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Lights on for safer streets

Last updated February 19, 2014

By Furman News

It’s the neighborhood Jean Phelps and Patsy Davis have called home for most of their lives. Mercia Calvin moved into the neighborhood in 2009, returning from Detroit to her family’s homeplace.

While the trio is proud to call Greenville home, they want to see more positive change in their New Washington Heights neighborhood just off Poinsett Highway. One of their first priorities is new streetlights to discourage crime.

“We need the neighborhood lit up,” said Calvin. “We want something better than we have.”

So Calvin found reinforcements—Furman students Connor Chatterton ’15, Steve Nelson ’14, and professor Mike Winiski, who teaches EES 201: Introduction to GIS. They were introduced with the help of faculty working on the Poinsett Revitalization Project and leaders in the Brutontown community, who previously conducted their own streetlight assessment.

EES 201, first taught in 2004, introduces students to fundamental concepts of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and The Global Positioning System using real-life data to study geographic problems and phenomena. During this fall’s course, students tackled everything from identifying potential regions for Furman to target in its student recruitment efforts to mapping the enlistment locations and birthplaces of soldiers in the 33rd United States Colored Troop Regiment during the Civil War.

Chatterton and Nelson’s assignment teamed them up for an in-depth class project to identify streetlights in the Poe Mill and New Washington Heights communities. It required them to connect data from at least three sources—land parcel data from Greenville County, five years of crime statistics from Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, and electrical service information from Duke Energy. They verified their data through Google Earth and old-fashioned footwork, walking from street to street in each neighborhood.

They documented more than 100 streetlights, many of them broken or not working. With the operational streetlights, they studied how far the incandescent or LED fixtures radiated light and looked for places where new street lights might be needed to deter crime. They then had to create a model to project the lights on their maps.

While Chatterton and Nelson hoped for some clear-cut solutions, they quickly found that learning can be messy. They didn’t always have data that would suggest a specific location for a light installation. Financing the cost of the lights was another complication. In many communities without homeowners’ associations, the individual homeowner is responsible for paying for the electricity to light the streetlight on their property. The project may help the neighborhoods move to a community-funded model, Winiski said.

“We didn’t want this to be just an academic exercise,” said Winiski. “We hope to help improve the community. We want students to know that what they’re learning matters.”

But what started out as a class assignment has mushroomed into an even larger-scale project as more members of the community and the Furman family have gotten involved.

Physics professor John Conrad has teamed up with the group to fly the department’s new quadcopter drone over the Poe Mill community at night in an effort to verify the algorithm used to model streetlight illumination on the maps. Sometime in February or early March, he’ll send the drone about 200 feet into the air for about 15 minutes to confirm the locations of the working street lights.

Conrad is also planning to nominate the project for The Drone User Group Network’s Drone Social Innovation Award, a $10,000 prize for the most socially beneficial, documented use of a drone.

Members of the New Washington Heights Community Association are currently working on the neighborhood’s new master plan with officials from the Greenville County Planning Commission. Safer streets and community pride were listed as top goals in the new plan.

Phelps, Davis and Calvin said they hope to work closely with Furman students and faculty on future community projects.

Though the class is officially over, Chatterton is continuing to attend community meetings and said he plans to continue his involvement in the project. “I’ve learned a lot about how the community works,” Chatterton said. “I want to do all I can to help them better their communities.”

Nelson said he’s proud of what they’ve accomplished. “I feel a lot more involved in the community,” he said. ‘I’ve also learned a great skill.”

More examples of GIS applications at Furman can be found online at:


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