The Gentilly Project
The Gentilly Project, which originated at Dartmouth, tracks the post-Katrina recovery of the New Orleans neighborhood.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/23/2007 2:22:45 AM ET 2007-07-23T06:22:45

By mapping everything from crime statistics to strip clubs to the best cycling routes, modern-day Internet cartographers have also become lifestyle guides, giving strangers tips and advice once solicited from a friend or co-worker. Now, they’re also acting as advocates for the environment or the disenfranchised and hoping their interactive maps will inspire the casual Internet user to get involved.

Advocacy mashups are tackling the most vexing problems of our time, from New Orleans post-Katrina clean-up to the possibility that some 2,300 Islamic mosques and schools across the country pose a homegrown terror threat.

Capitalizing on a growing interest in politically or socially-aware mashups, like the map that used text, video and photos to reveal scenes of genocide in Darfur, Google recently introduced Google Earth Outreach, a new service aimed at non-profits and activists.

With Google Earth Outreach, the mapping process is simplified so that users can easily "illustrate and advocate" issues important to them. The company will also provide qualified non-profits with a license for Google Earth Pro, normally available for $400.  Google spent the last year testing the system with more than 100 organizations, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jane Goodall Institute. Users will receive step-by-step instructions on how to post videos, incorporate additional map layers, and connect with like-minded creators. 

Ed Wilson of Earthwatch Institute, an environmental group that has partnered with Google, said that the application has the ability to “shrink” the earth and provide an opportunity for hesitant users to explore a new issue 

"It's not just a [point] on a map,” he says. "It's a gateway."

The most technogically savvy mashups incorporate embedded video and wiki-style entries that any user can edit, making them into “mapumentaries,” user-generated maps with embedded video and wiki-style text entries. Consider them a tool for anyone — citizen journalists, activists and non-profits included — with a stake in a cause.

Early this year, Quintus Jett, a senior research fellow at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, took a team of students to map a New Orleans neighborhood that had experienced 80 percent flooding.

In Gentilly, once home to more than 40,000 residents, they began a door-to-door mapping of the recovery process and then plotted the information on a GIS map (http://icpd.dartmouth.edu/viewer.php). The power of the map, explained Quintus, was at least two-fold.

First, it dispelled impressions that the neighborhood had yet to recover — his data showed that 95 percent of Gentilly was on its way to recovery. Second, it demonstrated how average citizens could respond to an event like a natural disaster.

“More and more people are living in concentrated locations,” Jett said. “There is decaying public infrastructure, global climate change and the threat of global terror. When there’s a problem that occurs, why leave it to just the government? There is an emergency planner who is thinking about all these people as potential victims – I’m looking at them as potential responders.”

Jett was joined this spring by Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, and Bill Gannon, head of Web operations at LucasFilm. Gillmor and Gannon, who were co-teaching a class at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, had their students photograph more than 300 houses and interview about 40 locals, several of which were videotaped.

When the mashup debuts later this year on Platial, a mapping platform Web site, it will embody a mapumentary, a term coined by Platial's CEO Di-Ann Eisnor to describe the new wave of interactive maps.

“The goal is to create something that actually lets a community tell its own story,” Gillmor said.

While he is hopeful that mashups will mobilize people to generate their own local news and resources, Gillmor is still trying to resolve lingering questions about accuracy.


“People looking at these sites need to start with a certain level of skepticism,” Gillmor said.

Ben Welsh, of the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit that conducts investigative journalism, encountered a similar concern when the organization published "Wasting Away," an online series about Superfund sites.

“The mashup can very powerfully suggest causation between two variables. Just like any other journalistic tool, these things need to be presented responsibly,” Welsh said.

The series features a mashup of Anniston, Alabama, a small town where a PCB manufacturing plant discharged contaminated wastewater into streams, ditches and landfills for 40 years(http://www.publicintegrity.org/superfund). Clicking on one of the map’s blue pushpins brings up an embedded YouTube video of an Anniston resident discussing the impact of pollution on his or her life. One even suggests a link between local diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular-related deaths and the toxic waste.

Steve Carpinelli, a media relations manager for the Center for Public Integrity, wrote in an e-mail that the article accompanying the video was “thoroughly fact-checked sentence by sentence” and added that the video interviews did not contradict the expert opinions the reporting team had gathered.

While advocates argue that mashups promote transparency and accountability, there is the potential that an ever-watching eye may clash with notions of privacy. Mapping Shari’a is a mashup project sponsored by the Society of Americans for National Existence, a right-wing organization concerned with national security. In the next year, they aim to visit the nation’s 2,300 Islamic mosques and schools in an effort to ascertain whether jihad is being taught.

David Yerushalmi, the organization’s president and founder, declined to discuss the protocols for compiling information, but said that his team will consider, among other factors,  clothing and the content discussed in the religious services, in determining the threat level of each mosque and school.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said on its Web site that the project was tantamount to spying on the country’s Islamic institutions. Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for CAIR, expected the final product to promote anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I’m not exactly hopeful that what they’ll come up will be objective or remotely truthful,” he said.

Undoubtedly, the widespread availability of Google Earth Outreach will result in more technologically sophisticated mashups and an increased focus on political and social issues. Mashups of this strain could turn the average citizen into a first responder, citizen journalist, vigilant observer or spy.

“They have a visceral impact whether you’re telling a story through journalism or trying to provoke a response,” said Welsh. “They have more potency than a red dot on a map.”

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