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Neighbourhood Information Systems

Dennis Culhane
Cartographic Modeling Laboratory
University of Pennsylvania
200 Caster Building, 3701 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6214
Phone: 215-349-8705, 215-746-3245
Fax: 215-573-3019
[email protected]

Bradley Breuer
Avencia, Incorporated
340 N 12th St, Suite 402B
Philadelphia, PA 19107
[email protected]

“Community information systems” are becoming an increasingly common way to distribute administrative data. These web-based systems are distributing valuable community and social indicator data to concerned individuals, social service organizations, community development professionals, policy analysts, planners, and businesses who would otherwise have great trouble accessing neighbourhood level data. Using the infrastructure provided by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and the World Wide Web, these systems provide important neighbourhood data via maps, tables and sometime through downloadable files. Some also provide analysis tools for users to manipulate or extract key neighbourhood indicator data. Such systems have become popular in some municipal agencies because they are less expensive and don’t require desktop GIS software and equipment, and specialized training (Hillier, McKelvey, Wernecke, Forthcoming).

GIS is a way of thinking about the world that puts spatial relationships at the center. GIS technology was originally developed to model the natural world—landmasses and bodies of water, elevation, temperature, soil composition, and suitable habitats for animals. More recently, social scientists have begun applying these tools—and this way of thinking—to understanding the social and built environment. These technologies form the core of the offerings available in online community information systems.

Among a variety of offerings, these systems typically have census data, city administrative data, economic and social indicator data, and important housing and poverty indicators. Of course, with the use of the Internet, these systems have significantly increased access to data. Similarly, providing these data with a geographic interface and analysis tools has allowed end-users to access and analyze data in ways previously unavailable to them because of technical barriers. Community information systems have added to the richness of information that is available to community organizers, social workers, and community organizations and it has been especially helpful to those engaged in neighbourhood development. New audiences for these data, including commercial entities, continue to emerge as data and tools expand. As users and uses of these online systems grow, critical questions about their reliability and robustness must be answered.

The Neighbourhood Information System (NIS) was developed by the Cartographic Modeling Lab (CML) at the University of Pennsylvania. The CML is an interdisciplinary research center that applies GIS and spatial analysis to social policy analysis, teaching, and research with a special focus on Philadelphia. Principal investigators from across the University of Pennsylvania have access to the lab’s hardware, software, and data warehouse investments as well as methodological expertise. The CML is funded primarily through research grants from foundations and public institutions, and by contracts for services and application development. The NIS is just one of several successful city-university partnerships designed to distribute administrative data in a user-friendly and Internet-based interface. Other such partnerships include community information systems at the Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland Area Network for Data and Organizing), New York University (New York City Housing and Information System), and the University of California (Neighbourhood Knowledge Los Angeles). Much of the technical programming behind the NIS is done by Avencia, Incorporated, a Philadelphia-based GIS software development firm.