By Kadesha Thomas
Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

A health project taking shape on the South Side resembles a scavenger hunt. But in this case the hunters are squads of trained researchers who walk the neighborhoods, the clues pop up on wireless devices, and the objects to be found are valuable businesses and services in the community.

Cataloging local businesses is just one goal of the Resource Mapping Project, which is a key component of the University Medical Center’s South Side Health and Vitality Studies. Ultimately the team wants to create online maps that will be equally useful to scientists studying health disparities and local residents searching for nearby community services.

The need for that information quickly became clear to the young field researchers who began surveying South Side neighborhoods on foot in July. All the researchers are students between 18 and 25 years old; half come from Chicago neighborhoods, and the other half are University of Chicago students.

Creating community connections

Lauren Foster, a student researcher from West Pullman, says their work is creating new links in the community.

“One man said he was glad because he didn’t even know if there was a dentist in his neighborhood,” recalls Foster, who studies political science at Hampton University in Virginia. “Because of the crime and poverty, you think these [resources] aren’t there, but they are.”

Each day, a team of two or three researchers takes a block-by-block tour of each neighborhood, guided by older directory information stored on a wireless phone. As they approach a potential location, they confirm the old information or enter an update.

Some bystanders react with confused glances at researchers as they roam around in their distinctive green shirts, staring at buildings and punching in data. The reactions usually shift to mild skepticism or emphatic enthusiasm once the researchers explain their project.

One leery resident asked if the students were scoping out vacant lots to buy, said Jeff Bean, a field researcher who recently graduated from the University with a degree in geography.

“He was half joking, but he was trying to feel us out,” Bean says.

Many residents have been eager to participate by requesting that their businesses be included, suggesting other businesses that may not be visible or volunteering background information on businesses that have relocated or closed.

Community interaction “crucial”

Interaction with the community is a crucial part of the research and the final outcome, says the project’s co-director Colleen Grogran, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration. Instead of relying on top-down assumptions, residents will lead the interpretation of the data and define their community’s assets, priorities, and leaders.

“The community is very diverse,” Grogan explains. “It might be 85 percent African American, but it is very diverse economically and educationally. We want the maps to reflect that diversity. There are vulnerable people whose voices aren’t heard. [To address] health disparities we must hear them.”

The project is casting a wide net because poor health outcomes often stem from a lack of basic services and commodities, explains Barbara Kensey, a business owner who has lived in Hyde Park for 22 years and serves as a member of the project’s advisory board.

“If you have to take the bus miles to a grocery store, that contributes to poor health,” Kensey says. “If there is no community center for the kids, that contributes to poor health. And if you can see where the needs are in the community, we can begin to fill the gaps.”

The project is currently being piloted in six South Side communities: Hyde Park, Woodlawn, East Side, Grand Boulevard, Kenwood, and Washington Park. Eventually the project will expand to cover all 32 South Side communities.

Keeping information current

Past efforts to map communities have usually focused on one specific resource like churches or grocery stores. That information often becomes outdated as quickly as it’s collected with no plan to maintain its relevance.

Grogan says she and her colleagues are exploring strategies to keep the information current. One is a Wikipedia approach where several active, dedicated residents in each community will edit the information as necessary.

Such a system for distributing local knowledge may be just what the neighborhoods need, says student researcher Johana Muriel, a Hyde Park resident who will study urban and public affairs this fall at University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Many businesses don’t advertise, and the information is passed through friends or family,” Muriel says. “Now it will be [more accessible].”

By Kadesha Thomas

Originally published on August 24, 2009.