Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Star Press: BSU maps county's most needy areas

In TSP's Sunday paper, Seth Slabaugh gives a good overview of our interactions with community partners this semester, with quotes from two students: Ryan Cooper and Bryan Preston.  Read the story, here.
MUNCIE -- Ball State University is making maps to help the community identify its neediest areas, including severely eroded river banks, neighborhoods heavy with low-income residents who are without health care and historic homes lacking attention.
Then it's up to the agencies to use those maps to visually see solutions.
Two of Ball State's geographic information system (GIS) workshops are helping the United Way and Open Door Health Services locate low-income residents who need public assistance. Another one is showing the city of Muncie which of the century-old homes in the Emily Kimbrough Historic District need to be repaired. A fourth shows where soil is eroding into the White River, turning the water the color of coffee with cream.
"We know the data, we know the poverty rates," said Karen Hemberger, director of agency relations and community investment at United Way of Delaware County.
"But to see it on a map gives a clearer picture. If we see on a map an area with high poverty rates but no social services within any significant travel distance, we might want to figure out, with gas at $4 a gallon and these people living in poverty and needing to travel, how to make things accessible."
For example, Wes-Del Community Schools at Gaston has the second-highest rate of free and reduced-price lunches in Delaware County (Muncie Schools is first).
"Relatively speaking, it's a distance for anyone from Gaston to get to Muncie where most of the services are provided," Hemberger said. "We wanted to partner with the school to bring services to Gaston families, but also to help their students. Kids coming to school hungry or with a toothache are not able to concentrate in class as much."
Open Door Health Services provides medical, dental and behavioral care to low-income residents, and also helps them enroll in the Hoosier Healthwise insurance program, Medicaid, Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, the food stamp program, smoking cessation programs, diabetes care and other services.
"The GIS workshop is plotting the patients we serve onto maps, and overlaying insurance and income data so we can identify areas that we might not be reaching," said Heidi Miller, chief development and quality officer at Open Door. "We want to make sure that people in those areas are familiar with our services, that our services are available to them, and that they are using them.
"We use that data to support our grant writing as well as determine our next marketing steps."
Open Door's funding sources include the U.S Department of Health and Human Services and the Indiana State Department of Health.
Laborious process
Another GIS workshop is assisting the 10-year-old White River Watershed Project, which is funded mostly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are identifying areas of Delaware County most in need of conservation practices," said Colby Gray, coordinator of the watershed project. "We have a limited amount of funding, so it's important that we come up with a rational process to determine our priorities. We have to have a system in place to choose the places that have the most need. The GIS research that Ball State is doing plugs into that process."
Conservation practices to curb erosion include "grassed waterways" or strips of grass in fields where water concentrates or flows off, and "riparian buffers" of grass, trees, and shrubs along rivers and streams. Such practices slow down and trap runoff of soil.
The nation's No. 1 pollutant of waterways is soil -- sometimes contaminated with farm chemicals -- that turns the water murky, clogs fish gills and smothers fish spawning.
"The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of how sediment can choke out a lot of microorganisms and fish," said Colby Gray, coordinator of the federally-funded White River Watershed Project.
Agricultural pollutants and sediment contribute to hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen, in the Gulf of Mexico. The White River is part of the problem in the gulf because it eventually drains to the Mississippi River, which empties into the gulf. But there are also local impacts on fish, mussels, and other wildlife.
A U.S. Geological Survey study found 158 species of fish in the White River in 1875. That number had dropped to 10 by 1972, when the local sanitary district's bureau of water quality was created to address industrial pollution. Since then, the number of fish species in the river has risen to more than 70.
The recovering populations of fish, insects, and mussels have brought back other wildlife, including muskrats, beaver, great blue heron, and mink.
But it will take more conservation practices to further increase the diversity of fish.
"We are finding in some of our research that, over the past 30 years, the ag community is doing a lot of great things when it comes to sediment management, like no-till farming (growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil)," Gray said. "But we're still seeing an increase in sediment in our river. What we are finding out is that 400 times more sediment is coming off the river banks themselves than from farm fields. The GIS workshop is crucial in expanding that study."
Matthew Wilson, an assistant professor of geography, is overseeing the workshops, which are courses taken by BSU students, mostly graduate students.
"We are documenting erosion of the stream banks," said Ryan Cooper, one of the students.
He and other students are using a Trimble Yuma tablet computer equipped with a camera and global positioning system capabilities.
Another student, Bryan Preston, is enrolled in a separate workshop that is using aerial photographs and satellite images to analyze farming practices in the watershed going back to the 1940s.
"We still have a long way to go," Preston said. "It's a laborious process."
He calls the workshop "riskier" than a course confined to the classroom. "You don't know what's going to happen with a project like this," Preston said. "We're having more work to do than we thought."
Prof leaving town
Professor Wilson calls both watershed workshops "tedious projects that are only scraping the surface of what needs to be done with data collection and inventorying. Hopefully, it will continue with other students in the future."
Wilson, however, won't be overseeing future workshops. He is joining the faculty at the University of Kentucky this summer.
"I am hopeful we will be able to continue these partnerships with community groups," Wilson said. "I know that the college and the department and President (Jo Ann) Gora are excited about this kind of work."
Gopalan Venugopal, chairman of the geography department, said: "At this time of the hiring process, I cannot promise, but our intention is that we will continue to work with community organizations in the future. During the personal interviews, we will emphasize the emerging media opportunities and community work. We are more concerned about the new hire because this class which was taught by Dr. Wilson is our immersive experience class, too."
Bill Morgan, the city's historic preservation officer, is hopeful the workshops will continue.
"We have long wanted to do a detailed survey of the conditions of homes in the Emily Kimbrough District," Morgan said. "We just didn't have the manpower to get it done until Matt came along. He has three students working this semester on that survey. It looks like they won't get the whole neighborhood done in one semester."
One thing the survey will accomplish is counting exactly how many homes remain in the district. Some 125 homes were documented during a survey in the 1980s, but Morgan believes the number now is closer to 100.
"This GIS project will be helpful in several ways," Morgan said. "One is, it will show us where there are problems that maybe we can address. It also will be helpful to establish a base line of conditions, so we can go back and see if we are gaining or losing ground. Then for the historic preservation commission, we will have access to all this data to guide our decisions on certificates of appropriateness (approval or denial of alterations to landmark buildings)."