Thinking Tech

GIS tools map social injustice in civil rights cases

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GIS mapping tools illustrate how critical infrastructure is selectively parceled out from neighborhood to neighborhood.

What can a map tell us about the world? In a growing number of civil rights cases, it can illustrate how critical infrastructure is selectively parceled out from neighborhood to neighborhood.

The Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities based in North Carolina is using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to map available infrastructure against the racial characteristics of different neighborhoods in the United States. The organization studies everything from water service to sewer lines and streetlights, and what its demographers have found is a consistent pattern of inequity. In numerous cases, the availability of infrastructure correlates strongly with the racial composition of a community. Infrastructure in these cases is available in largely White areas, but not in many neighborhoods that are primarily Black or Latino.

Governments often annex new neighborhoods over time, extending their town boundaries to accommodate a larger population that is already part of the local tax base. However, in many places, as GIS data shows, governments have annexed these neighborhoods selectively, which means they're choosing which citizens within a larger region (often called an extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ) are eligible for basic services... and which citizens aren't.

Take Zanesville, Ohio. The Cedar Group Institute tied together geo-coded data from public sources with government census data to show that black neighborhoods were deliberately being denied access to city water service. The evidence was used in a case tried by the law firm of Relman, Dane and Colfax against the City of Zanesville, Muskingum County, and East Muskingum Water Authority. The judge found the analysis compelling. In 2008, he awarded the plaintiffs $10.9 million, and today residents finally have service that doesn't require pumping water from a cistern. Tim Berners Lee referenced the Zanesville case in a 2010 TED talk about linking data sources.

Zanesville is only one example, however. The Cedar Grove Institute has also examined communities in California, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Time and time again, the organization has collected substantial GIS evidence supporting cases of racial discrimination. In Modesto California, the Cedar Grove Institute's data analysis shows that many Latino neighborhoods are marked by their lack of sewer access, storm drains and streetlights. In Moore County in North Carolina, Cedar Grove maps show sewer lines that literally branch around some of the black neighborhoods without going through them.

None of the Cedar Grove Institute's work would be possible without the digital geographic data and tools that are now available. As the organization says on its website:

Many of these activities have been cloaked - if not in secrecy, than in a language and format that keeps people from knowing what is happening and how decisions are made. As more and more data becomes available in digital format, we are able to use it to enhance civic engagement and increase accountability.

This is where technology meets the challenges of the real world. It's a great example of digital data used as a catalyst for action.

Full disclosure - the founders of the Cedar Grove Institute are old friends of mine. I continue to follow their work despite having move away from North Carolina twelve years ago.

Image credits: Relman, Dane and Colfax PLLC, and the Cedar Grove Institute

Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure