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New technology gives communities new level of support.

Human service providers across the country are harnessing the power of the Internet to help their clients achieve self-sufficiency. Just days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, the Mississippi State University Early Childhood Institute used information from a Geographic Information System map to identify and rapidly respond to the most devastated early childhood centers in the area. The United Way in Charleston, S.C., is using multiple layers of data to understand the impact of their programs on their community. Across the country, disAbility Spin, a new community web portal in Columbia, Mo., empowers disabled residents to find community facilities and businesses that accommodate their accessibility needs.

Web portals such as these use the interactive mapping and data integration capabilities of the Community Information Resource Center in the Rural Policy Research Institute. Today, community organizations and local municipalities are utilizing GIS technologies to spatially examine, map and generate custom reports to make more informed decisions for their communities. CIRC's integrated information framework takes this process one step further and links GIS mapping tools with federal, state and local data sets. Integrating socioeconomic, demographic and health data creates a "patchwork quilt" of community indicators that illustrates a multi-layered picture of a community's health, its sustainability and the well-being of its residents.

Over the years, CIRC collaboratives have evolved to include community health information systems and social service and health policy. CIRC's collaborative partnerships explore how services in urban and rural areas are distributed and accessed and examine the impact on vulnerable populations. Critical examination of access to health and general social services is necessary because integrated services and delivery systems are being continually reorganized into smaller units. These units often cross multiple agencies and neighborhood-based programs.

Desperate Need, Improved Results

Major natural disasters make it difficult for first responders and human service providers to know where to target their early resources or to pinpoint on a map where help is needed most. In collaboration with the Mississippi State University Early Childhood Institute, CIRC and the institute created an Early Childhood Atlas for 12 states that provides location maps of child care facilities to use during times of disaster. These custom maps help first responders check on children under school age and help child care providers find the nearest shelter locations. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, CIRC staff was able to interactively overlay hurricane wind speed and storm surge strength on the institute's atlas to create maps that told first responders and state officials, within hours, which child-care centers were in the storm's path. During the recent tornadoes in Florida, the same exercise identified 624 child-care centers that may have been in the path of the storms.

At the Trident United Way in Charleston, S.C., organizational leaders were looking for a tool to understand the impact of their funding decisions on the health and well-being of their region. In partnership with CIRC, the Trident United Way created a web-based mapping tool that lets funded partners interactively map their eligible service areas and display where the greatest concentrations of their services are located. Partners can now visually see their service area. Programs such as the Trident United Way can use this tool to improve their organizational structure by identifying where they do not provide services and where they may be providing duplicate services.

The disAbility Spin portal, a collaborative effort between PeerLink and CIRC, harnesses the power of the Internet to let citizens become more engaged in the livability of their community. The tool enables people to rate the accessibility of facilities in Columbia, Mo., and provide descriptive, real-time reviews of the accessibility of these buildings, sidewalks and other infrastructure. It helps more vulnerable persons become part of an effective online community of engaged citizens.

Better-defined program areas are just the beginning. CIRC collaboratives also let decision-makers drill down into the layers of socioeconomic, demographic and health data to understand the complexity of their communities, which we hope will result in better service delivery and wiser public policy choices.

Christopher Fulcher is the director of the Community Information Research Center at the Rural Policy Research Institute, a multi-state consortium sponsored by Iowa State University, the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jocelyn Richgels is the associate director of national policy programs at RUPRI.
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Title Annotation:the field works
Author:Fulcher, Christopher; Richgels, Jocelyn
Publication:Policy & Practice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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