A screenshot of the app, which will go live soon. The app will provide information on a number of resources in a user-friendly interface.

In the coming weeks, the University of Louisville geographic information system program will introduce an app geared toward helping the city’s immigrant and refugee residents find services in and around the metro area.

The app, a product of an eight-hour hackathon on International GIS Day in November, was created by about 25 people, including students, professors, GIS professionals, UofL staff and Louisville Metro employees as one of two projects to come out of the hackathon. The other is a coming story map that will allow users to engage with and understand the international community in Louisville.

The app will at first be a browser-based web and mobile app, hosted by the UofL Center for GIS on the ArcGIS cloud platform. In the future, the mobile app will be moved to native iOS and Android platforms.

By definition, a hackathon is basically a block of time, even several days, in which a number of people come together in collaborative computer programming. For the GIS program at UofL, a hackathon is an opportunity to work on creative ways to solve social issues.

“We wanted to celebrate the impact of GIS in the community. We know at UofL we have capacity in terms of software resources, expertise, bright and motivated students, and connections in the community,” explained DJ Biddle, GIS Technology Consultant and lecturer in Geography and Geosciences at UofL and head of the app project.

“We wanted to leverage all of our resources and strengths and bring folks together and let them create. That was the goal of the hackathon, to bring lots of really smart folks together and say, ‘Here’s a problem, find a solution.’ I think you can’t call it anything but a success.”

A group of some 25 students, professionals, professors and staff worked together during the hackathon. | Photo courtesy of DJ Biddle

The app itself was created by scouring the internet for information regarding resources important to immigrants — doctors offices, community centers, employment services and more — and feeding it into an interface that’s easy to use and navigate. Because language is a potential barrier for many refugees and immigrants, the app is geared more toward services providers, such as Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities.

As national refugee admittance caps have been raised each year, service providers have had increasing client numbers. While it’s not clear how those numbers will be impacted by current Trump administration attempts at immigration policy changes, any change will undoubtedly impact the foreign-born population currently residing in Louisville, where service providers will be an important resource to Louisvillians facing changes in their immigrant or refugee status.

“How can we help them ascend the ladder of society to become fully functional, active, engaged citizens in their own right? Coming from knowing nothing about their community to becoming fully participant in their community,” Patrick Smith, Coordinator for Community Partnership Assessment at UofL’s Office of Community Engagement, recalled questioning.  

Immigration services were the central idea long before the threat to immigration limitations seemed to be a reality. Immigrants make up a large part of Jefferson County’s population — 6.7 percent as of 2015 — and the relationships between organizers and community members played a large role, putting the immigration struggle in the forefront. It was clear that the GIS program could offer a hand in this, organizers say, strengthening partnerships with other city organizations to create something with an impact that could last long after the hackathon was over.

“It’s a timely issue, one that a lot of folks feel passionate about in Louisville as kind of the ‘global’ city in our area, in the state of Kentucky. The idea that we’re a welcoming community,” Biddle said.

Biddle (left) works with the team during November’s hackathon. | Photo courtesy DJ Biddle

Smith headed up the other part of the hackathon, “We wanted to put together a story map to show people what it’s like for new people coming to Louisville.”

The interactive story map uses maps and graphics to create a narrative that shows users what Louisville is like for newcomers. A big goal is to show how the community at large can support new immigrants and understand the kinds of services that they need to be successful, as well as to understand the impact of immigrants on the city’s economy and culture.

Garret Seay is a first-year master’s student in the GIS program and a leader in the story map portion of the hackathon. “For me,” he said, “getting engaged with the community is the important part. When you come to college, one of the goals, hopefully, is to make a difference in the community that you’re part of. This is the way that I’ve been able to use a tool that I use every day — hydrology — to make a difference in my community. Every discipline has a tool that they can use and this is my opportunity to do that.”

“If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a map’s worth a million,” Biddle said, laughing. “The story map is intended to reach a broad audience to help them understand. Immigrant or not, just citizens of Louisville: policy makers, funding agencies, philanthropists, folks that give back to the community, folks that live in the community. We want to make it easier for regular folks to relate to the lived experiences of immigrant populations in Louisville.”