Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Engaging Community Through Geovisualization

By Carrie Magnuson
Macalester College students work with local organizations
to promote clean water.

Students at Macalester College in St. Paul are using their knowledge, creativity and energy to develop new ways for us to communicate with our residents using a combination of maps and storytelling. The class is Geovisualization and Community Partnerships.

“Geovisualization,” according to Ashley Nepp, Lab Instructor & Manager, “is the art and science of communicating spatial data.”

Nepp has teamed-up this semester with Freshwater Society, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, Capitol Region Watershed District and Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to give her students not just real-world scenarios, but real-world partnerships with staff from these organizations. The end result is a win-win; the students create a project that will have a positive impact on their community and the organizations receive a product they can use to more effectively tell their story.
Using a Geographic Information System (GIS) resource called ArcGIS Online (AGO) as a common platform, the students are creating visually stunning ways to talk about dynamic projects that might otherwise get lost in pages of text. 
Here we will take a brief look at those projects and give you a chance to interact with the geovisualizations yourself!

An Interactive Look at the Master Water Stewards Program

Freshwater Society/Minnehaha Creek Watershed District

The Master Water Stewards program is a partnership between Freshwater Society and participating Watershed Districts. The story map built by five Macalester students intends to “dynamically showcase the growth of the Master Water Stewards in the last three years, and to showcase the hard work of the program participants”.

Two students in this group are taking the Geovisualization class as well as the Quantitative Analytics class in partnership with the Freshwater Society. This dual look at the program is reflected in the web map through a qualitative and a quantitative section. 

“Who are the Master Water Stewards and why do we need them?” 

The qualitative portion tells the personal stories of participants using map points tied to interviews the students conducted with Master Water Stewards. Through three sample studies, they show the audience what it is like to go through the program and how the Steward’s ‘ownership’ of the program has impacted their lives and that of their neighbors. The idea of creating a “New Normal,” as described by Peggy Knapp of the Freshwater Society, is what the program hopes to achieve by making water stewardship and pollution prevention accessible and visible to everyone, not just agencies and environmentalists.

Students work with MCWD Staff to develop the story map.

Surveys conducted by the Quantitative Analytics students in MCWD neighborhoods revealed that hesitation to be the first house on the block to install a rain garden in their front yard, for example, is still strong. This finding reiterates the importance of showing visually through maps, photos and videos, that these yard practices are more common than residents imagine and are becoming the new normal.

Master Water Stewards Ava and Myrtle are interviewed
by students about their experience as community liasons.

"Influence Over Time"

The quantitative portion of the story map puts numbers behind these stories of inspiration and community.  Using the locations of stewards, their projects, and their places of outreach (door knocking in neighborhoods, rain garden parties, community events, etc.), to show the circle of influence in a ‘heat map’ form (see image below) is a powerful visualization. Interactive charts support this visualization by showing the diverse types and numbers of projects completed in the first three years of the Master Water Steward Program. Impressively, the team even tackled the Minimal Impact Design Standards (MIDS) calculator, a technical tool used by engineers to quantify what effect different projects have on the watershed as a whole, including the amount of water infiltrated and how much phosphorus and suspended solids were kept out of surface waters.

Macalester students present their mid-term progress
report on the Master Water Stewards story map.

Armed with the knowledge of what the Master Water Stewards program is, the problem of stormwater and the effectiveness of resident influence, the story map concludes with a call for map users to get involved. From simple first steps, to being the first on your block to embrace a new normal, this final slide provides guidance on where to start.

Check out the geovisualization HERE

Exploring the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District
Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District

Kohlman Creek Subwatershed and Kohlman Lake Subwatershed are the geographic focal points of the geovisualization done for RWMWD. The three-student team created a web map application that tells the story of stormwater projects done by the District to protect Kohlman Lake and downstream waters. Such projects including stream-bank stabilization, carp management, Maplewood Mall stormwater retrofit, shoreline restorations, and a wide variety of Best Management Projects (BMPs) put in through the District permit and cost share programs. Users can see where these projects are on the map, along with photos, video, and hyperlinks to more information about the projects.

The goal of the RWMWD Geovisualization is to show residents clean water projects in their neighborhood, and show how and why these actions are making their favorite lake healthier. A few of the effective tools this map uses include:

  • A swipable map showing the BMPs installed at Maplewood Mall to infiltrate stormwater. Map points have pop-ups with project details and photos.
  • Lake facts including depth, clarity and other physical features as well as links to more water quality data.
  • Video and photo coverage of the carp research project that show affected water bodies and what actions the District took to manage the population of this invasive fish.
  • An interactive map of BMPs that were installed through facilitation with RWMWD in the subwatersheds. Points are clickable so the user can see details of the project.
  • A list of next steps, giving the user ideas and resources to take part in keeping their water clean.
Students work with RWMWD staff to develop the story
of Kohlman Creek and Kohlman Lake Subwatershed projects

“This is part of their everyday life, and many people have no idea,” said one student. They hope this web map application will help “bring it back to the residents.”

Check out the geovisualization HERE 

Green Infrastructure Along the Green Line

Capitol Region Watershed District

The Green Line is the newest addition to the Light Rail Transit system, and exists largely within the Capitol Region Watershed District. A prominent length of this new stretch uses University Avenue in St. Paul. In constructing this project, the City worked with the Watershed District to manage stormwater along the rail line, going above and beyond permit requirements to make stormwater management not just effective, but aesthetic.

“Make the invisible visible” is something CRWD Administrator Mark Doneaux uses as a guiding principal when choosing to incorporate art into engineering. The goal of the CRWD geovisualization is to highlight these two elements of stormwater management along the Green Line, and to answer the question “Yes it’s prettier, but so what?”

Students present their mid-term progress report on
the Green Infrastructure along the Green Line geovisualization.

Users of the story map can click along a map of the Green Line to better understand what types of stormwater treatment are used in this system, why they are used, and see before/after images of what it looks like. Projects including tree trenches, rain gardens, infiltration trenches, stormwater planters and more are shown in an interactive way. Users can click on a feature to get more information see photos, and in most cases get the story behind it. Many times these features incorporate the artistry of local residents to complete, but many passing by may miss this fact.

The three-student team wanted to tell these stories, and show that whether a person lives in the area or is passing through by train or car, that they are a part of a larger system and their actions directly influence the health of the Mississippi River. They wanted their map to have ‘place making effects,’ as well as educate the community to the pollution prevention mechanisms at work.

Check out the geovisualization HERE

Thank you!

We are excited to have been able to build on Freshwater Society’s 3-year collaboration with the Macalester Geography and Qualitative Analytics classes. The groundwork set up by Peggy Knapp and others at Freshwater Society opens new doors and allows both the students and their partner organizations to make important strides in finding effective ways to communicate with and empower our communities.

A big thank you also goes out to the students who dug through digital mountains of technical data on a topic they previously knew little about, and came out on the other side talking easily about BMPs, TSS, Secchi disks, and MIDS. Bravo to them!

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