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Asset Assessments and Community Social Work Practice$

Melvin Delgado and Denise Humm-Delgado

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199735846

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199735846.001.0001

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Community Asset Assessment Methods

Community Asset Assessment Methods

(p.125) 6 Community Asset Assessment Methods
Asset Assessments and Community Social Work Practice



Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The field of community asset assessments is expanding rapidly, and, in the process, is introducing new or modified versions of commonly used methods. The more “common” methods, incidentally, are also generally prevalent in needs assessments and will not be new to the well-initiated community social worker. There are a series of qualitative and quantitative methods that lend themselves to asset assessments. Interestingly, many of these methods have been used for needs assessments, but with the necessary modifications, can also be used in community asset-based assessments: (1) Qualitative Methods (such as key informants, focus groups, community forums, the Delphi Technique, oral history, review of historical archival data, participant observations, photovoice, or expert panel); (2) Quantitative Methods [such as the use of select social indicators and existing organizational computer-generated data and Geographic Information System (GIS)].

Keywords:   methods, community participation, measurement of assets, Delphi Technique, Geographic Information System

“Assessment is an integral part of the planning process, as it allows an organization to prepare for implementation. It can also be useful after implementation of the intervention has begun to revisit areas that need modification, reassess agency capacity, and reexamine overall goodness of fit between the target community and agency…”

(GANDELMAN ET AL., 2006, p. 35)


The above quote by Gandelman and colleagues (2006) stresses the role of assessment throughout the planning and implementation process. This chapter provides the reader with several of the most common methods and, we believe, most useful methods available for undertaking asset assessments as well as emerging methods that offer great potential for use in marginalized urban communities. The field of community asset assessments is expanding rapidly and, in the process, is introducing new or modified versions of commonly used methods. The more common methods, incidentally, are also generally prevalent in needs assessments and will not be new to the well initiated community social worker.

Community social work practitioners and scholars know that, in all likelihood, the gathering of data on community assets, particularly in marginalized communities, will necessitate reliance on generating primary data rather than reliance on existing data sources (Goodman et al., 1998; Grantmakers in Health, 2006). Most data sources (government and nongovernment) are deficit oriented. Generating data offers distinct advantages over using existing data because it allows communities to develop questions that are pertinent to their circumstances, rather than to get answers to questions that are of interest to government and other sources external to the community that may not share the same interests or concerns. However, generating new data is expensive and labor intensive.

(p.126) There are several methods, technologies, and data sources that lend themselves to asset assessments (Delgado, 2011). As noted, many of these methods have been used for needs assessments but, with the necessary modifications, can also be used in community asset assessments. These include community forums, community gathering event dialogues, focus groups, key informant interviews, ethnographic observations, surveys (open ended), journals, the Delphi Technique, photovoice, expert panel, oral history, CommunityLine, and use of geospacial analysis technology; these generally tend to be qualitative methods because they provide community residents with opportunities to have their voices heard and to actively participate primarily in the gathering of information related to their lives and surroundings, but not all are.

Geospatial analysis technology is part of cartography and mapping, which will be discussed in its own chapter (Chapter 7). The technology, however, will be discussed here because social workers may not be familiar with it because it is relatively new. We think that cartography or mapping of various types has sufficient potential for bringing in the perspectives of a community in such a productive and unique way that its rationales and benefits deserve special attention in their own chapter that goes beyond the description of geospatial analysis technology here.

The goals of an asset assessment project will shape research approaches and methods, rather than the other way around. Qualitative and quantitative methods will be addressed in detail in the hopes of helping the reader implement them in practice. The methods outlined in this chapter can be used in a variety of combinations to take into account goals, time periods, costs, and the history of asset assessments within a community. Each of the methods, in turn, will be critiqued for its advantages and disadvantages in community asset assessment, since no method is “perfect,” with local circumstances wielding great influence over the selection of the most appropriate methods.

Methods, Technologies, and Data Sources for Community Asset Assessments

Communities, particularly those that are highly diverse, are nonlinear and, as a result, are unpredictable or “dynamic.” Schensul’s (2009, p. 243) observations, although based on the prevention field, are easily applicable to community asset assessment in that “evidence based practices in prevention science which may have been tried and shown to be effective in one location under one set of historical and contextual conditions cannot be assumed to be effective in another.”

