Shea O’Neill ’07 spoke at the first Sustainability Cafe of the semester about Geographic Information Systems and how they can be used for community development. About 60 faculty and students attended the talk, which was held at 4 p.m. Monday in Center for Natural Sciences 112.
The Sustainability Cafe series began in 2003 and aims to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas about sustainability theory and practice.
O’Neill began the talk with a specific example of community development involved in the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander-University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, a west Philadelphia charter elementary school. Fifteen years ago, the University of Pennsylvania began the West Philadelphia Initiative, in response to the downward spiral of the city since World War II, O’Neill said.
The university became involved in safety measures, increased real estate investments and skills training for the citizens of west Philadelphia, but in addition to the community development, the university wanted to do something to help the school system, O’Neill said.
“The University of Philadelphia is one of the leading examples of how a university can interact with a community … Penn was left with this choice of we could throw money at the school system and see if something gets fixed, or we could build a charter school,” O’Neill said.
The University of Philadelphia invested $800,000 per child per year and an additional $25 million to build a charter school in a vacant lot in west Philadelphia, and the effect was instantaneous, he said. Real estate prices inside the school’s catchment area – only students inside the specific area can attend the school – soared because of the positive impact of the school.
“Throughout the years it has had an absolute transformative effect on the neighborhood. If you look geographically at west Philly in the catchment area and just outside the catchment area, home sales are $100,000 more,” O’Neill said.
However, drawing the boundaries of the school’s catchment area was extremely difficult because more families wanted their children to go to the school than it could support, O’Neill said.
“It’s so competitive that there are now too many people living inside it and the great irony is it’s now a lottery system. It returns to this whole idea of community and neighborhood development.”
The University of Philadelphia tried to reach out to as many neighborhood-based organizations as they possibly could and asked them to talk to their constituents about what the boundaries should be, he said. O’Neill wants to propose a new way to begin the boundary-drawing process that involves building the boundary piece by piece with rasters — a rectangular grid of pixels — used in GIS.
Sophomore Rebecca Newman is currently enrolled in a GIS course at the college taught by Ali Erkan, associate professor of computer science. The class develops the skills necessary to create and manipulate data into visual maps. Newman thought the talk was useful to anyone involved with GIS.
“It was very informative and it had a good beginning to it,” she said. “It wasn’t like a lecture; he had a fun story to go with it.”
O’Neill said GIS appeals to him because it is a different way of thinking that can be applied to spatial analysis.
“The greatest way to know it is if you ever live in a town for long enough, and you have to get from A to B, sometimes you’ll take a route that isn’t the quickest,” he said. “That route isn’t the most logical but for some reason you’re doing it, whether it’s you passing a certain amenity or it’s muscle memory or some good things will happen to you on that road. That’s the kind of thinking that you could apply to spatial analysis, and I just really got taken with it.”
Senior Eve Rosekrans said the talk provided her with useful information, and she is leaning toward taking a GIS class next semester.
“GIS is something that’s kind of a mystery to us, but we’re told that it’s really smart to learn and I was actually definitely considering taking it at Cornell [University] next semester because it’s only offered once a year at Ithaca,” Rosekrans said. “This seminar really sealed the deal for it. It’s very versatile and it’s something that not a lot of people know about.”