce maps for presentations.

A few weeks later, Beacon of Hope received what it called “an early Christmas present,” in the form of a large-format printer donated by Hewlett-Packard and USGIF.

“This has allowed us to print as much as we want, what we need, and when we need it,” Stopa said.

Julie Baer, a former YPG member and GeoEye government affairs associate who now teaches English in Malaysia on a Fulbright Scholarship, attended the GEOINT Symposium for the first time in 2010 and also took part in the YPG service project.

“Participating in the project was a lesson in the power of mapping to quickly and effectively tell a story,” Baer said. “Words tell us the heart-wrenching stories of the destruction, pictures show us the devastation and lasting damage, but maps can pinpoint and reveal the way forward for assessing and rebuilding after disasters.”

A Way Forward

USGIF continued to assist Beacon of Hope with finding a way forward in its data collection. Following the service project, Mellem and Stopa attended the GEOINT Symposium free of charge at the invitation of USGIF President Keith Masback. They set out with the mission to find a way to conduct property condition surveys using an iPhone.

Beacon of Hope had been using city of New Orleans parcel files in order to track property conditions. However, the files contained significant errors, including addresses that no longer existed−a problem that is exacerbated to an extreme in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“It was hard to even imagine identifying which properties we were looking at because of so many errors in the parcel file,” Mellem said.

At the time, Esri was just rolling out its ArcGIS iPhone app, and while the app itself was free, Beacon of Hope needed to purchase the ArcServer EDN license to access the app. USGIF donated $2,000 to Beacon of Hope in September 2011 for a one-year license to conduct a pilot project using the ArcGIS app.

“Using the iPhone app, you don’t have to identify the address you’re standing in front of because the GPS tells you where you are,” Stopa said.

In January 2012, Beacon of Hope conducted its first property condition survey using the iPhone app to map 7,600 parcels in the Lower Ninth Ward, which has had the least amount of rebuilding. The surveys revealed that 30 percent of the properties given funds to rebuild through the State of Louisiana’s Road Home program had yet to do so.

“This research will help us conduct an outreach to see what a lot of the roadblocks are in the Lower Ninth Ward,” said Tina Marquardt, Beacon of Hope’s executive director.

The app also allows for collecting digital images of the properties in order to provide a visual of the level of blight.

Marquardt attributes much of the neighborhood development program’s growth during the last year and a half to its partnership with USGIF.

“Beyond a dollar amount, USGIF has been a great resource for us,” Marquardt said. “It’s a really meaningful way to partner with organizations in New Orleans. A lot of people want to come and volunteer here, and the physical volunteering is great, but I think they really invested in a more long-term recovery effort.”

Beacon of Hope plans to move ahead with the full support of its board of directors to continue using the ArcGIS app. The next step will be to launch digital data collection efforts in other neighborhoods that were previously surveyed using paper data and are due for an update.


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