By: Benjamin Silver, Science and Technology Intern

I never imagined that a five-gigabyte software on my laptop could contain an approach to fighting environmental injustice. The keys lie somewhere between map frames and advanced geostatistical interpolations.

Before interning at CHEJ, I had an incomplete understanding of environmental justice. I pictured the field solely as activists and victims opposing corporate polluters. Although I understood that research supports these organizing efforts, I never considered methods that scientists adopt to evaluate ecological data. One of these methods is GIS (geographic information systems), a computer program designed to collect, analyze, and distribute spatial data. GIS specialists create maps to interpret data across various disciplines. When appropriate techniques are applied, GIS can help solve geographically-related problems.

One environmental application of GIS is its use to develop comprehensive disaster responses. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey ripped through Southern Texas, killing 68 people and causing over $120 billion in infrastructure damage. However, widespread GIS usage after the storm significantly decreased Harvey’s devastation. The International Association of Fire Chiefs used GIS in their search and rescue efforts to determine flooded regions with high concentrations of vulnerable populations. They prevented dozens of elderly, children, and disabled people from being stranded in their homes. Additionally, the Texas Division of Emergency Management mapped shelter locations with ArcMap, a GIS platform, and created a web application for tracking evacuees.

CHEJ has allowed me to learn and implement GIS into my work. In December, I began my first GIS project with the Brave Heart Society, a non-profit dedicated to preserving traditional elements of Dakota culture on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. I worked on the Mni Wizipan Wakan Project, which aims to create a long-term resource management plan for the Dakota tribe. My contribution of the project focused on vegetation, an integral component of Dakota lifestyle for their various tribal uses. The goal is to create an inventory of culturally-valuable plants along the Missouri River Basin. This information is important because soil erosion, agricultural runoff, and invasive species along the river have undermined biodiversity and decreased the abundance of healthy vegetation. Using Dakota ethnobotanical data, I created an interactive map of the bioregion with GIS. Viewers can click on species survey points on the map to learn about each location’s plants and their respective uses.

This project taught me that GIS is a useful tool. Like any tool, its value lies within the creative context the author invokes. While my map informs the Dakota where they can find various vegetation, it does not address the underlying sustainability question facing the Dakota: How can the tribe ensure their access to these plants for future generations? Therefore, I integrated the map into a presentation that incorporates broader themes of the project, including ethnobotany, environmental threats, and local conservation efforts along the river. My aim in designing this product was to create a useful resource in the Ihantonwan’s struggle for environmental justice. 

GIS is a groundbreaking technology with the power to transform the modern environmental justice movement. Maximizing GIS’s potential to combat issues hinges on engaging local communities by familiarizing them with the program and its benefits. Residents fighting contamination often feel helpless due to their lack of agency during testing and investigations. Empowering these communities with basic GIS education will provide a resource to better involve them in local environmental justice battles. Even if communities are not working with the data directly, viewing GIS-generated maps can foster citizen science participation around issues that impact their everyday lives. 

While GIS expands horizons for scientific advancement, we must remember that it is most valuable when harnessed to assist the people impacted by the environmental justice movement. Only then will mapping elements on the computer screen translate into meaningful social change.

Photo Credit: Huawei Enterprise