Contextualization is a cornerstone of social work practice and community social work practice, and assessment is certainly no exception. Success in one community with a particular approach toward an asset assessment may not be translated to another without significant modifications, even when the communities’ sociodemographic factors share many similarities. The reader is advised that, in reviewing the following methods, local circumstances must ultimately (p.127) dictate the selection of the most applicable methods, regardless of the preferences of the staff involved in an asset assessment project.

Delgado (2000, p. 42) notes that “no one method or approach to community asset assessments can do justice to the richness and complexity of communities. Consequently, it is essential to conceptualize the assessment process as a multi-method with a clear, if not exclusive, tendency to use methods that rely on interactive and personal contacts, and are shaped by local social, political, and economic circumstances.” The greater the reliance on multiple methods, the higher the likelihood of reaching all sectors of a community in a manner that is culturally competent.

Atkinson and Willis’ (2005, p. 12) recommendations, although referring to evaluation of community capacity building projects, are also equally applicable to asset assessments: “Face to face interaction with project participants is a particularly useful method for gaining an in-depth understanding of community relationships and dynamics—these issues are much less likely to be apparent through survey methods or through simply observing community groups or activities. In other words, for whoever is doing evaluation it is important to spend time in the community and become involved.” The attractiveness and value of personal contact will not surprise the reader since this form of interaction has a long tradition in social work.

Although community asset assessments can be conducted through the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods, they generally favor the use of qualitative methods for several major reasons (Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2006). Qualitative research lends itself to capturing the perspectives or insights of people or groups that have historically been marginalized or undervalued in this society. Its also involves active participation by community members and organizations that leads to ownership of the findings and actions that result.

Iwasaki, Bartlett, MacKay, Mactavish, and Ristock (2006) studied the personal narratives and life stories of “nondominant voices” of Aboriginal persons living with diabetes, with disabilities, and who are gay and lesbian. This facilitated the development of an interpretative map that highlighted stressors but, just as importantly, coping mechanisms (assets), and thereby underscored the need for this form of qualitative data being an important part of any community study. Heath and colleagues (2009) see much value in using visual methods as a means of facilitating youth producing images to engage youth in research. The authors contend that research too often favors methods such as one to one interviewing, which are more adult friendly.

Long histories of being marginalized by outsiders have resulted in a distorted picture of particular communities in this society. Communities such as Chicago’s South Side, New York City’s South Bronx and Harlem, Boston’s Roxbury, and Los Angeles’ South Central and East Los Angeles, for example, all elicit images of downtrodden and “crime infested” communities. In essence, these communities are viewed as devoid of assets.

The voices of residents in these “types” of communities are rarely sought out by researchers and scholars to paint a balanced picture of their lives. Yet, residents (p.128) are the best experts on their own lives and circumstances (Corburn, 2005, 2009). This form of knowledge is referred to by a variety of terms depending upon the field of practice (self-knowledge, local knowledge, community knowledge, and informal knowledge). Tapping this knowledge is best done through qualitative methods (Eaton, 2010).

Israel and colleagues (2006) stress the value of utilizing a multimethod (qualitative and quantitative) and multidisciplinary community based participatory research as a means of ensuring research instruments and methodology that are inclusive rather than exclusive and are more reflective of the community that subsequent interventions seek to reach. Montoya and Kent (2011) stress the importance of expertise being mutually constructed and the role that qualitative research can play in achieving this goal.

Qualitative methods may set the stage for quantitative methods. Qualitative data take on greater significance in cases in which there is limited information on communities participating in the research process. This is particularly the case in communities of color and, more specifically, groups that are newcomers to this country or are highly marginalized, with relatively little known about them. This information, in turn, helps to shape the questions that can be asked in a quantitative study.

