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October - December 2005
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Closing the Digital Divide

Currently lots of ink and airtime are devoted to discussions of the digital divide-the growing gap between the computer savvy and the sans computer segment of the population. This divide encompasses access to geospatial technology as well. However, an organization is actively working to narrow that gap. The GISCorps provides GIS services to underserved communities through short-term projects staffed by volunteers.

Working under the aegis of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), GISCorps is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2003. Each project begins with an evaluation by the GISCorps Core Committee. If the project is approved, the necessary qualifications for project volunteers are identified and the GISCorps volunteer database is queried for suitable candidates. Volunteers are vigorously prescreened for professional competence. They supply many types of geospatial services from data collection and analysis to developing Web-based interactive mapping applications to planning systems and training staff.

In its brief history, the GISCorps has worked on a wide range of projects all over the world. One of the organization's more recent projects was assisting response efforts to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. See the accompanying article, "GISCorps Aids Hurricane Response," for more information on this project.

The short-term nature of these projects lets GIS professionals from both private and public sectors participate. Most volunteers report their assignments have been gratifying. The reaction of Heather Milton, a volunteer who is an ArcGIS instructor from the Esri St.-Louis office, is typical. "The GISCorps experiences I've had have been very fulfilling for me personally," she said. "I'm interested in humanitarian relief and disaster management, and these experiences have allowed me to be a part of those efforts and contribute a specialized skill."

As a veteran of two GISCorps assignments, one in Indonesia in spring 2005 and, more recently, as a member of the first deployment to Mississippi in September 2005, she has some advice for people who are considering volunteering. While she has found the work very rewarding, she notes that the experience can "include some things that many people find frustrating."

  • Be prepared to wait around. Despite urgent requests that volunteers arrive on-site ASAP, once there it may take some time to work out duties for each volunteer so "take a book, pillow, or Frisbee along."
  • Be prepared to sleep anywhere. Accommodations may or may not be supplied in a timely manner and can range from a tent to a hotel room.
  • Be prepared for a lot of togetherness. Volunteers spend 24 hours a day with their team. That means working, sleeping, eating, and driving everywhere together.
  • Be flexible. Every day the duties and processes of the mission will somehow change. Help the people on-site "generate ideas and understand the technical possibilities and limitations, but also be prepared for the job to swing wildly in all aspects and try to maintain some flexibility."

For many GIS professionals, other responsibilities that limit the time that can be spent away from home may make even short-term assignments impractical. There are other options for volunteering with the GISCorps without leaving home. These can include identifying grant opportunities and writing grants and performing information gathering and processing tasks.

Donations are accepted and may take a variety of forms that include contributing airline miles; making general operation contributions for defraying the costs associated with running the organization; endowing a project (as long as it complies with the GISCorps mission); and making donations through the URISA membership application form, URISA chapter, or annual sponsorship/membership. To learn more about what GISCorps is doing and what you can do, visit www.giscorps.org.

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