George Towers, a geography professor and Head of the Division of Liberal Arts at IUPUC, loves finding new ways to visualize information spatially. His work with CivicLab, a non-profit institute dedicated to advancing the practice of civic collaboration, is helping community leaders learn more about the people and places they serve. This earned Towers CivicLab’s first Fellowship.
“It’s a pleasure and an honor to work with CivicLab in the service of our community,” Towers said.
Towers first got involved with CivicLab, an initiative of Columbus’ Community Education Coalition, three years ago when the world was on shutdown. He logged into a presentation by Executive Director Jack Hess and was impressed by CivicLab’s commitment to advancing equity in our community. Intrigued by Hess’ attention to the spatial expression of equity across Columbus neighborhoods and Bartholomew County communities, Towers saw an opportunity to help.
“I offered to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze neighborhood-scale census data and display it with maps,” Towers said. “The purpose is to further our understanding of the spatial dimensions of demographic and socio-economic diversity and inform strategies to advance social equity in our communities.”
Over the past three years, Towers has worked with Hess and Amber Fischvogt, Civic Lab Director, on a variety of projects. They began by grouping Bartholomew County neighborhoods into clusters sharing similar characteristics and mapping the distribution of socio-economic status across the county. Through presentations for community partners, such as the local school corporation, hospital, and United Way, they have increased awareness of how resources and challenges vary significantly from neighborhood to neighborhood.
More recently, Towers’ work with CivicLab has extended to counties across Indiana. The Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs enlisted Hess and Fischvogt’s expertise to help nine counties better understand their communities using an equity lens. For each county, Towers used GIS to create neighborhood-scale visualizations of economic well-being, health and wellness, and connectivity.
“We are providing a mosaic of information to the people who decide where resources and services are allocated in a community. Sometimes it sparks new insights, and sometimes it reinforces the significance of familiar challenges,” Towers said.
One of Towers’ techniques involves creating equity-focused indices, which distill a scattering of related information into an understandable single measure. For example, an economic well-being index might combine family and household income, cost of housing, and rates of poverty and public assistance. Towers and his CivicLab colleagues Hess and Fischvogt are currently developing a child well-being index for Bartholomew County. The index is designed to support CivicLab’s “2030 Moonshot” goal to make Columbus the most equitable community for children in the nation.
To learn more about CivicLab, visit educationcoalition.com/civic-lab.