A social justice stance, as noted in Chapter 3, reinforces for social work the importance of qualitative methods playing critical roles in community asset assessments (Mertens & Ginsburg, 2008, p. 484): “Given the commitment expressed by the social work community towards the furtherance of social justice as reflected not only in their ethical codes, but also in their historical legacy and current statements of purpose, the question of how research can contribute to the enhancement of human rights and social change is particularly relevant for the ethical conduct of qualitative social work research. Based on literature from ethics and social work research…the intersection of advocacy and research is examined from a transformative stance, revealing that strict adherence to the codes and/or regulations as defined by governments, professional associations, and ethics boards are fraught with tensions with regard to such issues as informed consent, confidentiality, and beneficence. In order to investigate topics that are controversial (e.g., pedophilia, drug use) and involve participants who may be stigmatized, the researcher’s role may need to be reframed as a member of a team, with differential responsibilities assumed by each team member…[Further, there are] potential ethical alternatives in which the researcher can partner with communities for collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.”

Concepts such as experiential expertise, self knowledge, local knowledge, indigenous knowledge, contextual intelligence, community knowledge, and informal knowledge, as already noted, are frequently used in the literature to capture community views (Corburn, 2005, 2009). Community asset assessments, like other forms of community based participatory approaches, seek to uncover knowledge of relevance to undervalued groups in society, and to do so in a manner that is as nonintrusive as possible and that respects the cultural values and beliefs of the community being assessed.

(p.129) This information is highly contextualized, necessitating active local involvement in making this knowledge known to those outside of the community (Corburn, 2005). Torre and Fine (2007, p. 408), as cited in Cahill, Sultan, and Pain (2007), address the potential of research to achieve this critical goal when they say: “The understanding that people—especially those who have experienced historic oppression—hold deep knowledge about their lives and experiences, should help shape the questions, frame the interpretations [of research].” Thus, the important role of helping to shape the nature and wording of questions is one that is best done by the ultimate beneficiaries of the research, since they have in-depth knowledge of their lives and circumstances.

There is a pressing need to narrow the existing knowledge gap between and among academics, professional providers, and community (El Ansari, 2005; El Ansari, Phillips, & Zwi, 2002). The tension between “scientific rigor” and “community participation” in knowledge creation historically has been identified as being incompatible (Allison & Rootman, 1996). Qualitative methods that value and seek to capture community voices can narrow, and even eliminate, this gap.

Quantitative methods often rely upon expressed data, namely, data derived from agency or government sources. These data, as a result, reflect the dominant society’s bias toward deficits or pathology related information. Luke (2005, p. 185), however, argues for a different point of view on biases when examining quantitative methods used in gathering information that captures community context: “[A] survey of empirical articles published in the American Journal of Community Psychology shows that community scientists utilize a narrow range of statistical tools that are not well suited to assess contextual data. Multilevel modeling, geographic information systems (GIS), social network analysis, and cluster analysis are recommended as useful tools to address contextual questions in community science.” Ennis and West (2010), for example, see social network analysis as a valuable tool in determining the success of asset informed community development.

Rotary International (2008) developed a brief, but informative, document outlining a variety of methods for conducting community asset assessments, many of which are covered in this section (such as surveys, asset inventory, community mapping, daily activities schedule, seasonal calendar, community café, focus groups, and panel discussion). In addition, Rotary International (2008) has provided a detailed description of how to conduct these methods and the materials, time, and other considerations needed to facilitate an assessment, which the reader may find useful.

Selection of methods for conducting an asset assessment must take into consideration the following nine factors: (1) histories of community undertaking an asset assessment; (2) familiarity of assessment team members with qualitative and quantitative research methods; (3) time that can be devoted to the endeavor; (4) season (winter, spring, summer, fall); (5) funding; (6) time period between the issuing of findings and the initiation of an intervention; (7) level of trust within the community being assessed; (8) capabilities of the sponsoring organization; and (9) practitioner preference and competence (p.130) with particular research methods. Each of these factors can wield considerable influence on the outcome of an assessment. Considering more than one, however, has a substantial impact on the process of assessment by tapping multiple perspectives.

Community Asset Assessment Methods

Community Forums

Community forums are sometimes referred to as “listening sessions” and often represent the democratic ideal in which everyone has a voice and a right to exercise this privilege. Witkin and Altschuld (1995, p. 161) define community forums by comparing this method to a New England town meeting “in which a community is called together to discuss a pressing issue…The community forum (also sometimes called a public hearing or community speak up) is used to gather stakeholder concerns or perceptions of need areas, opinions about quality or delivery of services, information on causes of present need, and [to facilitate] exploration of community values.” Although this definition relates mostly to needs, it can easily be used to focus on community assets.

