Can high-tech maps help the church and save the planet?
A stroll through the Vatican highlights the Catholic Church’s historic interest in map making, from the 40 massive frescoes in the Gallery of Maps that depict the different regions of Italy to the illustrations of the world’s hemispheres that decorate the walls of the papal apartments. Some of these maps date back to the 16th century and are not exactly helpful in managing a massive global enterprise. But an American entrepreneur wants church leaders to take an interest in modern cartography, with the aim of using new technology to show how the global church’s vast real estate portfolio can help it set an example in saving the planet—and living out the Gospel.
Molly Burhans is the founder of GoodLands, a nonprofit organization that she says aims “to help Catholic communities around the world use their property for good.” That means ensuring the church’s property is in harmony with the environment and the local community while also providing for the financial needs of the church.
Take the issue of climate change. In one video, GoodLands shows how increases in temperature will affect Catholic dioceses, especially when it comes to displacement and famine. One of the purposes of this kind of data imaging, Ms. Burhans says, is to allow church leaders to prepare for life under intense heat waves. Combined with other data, such as the number of health care workers in Catholic hospitals or the availability of lands in nearby areas that are less affected, church leaders can prepare ahead of potential disasters.
GoodLands shows how increases in temperature will affect Catholic dioceses, especially when it comes to displacement and famine.
Since it launched in 2015, GoodLands has completed a global mapping of the Catholic Church and a database that includes the world’s Catholic populations, buildings, lands and other data. On its website, GoodLands says it uses “mapping technology to reveal high-impact opportunities for land-use strategies that have a regenerative impact on environmental, social, and economic systems.”
Ms. Burhans, a 29-year-old graduate of Canisius College and the Conway School of Landscape Design who now lives in Connecticut, has traveled to Rome to present her maps to Vatican officials and Pope Francis.
There she urged church leaders to invest in an in-house cartography department. That might seem like an odd use of resources, as anyone with a smartphone can pull up a detailed map of almost anywhere in the world with a few taps. But Ms. Burhans says how most people think of maps—for example, appearing on a G.P.S. device or showing how states vote in elections—is overly simplistic.
Instead, she says, maps can present complex data sets in intuitive ways that allow people to absorb more information more quickly than they can with charts, graphs and spreadsheets. Ms. Burhans uses geographic information systems, a more advanced kind of map making that she is encouraging the church to adopt.
Maps can present complex data sets in intuitive ways that allow people to absorb more information more quickly than they can with charts, graphs and spreadsheets.
Dana Tomlin, who teaches landscape architecture and cartography design at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is an adviser to Ms. Burhans. He says G.I.S. brings “the lab to the field” and allows more people, not just “experts in the office,” to understand problems, like famine, disease and natural disasters.
Mr. Tomlin says data presented in maps can quickly convey “where are dollars being spent, where are people being deployed, where need is generated, based on famine and disaster and so on.” He said the maps can also provide a quick understanding of how solutions can play out.
Using this technology to address social concerns is not new.
In Wisconsin and Georgia, for example, G.I.S. technology is used to aid in the collection of data related to homelessness. The G.I.S. firm Ersi reported that its software in DeKalb County, Ga., allowed for volunteers to analyze data “in real time with live web maps and determined where to dispatch additional volunteers to high-need areas.” Other uses of G.I.S. include tracking the spread of disease, the impact of building projects on pedestrian populations and making better decisions about how to harvest energy.
Improving disaster response and decision-making
When it comes to the church, large amounts of data already exist, but it is often not presented using the latest technology. To fix that, Ms. Burhans and her team spend time burrowed in libraries and searching the web, harvesting datasets that may be useful to the church, and then compile the information to help make sense of it for leaders making decisions.
At the local level, this might mean using demographic information to pinpoint the best spot for a new food pantry and matching that need with Catholic groups or parishes that might be able to respond effectively. Or ahead of a major storm, Catholic dioceses could quickly scan the property they own that is outside flood zones and designate certain areas to serve as shelters. On a global scale, the data can help Catholic institutions prepare a response to famines, natural disasters and environmental degradation. And everywhere in between, maps can help the church use their property in ways that benefit both human beings and the environment.
“I’m trying to illustrate the relationship between the spaces we use and love with the wellbeing of our communities and the life of our mission and ministry,” Ms. Burhans says.
“I’m trying to illustrate the relationship between the spaces we use and love with the wellbeing of our communities and the life of our mission and ministry.”
Ms. Burhans says she realized the church could benefit from using G.I.S. after meeting a group of women religious who owned significant acreage but who did not know how to make their property more environmentally sustainable or understand how such moves could complement their work with the poor. Maps would have shown the sisters a full range of options, Ms. Burhans says, perhaps by showing them, in a visually accessible way, the value of all their land so they could devote some to conservation and others to list for sale.
Ms. Burhans says “it’s pretty surprising” how unsophisticated property management is in the church, even in urban archdioceses that own and manage large swaths of real estate.
On a practical level, Ms. Burhans says interactive maps with easily updated data can help church leaders make sense of what to do with their land and how to best serve parishioners. Where the Catholic population is expanding, geographic datasets can help determine the best locations for new churches and schools. In dioceses that are consolidating parishes, Ms. Burhans says, maps can show who might have more difficulty attending Mass or receiving the sacraments. “We can see whether they have access to cars or public transportation to a [new] parish and then find a solution.”
Better maps can also help the church with its social justice ministry as well as its effort to protect the environment.
Pope Francis devoted several paragraphs of his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’” to the latter topic. He wrote there is a “need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of ‘feeling at home’ within a city which includes us and brings us together” and he noted “how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.”
To that end, Ms. Burhans says, dynamic maps can help “design and maintain our landscapes to have profound impacts on childhood development diseases like heart disease and even on decreasing violence within communities.” She says even communities with good intentions, especially on environmental issues, need solid data to make sure their projects do the most good.
Ms. Burhans says she has raised more than $300,000 for GoodLands and that there are 16 people working part-time on the project, plus a crop of contractors. She hopes to unveil more projects and partnerships by 2020, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the publication of “Laudato Si.’”
While Ms. Burhans sees using maps and data as an effective business tool, one that can help with the world’s environmental challenges, she said her passion is driven by something else.
“[Catholics] have been leaders in this area and then it somehow fell off the map a couple of hundred years ago,” she joked. “I’m very passionate about helping communities manage their finances, but most of all helping them live the Gospel.”
Molly Burhans also spoke about GoodLands with the hosts of our podcast Jesuitical on Sept. 1, 2017. Click on the link below to hear more: