British Columbia Library Association

Reaching Out to the Unknown: Empowering the Public with GIS

By Sarah Zhang

On July 28, 2018, I co-facilitated a workshop with Carolina Román Amigo, the UBC Library Business Support Analyst, at Vancouver Public Library (VPL): Build Your Own Web Map. It was a workshop oriented to the public with three major elements being blended: basic Geographic Information System (GIS) concepts, an open data resource, and a tool to build web maps. In many ways, the workshop exemplified an unusual library outreach.

The most unorthodox characteristic is that we didn’t have a clear idea of whom we were reaching out to.  I pitched the idea of a GIS workshop to VPL in early 2018. In the proposal, I simply put “youth or adults who have an affinity for maps or new technology” as the target audience. It was really vague, and yet I suppose my enthusiasm for disseminating GIS knowledge came through clearly—and when paired with the observation of the gap between ubiquitous GIS-enabled technologies and the absence of GIS education for the public, VPL felt confident the proposed workshop still aligned well with their aspirations to develop digital literacy in Vancouver.

Why did we want to cast a wide net to an unidentified group of users? I have long been fascinated with GIS, but the idea didn’t take shape until I attended a Carto workshop, taught by Evan Thornberry, the GIS Librarian at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I was amazed when I saw how the new technology had democratized cartography– it is easier than ever to create a digital map! I was thinking, what if, then, we break out of the confines of academic walls and teach GIS concepts and tools as a device of empowerment? I believe it would be a meaningful and much-needed endeavor for two reasons.

First, its emphasis on empowerment. I had been inspired by a TED talk from Ben Wellington, a scholar living in New York, who downloaded the parking tickets data from the city’s data portal, analyzed the data, identified and mapped the top “lucrative” fire hydrants in the city. Those problematic hydrants had stayed there for years without people noticing the traps, and yet they got fixed within days after he posted his findings! This is a perfect example to illustrate that, when the open data movement is married with GIS technologies, people are empowered to find patterns that have never been discovered, understand this world in a new way, and, as Ben Wellington demonstrated, collaborate with governments. The City of Vancouver has joined in the open data movement, launching and maintaining its Open Data Portal. But the sole access to data does not empower people–if they don’t know how to analyze or use it, then this is where GIS education comes in.

Second, the GIS workshops offered by academic libraries present hurdles for the public: the workshops are usually restricted to students and faculties and the contents are not tailored to laypersons. Offering accessible GIS workshops at public libraries will help dismantle these obstacles.

Another unusual challenge is how to map out our attendants’ needs. Understanding a target group’s needs is conventionally the first step for an outreach effort initiated by a library. This undertaking, was difficult in this case due to the lack of knowledge about our audience. Unlike a relatively homogeneous audience in an academic environment, the possibilities in a public library setting are indefinite: Are they amateur cartography lovers, researchers who want to or incorporate spatial elements into their studies, inquisitive high-school students, or a mix of patrons with idle curiosity about mapping? Do they have previous knowledge about GIS? Technological skills? The questions run rampant.

To tackle the problem, I started by researching on what other public libraries were doing in the realm of GIS. Not much information was available–Google searches yielded overwhelmingly academic contents or online tutorials public libraries subscribed to. Fortunately, we received help from Evan, who had taught GIS workshops at Boston Public Library (BPL). While we derived great value from his BPL slides, we were conscious that the differing library circumstances needed to be taken into consideration. The GIS workshops at BPL were primarily intended to increase use of the library’s map collection, and the audience was a long-formed cohort who loved maps or historical studies (Thornberry, 2017). In contrast, we believed the GIS workshop at VPL should transcend promoting collections, and therefore set the goals in a larger context: promoting geospatial literacy by integrating GIS with how to find and use open data.

We had a good turnout–eleven attendants–which was a nice number for this type of hands-on workshop. Our assumption that the audience would have little or no previous knowledge about GIS turned out to be true. Strikingly, however, our audience also turned out to be generally tech-savvy. More intriguing, among the participants there were a few engineers–civil, geological and software–who considered the workshop an opportunity to learn a new skill or explore a potential career shift. There was also a government employee, drawn to the event by the prospect of integrating GIS into their daily work. These motivations went beyond our wildest imagination, and to see the workshop can really contribute to their progress in their careers was really rewarding.

Despite the fact that this endeavor initially felt a bit like a shot in the dark, it validated our believe in the public’s interest in GIS. Although exploratory at first, we gathered a bit more knowledge about this audience, which can inform the content and structure of future sessions. With a more concrete audience and tailored learning objectives, targeted marketing can be launched accordingly as well.

Looking to the future, how to keep passing on the torch of democratizing cartography/GIS and make this workshop sustainable is an imperative question to ask. Carolina and I volunteered our time, and initiated the conversation, but neither of us is at the forefront of GIS development. A more sustainable model, might be to form an organization-to-organization relationship over this initiative. A collaboration between a university/academic library and a public library is likely to become a win-win: a university can tap into its commitment to keeping up with the latest technologies, while a public library can leverage its accessible location, marketing channels, and public awareness of its programing.

Crucial to realizing this aspiration will be library workers and educators in academia–so to spark discussions, please allow me to throw out a few queries: Why don’t we draw a bigger circle of an audience for GIS–and for digital literacy or tools in general? Why don’t we expand the efforts to make universities more engaged with our community? Why don’t we put resources from both sides–providing access to open government data and providing training on analyzing the data–into one equation?  The inquiries, I hope, would serve as the beginning of a conversation.

Interested in continuing this dialogue on building alliances between institutions to explore new topics? Submit a story to the March 2019 issue of BCLA Perspectives: the Collaboration Issue. Pitches due February 1, 2019. 


Thornberry, E. (2017). Map and geospatial research and reference services at a large public library: An overview of the leventhal map center. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries, 13(3), 320-329. doi:10.1080/15420353.2017.1408258

Sarah Zhang is a Reference Librarian at Simon Fraser University.

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