Community forums cover many different types of gatherings that take into account various goals (Parker et al., 2006). Typically, a community forum brings together a large portion of the community to present findings and get reactions and suggestions for interventions based upon how the community interprets the findings. Although these are called “community forums,” they may also go under different names depending upon local circumstances and traditions. Delgado (1998b, p. 330) comments on the usefulness of this method: “Community forums can also serve to assist researchers in the beginning stages of quantitative research designs. This method can assist researchers in refining concepts, narrowing open ended questions into closed ended response categories, and identifying potential barriers to implementing large scale field-based surveys.” These types of surveys can be used to gather data on a broader scale to augment data gathered using qualitative methods.

There is no set format for a community forum. However, it typically consists of four stages or steps:

  1. 1. Introduction of the panelists gathering information, including the forum facilitator, which typically takes about 10 to fifteen minutes;

  2. 2. Sharing of the forum’s agenda with the audience, which takes approximately 5 to 10 minutes;

  3. 3. Testimonies, which are the bulk of the time used, with 60 to 75 minutes usually being allotted to this step; and

  4. 4. Sharing of the themes uncovered during the forum with the audience and prioritizing the next steps, which takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes.

(p.131) These time periods, of course, are estimates and will depend upon how concise and detailed the testimonies are and the number of testimonies made. Time also may vary if participants are asked to respond to visual material, such as a map, for example.

Like all methods, there are limitations inherent in community forums, and it is important to note several of the more prominent types:

  1. 1. Respondents must have a cultural background that has exposed them to this type of participation. The experiences of the senior author in conducting community forums in Latino communities has shown that Latinos coming from totalitarian regimes (dictatorships) generally eschew participation. Group gatherings in these countries have resulted in revolutions and repressive responses on the part of government.

  2. 2. It takes a very self confident community resident to get up before a large group and share his or her thoughts and experiences with community assets.

  3. 3. Community forums tend to attract those who are very articulate, organized, and have a personal stake in the outcomes of the forums, thus skewing the tenor and outcome of the forums.

  4. 4. Forum facilitators must have excellent group skills because of the nature and potential of disruptions.

  5. 5. The unit of analysis is the group, and if the group is highly diverse, it is impossible to draw any generalized conclusions from the testimonies.

These limitations, or considerations, are not to be taken lightly because of the potentially large number of participants who may be involved in a community forum. These large numbers, however, can make the information gathering in these forums exciting and generate good “word of mouth” about the effort. However, these same large numbers can also magnify the consequences of a poorly planned forum.

Sarkissian and colleagues (2009) note that community forums may be perceived as uninviting because of their formality. Youth may find the waiting to go to a microphone off putting and adult centered. They advocate for the use of speakouts, which are less formal than a forum, allow for flexibility of movement between booths and tables focused on specific aspects of community, and have much in common with aspects of community café gatherings (Chapter 8) for dissemination of findings.

However, community forums, like other large public gatherings, do not lend themselves to the participation of residents who are undocumented because of fear of deportation. In addition, communities with large numbers of undocumented residents with origins in countries with dictatorships may have negative associations with large crowd gatherings. These gatherings can elicit images of popular uprisings and harsh consequences from governmental authorities.

Nevertheless, community forums bring tremendous benefits. For example, they lend themselves to television coverage by local stations or cable programs. (p.132) The presence of the media not only lends credibility to an event but can also serve as a way of disseminating the results beyond those in attendance. A videotape can serve as a future reference point, too, on the findings and recommendations and can be used in training future leaders on how to conduct a forum. These benefits come at no financial cost to the organization sponsoring the forum, too.

Community Gathering Event Dialogues

Born’s (2008) book entitled Community Conversations provides a detailed description and practical techniques for fostering community dialogues or discussions that help uncover assets, dreams, and connectedness. Community conversations (Born, 2008, p. 4) provide opportunities for information on assets to surface in a natural or unforced manner: “When a community begins to think and work comprehensively, it naturally attempts to use all of its assets. Assets can take different forms and can come from surprising places ….But most often it is not the organizations but the people who lead them, that represent the true, untapped assets.”

These community dialogues have all of the elements typically found in a community forum. However, unlike community forums, these events have as a primary purpose a set of goals other than information gathering. Festivals, health fairs, and sporting competitions, for example, have entertainment and delivery of health and social services as primary goals but also present opportunities for engagement in conversations with participants.

Community events are often viewed as ideal times and places for engaging in dialogues and reaching undervalued groups in a manner that is nonstigmatizing and at a time when they are most receptive to outreach efforts. These gatherings often occur with advance notice, are well publicized, and, in some cases, can attract a wide range of social service providers engaged in health education and prevention. Consequently, efforts to identify community assets can be facilitated at a low cost.

However, it is important that these events capture a wide sector of the community or, if a group specific event, that findings not be generalized to the entire community. A women’s health fair would provide important asset questions that are gender specific and cannot be generalized to men, for example. Youth sporting events invariably attract large numbers of youth with similar interests or whose attendance is a form of support for friends or relatives who are competing. If an event lacks physical accessibility and effective communication, that information obtained cannot be generalized to people with disabilities of any age.

Focus Groups

The popularity of focus groups as a qualitative tool is undeniable, as evidenced by its extensive use in assessments of various kinds and the availability of (p.133) detailed books to help practitioners to use this method (Goebert & Rosenthal, 2001; Krueger & Casey, 2009; Liamputtong, 2011; Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2006). It is arguably the most popular of all qualitative methods. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood and abused qualitative methods (Barbour, 2005; Langer, 2005). Consequently, practitioners using this qualitative method for uncovering community capital must do so with the greatest of caution and profound sense of the misinformation that can be found.

Green (2009, p. 157) is a proponent of using focus groups as a means of identifying community assets but notes that this method is not without limitations: “Focus groups have the advantage of being inexpensive and can be conducted more quickly than surveys. They can also provide more in-depth information on why people feel the way they do on various issues. On the other hand, focus groups do not give most residents an opportunity to participate in the process, and the findings may not be very representative of the larger population.” Although Green’s assessment of focus groups is largely accurate, it is not necessarily a “cheap” way of tapping community assets because the unit of analysis is the particular group, and so every effort must be made to get participants who share key characteristics, such as gender and socioeconomic class. This means putting extra attention and resources into recruitment.

Clark and colleagues (2003), for example, found focus groups to be a highly effective method to identify community assets in highly diverse communities. Aronson and colleagues (2007b), too, found that focus groups were an excellent vehicle for uncovering aspects of communities that normally would go unnoticed. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the unit of analysis is the group. The moment the group consists of participants with multiple demographic variables such as age, ethnicity, and length of residence in the community, generalizations are impossible to make. Doing so can certainly lead to misrepresentations.

Focus group efforts are similar to an iceberg. The portion of the iceberg that shows is represented by the actual group, and much effort goes into composing the group to help ensure that it represents a particular segment of the community. In essence, it has limited appeal for generalizations across communities. This aspect of focus groups is not as attractive as the actual conducting of the group session. Nevertheless, it represents one of the most critical elements to consider regarding this method.

The ideal number of participants is open to interpretation and is very much dependent upon the facilitator’s skills. However, a number of eight stands out as ideal. The length of the meeting should be around 90 minutes, long enough to allow lengthy discussions but not too long that participants can get anxious. How many questions should be asked of participants? The answer is probably five or six, to allow in-depth probing of responses. This limited number is important because community asset related questions are often very new to group members and will necessitate very serious thinking about the responses. It is usual to have community residents asked problem related or deficit related questions. Thus, it is easier for them to think about community needs and problems rather than (p.134) community assets. This challenge may also require asset related questions to be posed in a variety of ways.

Key Informant Interviews

McKnight’s (cited in Minkler, 1999, p. 14) conclusion, “Institutions learn from studies, communities learn from stories,” brings to mind the saying of the Irish folk singer Frank Harte (quoted in Moloney, 2005): “Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.” Valuable “data” are in the eyes of the beholder, and communities definitely have their perspective on what constitutes data or useful information, which often does not get the attention it deserves. Stories, art, and examples of good deeds done in the community need to be shared and validated by the broader community. Obtaining these perspectives necessitates the use of a qualitative method that allows, and even encourages, probing and in-depth dialogue.

