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Citizen science bolsters rural communities

Katie Cowart

Local populations understand their communities best. They’re familiar both with points of pride and with areas that could be improved. But determining the nature of those improvements from best practices, as well as achieving community consensus on implementation, can present a different set of challenges.

Jerry Shannon, associate professor of geography in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences, worked with a team of researchers to introduce a citizen science approach in 11 communities across Georgia, from Rockmart to Monroe to Millen. This work combines local knowledge with emerging digital technologies to bolster community-driven efforts in multiple communities in rural Georgia. His research was detailed in a paper, “‘Really Knowing’ the Community: Citizen Science, VGI and Community Housing Assessments” published in December in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

Shannon worked with the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing, managed out of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS), to create tools for communities to evaluate and launch plans to address their housing needs and revitalization. This citizen science effort resulted in a more diverse and inclusive body of data that incorporated local perspectives.

“Through this project, we hope to further support and extend these community-driven efforts to assure affordable, quality housing,” said Shannon. “Rural communities don’t have the resources internally to do this work themselves. We provide training and tools to these communities.”

As part of their participation in the GICH program, each Georgia community assembled a housing team consisting of elected officials, members of community organizations and housing professionals such as real estate agents. The team recruited volunteers from student groups and religious organizations to conduct so-called “windshield surveys,” where participants work from their vehicle or walk the neighborhoods.

“We’re never on people’s actual properties, but people still want to come out and find out what we’re doing. You end up having conversations with them,” Shannon said. “This is where it’s really helpful to have people from city government or locals doing the surveys; they can easily connect with the community to ease anxieties and explain the purpose.

“The goal is to build a connection,” Shannon said. “Normally when you start talking about property redevelopment, people get worried that it’s going to be antagonistic, that ‘the city is going to fine me or make me spend money to repair something.’ We want them to know we’re there to help them.”


Image: Jerry Shannon, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography (photo by Amy Ware)

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