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GIS Graveyard

When vandals repeatedly hit Green Lawn Cemetery in recent years, they left behind countless overturned and broken grave markers and obelisks, extensive damage to the Field Mausoleum and even burned American flags, stolen from the graves of veterans. This destruction created a seemingly insurmountable problem for the Green Lawn Cemetery Association.

Board Member Randel (Randy) Rogers says, “The amount of damage was overwhelming. We’ve been here since 1848, so we were faced with assessing the extent of every instance of damage and contacting families who we may not have heard from in many decades – or in some cases may not even be around anymore. We just didn’t have the resources we needed.”

Randy’s wife, Doreen Whitley Rogers earned an associate degree in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from Columbus State, and has since partnered with the program on projects with the National Audubon Society. She suggested that Green Lawn contact Columbus State to see if students could geographically map the damaged areas in the cemetery.

Program Chair Annie Parsons says the project is an ideal field experience for students. Annie describes GIS as “creating a map that tells a story.” By combining hard data with visuals, a GIS map provides a level of detail that can’t be demonstrated with spreadsheets or written reports. “Seeing the whole picture of each instance of damage: where it is, the nature of each instance and how extensive it is, along with the family names and dates – all in one report – will allow the Green Lawn board to get a much more in-depth idea of what they are dealing with.”

“Once we started coordinating the project, we realized it would be a great Service Learning Course and got it approved with Doreen as the instructor,” Annie says, “So the students are not only getting great field experience, but they are also earning credit for their work.”

Bamma Mellott, who graduated from the GIS program, says the field experience at Green Lawn added a valuable hands-on element to her education. “It’s really helped to be able to tell employers that that I’ve used GIS on a real-world project,” she says. Bamma was drawn to the field of GIS through previous jobs where she watched it in action. “I worked in fire services, and GIS would be used on large fires to determine the hottest places, the burn pattern, the rate it was expected to spread and so much more. It amazed me how all of these pieces of data were combined to create a larger comprehensive picture.”

Anyone who is naturally curious and enjoys solving puzzles would be a good candidate for the field of GIS says Bamma. “It’s more like a living puzzle – the pieces keep changing and developing and giving you more information. Patterns start to emerge and the picture gets clearer and clearer.” When used in investigations like the one at Green Lawn, Bamma speculates, “Using GIS data, we can end up with more information about the crime than the perpetrator probably even knew.”

At Green Lawn, students used a GIS Collector (a mobile app) to input information about damaged sites and plot them to pinpoint and assess the extent of damage. The students’ efforts helped Green Lawn even before the project’s conclusion. Randy explains, “Section 44 of the cemetery is our oldest Jewish section. Twelve markers were vandalized. The GIS data collected by the Columbus State students allowed us to present to the Temple of Israel and work with them to create a plan to restore that section.

Annie says “We’re so glad to have this opportunity to both give back to the community and to give our students hands-on learning in a real field environment.”