Not all qualitative methods lend themselves to this level of engagement and discovery, though. Focus groups and community forums, for example, are qualitative methods. However, neither is conducive to a high level of in-depth probing because of the number of participants and limited time available. Key informant interviews, on the other hand, do lend themselves to capturing these stories, artists’ work, and events. This method also lends itself very well to involving residents who are undocumented since they can answer the questions in a nonpublic venue.

Key informant interviews provide community asset assessments with a method that is sufficiently flexible to be used in a wide range of community settings, such as homes, parks, and other places in which residents feel comfortable, and facilitate probing into previously uncharted areas (Aronson et al., 2007b). This method, when conducted well, flows like a very good conversation between two individuals, and its flexibility allows for a range in time devoted to answering questions. For the quintessential example of interviewing, see any of the works of Studs Turkel, such as “Division Street: America” (1993) and “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” (2000).

The Access Project (1999, p. 2) provides a clear rationale for the use of key informants: “The key informant interview has a very specific purpose. It involves identifying different members of your community who are especially knowledgeable about a topic (who we call ‘key informants’)…The interviews are usually conducted face to face…The length of the interviews can vary, and will depend on the number of questions you decide to ask.” Question construction and sequencing necessitate serious thought and consideration as to how best to build upon answers, particularly when they are community asset related. Mertzel and colleagues (2008) provide a detailed description of the use of key informants in Harlem, New York City, and the richness of data that they uncovered regarding community resources and community identity that served as a basis for a tobacco control initiative.

(p.135) One of the concerns about using key informants is that a single, general, or only implicit criterion such as “community resident” may be used for their selection. Consequently, it is recommended that the community asset assessment steering committee establish clear criteria as to who qualifies to be a key informant. Useful criteria include length of residence in the community and position in the community, such as resident, formal provider, or residents who are also employed in the community. Furthermore, interviewers should have a clear understanding of the type of information being gathered on assets from each type of key informant.

These criteria serve to focus time and energy as well as seek to minimize different perspectives on what constitutes a community asset due to differing qualifications and backgrounds of key informants. Outreach workers, for example, bring a different perspective on community assets when compared to agency directors, who may have an overall appreciation but cannot provide important details. Readers interested in a greater depth of description should consult the Access Project (1999), which, over a decade ago, published what is probably the most detailed guide for undertaking key informant interviews in community asset assessments. This guide outlines for the practitioner how to structure, conduct, and interpret findings from this method.

Ethnographic Observations

Ethnography is certainly not foreign to social workers. It is probably best defined as a qualitative research method with a central goal of providing a detailed, contextualized, and nuanced description of everyday life (Hoey, 2008). Ethnographic research as a method is well established in the social sciences and in the helping professions, and particularly in social work practice that is community centered. This method has great appeal to those researchers and practitioners with a keen interest in assessing communities. Ethnographic immersion facilitates the creation of a more comprehensive picture of a community’s capital, and, as a result, it is recommended as part of a broader methodological approach toward developing greater awareness of a community’s informal structure and values (Aronson et al., 2007b; Foth & Adkinsor, 2005). Not surprisingly, development of an in-depth understanding of an urban neighborhood’s assets often requires that careful ethnographic observations be undertaken to contextualize findings from other methods. Furthermore, ethnographic research requires a sufficient amount of time to be set aside to ensure that it gets carried out in a respectful and informed manner, in order to fulfill its potential (Jeffrey & Troman, 2003).

Ethnographic research has evolved over time to incorporate a diverse set of ways of gathering data that are qualitative based (Handwerker, 2006; Seymour, 2007). Kusenbach (2003, p. 455) advocates for the use of the “go-along” interview conducted in informal outdoor places as a complementary method to traditional ethnographic approaches using participant observations and interviewing: “I argue that by exposing the complex and subtle meanings of place in everyday (p.136) experience and practices, the go-along method brings greater phenomenological sensibility to ethnography.” Ethnographic research facilitates the capture of information that may be overlooked in more conventional approaches and does so with an attempt to minimize disruption in daily activities of the community.

There certainly are a number of perspectives related to structuring and focusing the ethnographic method. Hall, Lashua, and Coffey (2008), for example, bring a dimension to ethnographic research that complements that of Kusenbach (2003) by emphasizing the role of sound in everyday life, and how it influences community interactions and the use of urban spaces. Urban sounds are definitely different from rural sounds. The “loud” sounds of urban life are not necessarily viewed as negative, by the way, but bring a perspective to an assessment that may emphasize auditory representations.

