This is 30: On the power of ‘where’

Photo by Steve Hymon 

What do you think of when you hear the acronym GIS? Maps? Computers? Massive quantities of data? That can be intimidating for many people, but Anika-Aduesa Smart, Metro’s Director of GIS, is determined to change that. At Metro, she and her team lead a campaign called ‘GIS for Everyone,’ which supports departments with data and analysis-driven visual tools to make more effective and inclusive decisions. Read on to learn about what motivates her work!   

By Anika-Aduesa Smart 

I have been quick about numbers and science since I was a young girl. And as the daughter of two educators, I had early support for that quirk, as well as for my love of geography, the earth, and the environment. In the Caribbean, where I’m from, we say “all ah we is one family” –– that we’re all in this together, and everyone’s voice counts. As I grew to learn, that ability and knowledge were privileges that I could use to support others, including myself.  

In college in New York City, there were only one hundred people who identified as BIPOC in a cohort of about 1200. I was the only woman of color in my year to major in math and statistics. I’ve always known that my career was going to be a journey.  Sometimes when it gets hard, I remind myself that this effort isn’t just for me, it’s for my daughter, it’s for my mom, my colleagues and students.  

So to whom much is given, much is required.   

Though we’ve made progress over the years, it’s not easy being a woman of color in my field, or in science and technology in general. As with many legacy fields, it’s the voices of people that don’t look like me that are often normalized as the defaults, with the rest of us “others” left to fall in line. But it’s important that we’re here. When you’re planning changes that impact people’s lives, there are decisions that can be better informed (and produce better outcomes!) from a more diverse perspective.  

GIS Stands for Geographic Information Systems – geographic in that it relates to the study of where things are; information in that it analyses relevant data used to make decisions, and systems in that it involves a symphony of technology, data, and people engaged in the subject matter. Put more simply, GIS is made up of three key elements: 

1- technology 

2- data 

3- and people that use it 

A lot of people hear ‘GIS’ and they think it’s just about maps or they feel intimidated by the technology. So I have started to explain it differently. I tell people that everything has a “where,” or a specific location. We use GIS to understand “where” things happen in more detail. 

And everybody’s using it. Starbucks uses GIS to decide where to put new stores.  FedEx and Amazon use GIS to optimize their delivery routes and predict where they should put distribution centers.    

At a place like Metro where movement is at the core of what we do, the “where” is all-important. We are interested in where different people want to go, why they are going there, and how they get there. These are all location-based challenges. The better you can understand the factors affecting what happens in those places, the better you can plan for them, leading to better results.  

Metro already uses GIS for dozens of purposes, ranging from mapping our assets to mapping safety incidents – so we know which locations need improvements. Across the agency, departments are already beginning to harness the power of where.” One of my favorite applications of GIS is using it to better understand equity focused communitiesareas in LA County that need additional support accessing services, including transportation. With GIS, we can locate opportunities for new communities, visualize their proximity to our projects, and work to ensure that they are receiving the support they need from Metro. We can also more equitably distribute where we place bike lanes or bus stops, how we do outreach, where we put TAP vendors, what languages we need for our signs, or if a new student program will make sense based on the latest census data. GIS makes all that possible in one map.   

Metro’s new Equity Information Hub provides staff and stakeholders with information about equity focused communities and how to incorporate equity considerations into projects using GIS.

And there’s so much more that’s possible. With the right data, for example, HR could map where employees live, so that in the event of an emergency, staff could report to the bus or rail division closest to them and HR could identify who might need assistance.  

Metro uses StoryMaps to inform the public of upcoming projects and its benefits, like this 2022 Pedestrian Districts Plan for the ATSP (published in 2022).

But people working together drives the success of any good GIS system. It’s modeled around understanding, collaboration, and feedback.  The most successful teams are ones that share data, ideas, and integrate their processes so they know what is changing and can better respond. You don’t want one department’s contractors to dig up a bus stop for construction on the same day that another department is planning a community outreach program there.  

I’ve been told before that my approach is unorthodox –– that I’ve spent “too much effort” on helping people “who don’t make decisions” and that I don’t follow the path that everyone else does. Maybe that has something to do with not always having a seat at the table.  Maybe it’s the helpless guilt I felt post 9/11, after watching the second plane hit from across the water, knowing my life was spared because I was late getting to the World Trade Center that day. Or maybe I’m just proud to be blazing a trail as a mixed-race, foreign-born woman leading Metro’s first enterprise GIS program.  But I’ve always been inspired by the old adage that “a rising tide will float all boats.” And I believe that a people-first approach that gives everyone access to insightful information is what makes GIS work. Fuh all ah we.  

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