Should Social Work students learn rudimentary Geographic Information Systems (GIS) skills as they prepare for professional practice?
Geographic Information Systems projects (GIS) are interactive representations of information on maps that illustrate how societies develop and change over time. Fundamentally, GIS projects are interactive constructions of complex social, economic, and cultural phenomena, and they invite students to locate information and deliver it via a spatial medium. Just about any research question in any discipline can be framed and explored on a map. In fact, GIS is a way of thinking and a way to solve problems. GIS products, like embedded Google maps or searchable Esri ArcGIS databases, are also repositories of information that can serve entire communities and populations. GIS is yet another social media platform that social work students can master as they prepare for professional practice.
Although not usually considered social media, Google’s Maps platform allows people to construct rudimentary GIS products that could be valuable sources of information for members of a community. Anyone with minimal knowledge of maps can custom-build information, insert commentary, and add ideas into Google’s highly-recognizable interface. I would go so far as to say that when social work professionals enter the field, they will be expected to create interactive maps to be displayed on agency websites or blogs. These maps can be simple or elaborate, and they could spatially orient people to vital resources in a community.
For example, consider this map designed by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in 2012. Agency staff created a Google Map that pins the locations of homeless shelters in the Chicago area that house registered voters and also have programs in place that encourage residents to registers and vote.
View Homeless Shelters with Registered Voters Map in a larger map
It’s true that any semi-savvy Internet user could search for “shelters” on a Google Map and retrieve a reasonably complete set of locations. However, the added value of this GIS map by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is that its pins contain brief, personalized blurbs about the voting resources each shelter provides for that particular election cycle. Another example is this Community Snapshots map, created by City Heights Support Services of Price Charities in San Diego, CA. The public housing advocacy group has pinned information that lets people know about counseling services, financial education centers, farmer’s markets, and other resources that benefit residents of the downtown San Diego area. Note that this map is embedded directly on the agency website.