Ross and colleagues (2009), in turn, advocate for the productiveness of “guided walks” and “car journeys” as two methods that help ground a researcher into a community. These two, by the way, are not mutually exclusive of each other, with each providing a unique vantage point. Scott (2007) describes the use of walking tours of an Atlanta community, and involvement of key community institutions such as houses of worship, in an effort to identify community assets for creating and reinforcing bonding and bridging social capital. Kinloch (2007) illustrates this method through the use of mapping, photography, and video interviews by Harlem, New York City, youth.

Taking public transportation such as buses, too, adds a different dimension that often gets overlooked. Passenger interactions among themselves and also involving bus drivers, for example, help provide insights into social capital that exist only in transit situations. The emergence of visual or virtual networked field sites has started to find a place in ethnographic research incorporating physical, virtual, and imagined spaces, bringing an added dimension to conventional thinking about this form of community research (Burrell, 2009).

There is no population group that cannot benefit from an ethnographic study of its assets. Eloff and De Wet (2007), for example, report on the value of an ethnographic study focused on discovering community assets for enhancing preschool learning. This ethnographic research utilized a variety of methods, such as observations, field notes, interviews, photographs, and artifacts. Findings identified cultural, human, intangible, social, and economic capital that could be mobilized in a preschool initiative. McElroy, Davis, Hunt, Dadul, Stanba, and Larson (2011) studied persons with disabilities in Ladakh, India, using interviews and participant observation techniques to identify the strengths and needs of this population group and its family and community leaders.

Surveys (Open Ended)

Surveys are certainly very popular in identifying and documenting community assets (Green, 2009). They provide insight into how a broader sector of a community thinks about a particular topic such as assets. The fundamental decision (p.137) of whether the survey will consist of open ended, closed ended, or a combination of questions will be a deciding factor in the cost and time demands for use of this method. The reader will see strong parallels between need and asset focused surveys, and many of the limitations found in the former can also be found in the latter. However, those experienced with conducting asset assessments surely will attest to how difficult it is to get community residents to think about community assets when they are used to thinking about their communities from a deficit perspective.

It is generally recommended that asset surveys rely upon open ended questions and that it is necessary to be creative in how to ask questions about community assets. The same question may have to be asked several different ways in order to capture this information. Thus, we have found that asset surveys generally take three times as much time to conduct as the typical needs focused survey because they necessitate that respondents think about their communities in a dramatically different way.

There are limitations related to surveys that get accentuated only when the information they are trying to uncover is arduous to retrieve. Surveys based upon representative samples are expensive. Interviewers need to be screened and trained carefully and supported, and this process takes on even greater significance when the interviewers are new to this method and/or are indigenous to the community being assessed.

Surveys generally consist of information on multiple categories, with each consisting of numerous questions. The advantage of a survey method, whether need or asset focused, is also its limitation. Surveys lend themselves to the gathering of a broad perspective. However, the depth of information is compromised for breadth. Finally, though, the training and support provided in these instances can be quite empowering and capacity enhancing, and when the study is completed, the interviewers stay in the community and enhance the human capital of the community.


An asset based assessment not only necessitates the use of a different language that is not pathology driven, it also necessitates the quest for new methods that effectively free up asset team members to tap cultural assets and other considerations generally overlooked by those external to the community (Aronson et al., 2007b). The use of journals is one such culturally bound method, either written or audio recorded. Journals can be called by various names and sometimes have been referred to as events or activity logs (Butterfoss, 2006).

One suggestion for helping to capture the nuances, such as practice and ethical dilemmas associated with asset assessments, is to encourage the use of journals by the steering committee and team members, to help capture the joys, trials, and tribulations associated with conducting this form of community centered research. This mechanism, however, must be sensitive to participating parties (p.138) who have challenges in writing or recording observations, feelings, and impressions. Journal entries can be done throughout the day or at specific times. There is greater and greater use of electronic journals, particularly among youth, so practical concerns may dictate when these can be done.

