Digital maps: Part 3

By Todd Cohen

Like the Computer Mapping Assistance Project at the New York Public Interest Research Group (, San Francisco-based GreenInfo Network has environmental roots.

The organization, which now serves nonprofits in fields ranging from public health and social services to the environment and conservation, grew out work by Larry Orman at Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco nonprofit focusing on regional land use planning and conservation.

When he joined the group in 1976 as executive director, its staff was making “virtual” geographic-information-systems maps by hand “like monks,” he says, using colored markers, blueprint maps and razor blades.

“It was very important for what we were doing that we knew geography and could show place,” says Orman, now executive director of Greeninfo. “And we could use these maps to build leadership” in the nine counties the organization serves.

Then, in the 1990s, teaming up with the University of California at Berkeley to use early applications of GIS software, Greenbelt Alliance converted to digital form maps it had created by hand showing land at risk of urban sprawl.

Later, Orman started looking for ways Greenbelt Alliance could use mapping technology on its own, he said, but found it expensive and difficult to use.

“It became clear you really needed help,” he says.

Using some of the funds the U.S. Forest Service had given to several local organizations for “green space” work, along with startup funds from the Surdna Foundation in New York City, Orman founded GreenInfo.

The idea, he says, was for the new organization to support itself entirely through fees from its nonprofit clients.

With an annual budget of $650,000, the organization works with about 100 clients a year, charging $60 to $80 an hour, with the cost of most projects ranging from $2,000 to $5,000.

Clients of GreenInfo use maps mainly to “show turf” and to analyze their programs, Orman says.

Because they can be “overlayed” on one another, computer maps can be used to quickly make sense of data that otherwise might be hard to compare and analyze.

Several years ago, for example, a collaborative effort of the California Endowment and Rockefeller Foundation hired GreenInfo to identify geographic regions in California with the highest concentrations of joblessness and poor health.

Using data tracking more than a dozen indicators for unemployment and poor health, GreenInfo prepared maps the grantmakers used to solicit grant proposals from groups serving communities where the two problems overlapped significantly.

And once grant proposals were submitted, GreenInfo helped the grantseekers define their own geographic spheres of influence, and helped the foundations determine which groups could best address priority needs.

A foundation that does not want its name disclosed has asked GreenInfo plans to “clone” its service-center model in South Carolina and hire a staff member there to serve nonprofits in the Southeast.

Still, Orman says, setting up an organization like GreenInfo or CMAP to provide mapping services for nonprofits can be tough.

“It takes a marketplace of a fairly good size,” he says.

Nonprofits wanting to try to do their own computer mapping, he says, can look online for inexpensive mapping packages, contact a local university with a planning school or geography department, look for a consultant, or visit the GreenInfo at and CMAP at for information on options for using GIS.

One-time projects, Orman says, can limit a nonprofit’s use of computer mapping because its value often lies in continuing to build the database and develop new analyses from it and uses for it.

“Once groups get started,” he says, “they want all that stuff to be there year to year.”

Other stories in the series:

Part 1: Nonprofits build geographic perspective into their work.

Part 2: Nonprofits use computer maps to make their case.

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