In situations in which literacy or disabilities are factors, use of audio recordings has proven successful. When these tapes are transcribed, there are considerable costs involved in this method. However, it may involve only a limited number of individuals within the community, and having audio recording methods helps ensure that no segment of the community is excluded from this process and conveys to the broader community the importance of tapping all sources, regardless of challenges. In addition, speech recognition computer software creates print directly from voice, making transcription unnecessary.

Delphi Technique

Surprisingly, the use of the Delphi Technique as a method to address a community’s assets has not been reported in the literature. The Delphi Technique was developed in the 1970s as a research method for developing priorities for “improving the urban social environment” (Molnar & Kammerud, 1977). It has been conceptualized primarily as a communication device to elicit the opinions of “experts” on particular urban problems. It typically consists of several steps or stages that entail establishing a panel and brainstorming, sorting, and ranking of community problem related statements.

Although specifically used to identify the most pressing social problems, it can serve in similar fashion to the more deficit oriented conventional use of this method by stressing assets because of flexibility in how it can be conceptualized. It is a method, however, that will not provide an in-depth look at a community’s assets. The Delphi Technique, nevertheless, has the potential to provide broad information on a community and also to allow a more in-depth study of particular geographic areas and a specific asset focus. The financial costs of this method are generally minor, facilitating the use of the Delphi Technique in situations in which funding is very limited.

It is necessary to create a panel of approximately 10 participants representing different significant sectors of a community such as religious, service provider, fire, and safety. These representatives ideally should capture forms of legitimacy (expertise, institutional, ethical, and consumer) as a means of helping to ensure representation. Each panel member, in turn, can recommend 10 potential respondents to a key question that needs to be answered.

Each respondent is enlisted to respond to a question such as “What is the greatest strength of our community?” This information can be conveyed via paper or electronically. Each respondent’s answers are then categorized by the panel and sent back to the respondents for rank ordering according to importance. These responses are then sent back to the panel, tabulated, and ranked (each category keeps all of the responses as a means of capturing the (p.139) sentiments of the responses). A typical set of responses will then be ranked in order from one to 20.

Another step has these 20 categories rank ordered and sent back to respondents to further rank order them according to which asset is most amenable to being enhanced. Responses are tabulated and ranked. At the end of the process, two lists will be made available: (1) the most important assets ranked from one to 20 and (2) 20 assets that respondents wish to have enhanced, in a descending order of amenability to enhancement.

Because the Delphi Technique is usually used to rank order needs or problems, typically one list has the top 20 needs or problems confronting a community. The second list addresses ease (amenability) of addressing these needs or problems. Some of these items may be of great concern to a community, but there is a sense that they are arduous or impossible to address. This information helps guide the use of other methods to further define and narrow a focus of an intervention. Therefore, the Delphi Technique helps focus an asset assessment but should not be considered the only method used in such a study.


What is photovoice? The emergence of photovoice as a method that lends itself to community asset assessments has ushered in a high degree of excitement through the use of digital cameras, making the process less expensive than the use of conventional cameras requiring film to be processed. It is a tool that has been shown to be quite effective in use across a variety of groups and in addressing a variety of issues. This tool lends itself quite well to developing greater awareness of community problems but can also be used to uncover community assets.

Like other participatory research approaches addressed in this chapter, photovoice seeks to accomplish social change goals at the community level, but it does this through use of photograph and corresponding narrative to bring the pictures and stories of community assets to life (Foster-Fishman, Nowell, Deacon, Nievar, & McNann, 2005). Molloy (2007) envisions photovoice as a “tool” for social workers to raise awareness about social justice issues and empower undervalued groups in the process.

The following description illustrates a common approach toward using photovoice, with a focus on maternal and child health (Wang & Pies, 2004, p. 95): “Residents were provided with disposable cameras and were encouraged to take photographs reflecting their views on family, maternal, and child health assets and concerns in their community, and then participated in group discussions about their photographs. Community events were held to enable participants to educate MCH staff and community leaders…The photovoice project provided MCH staff with information to supplement existing quantitative perinatal data and contributed to an understanding of key MCH issues that participating community residents would like to see addressed.”

(p.140) The goals of photovoice are generally threefold (Wang & Redwood-Jones, 2001, p. 560): “(1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns; (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about personal and community issues through large and small group discussions of photographs; and (3) to reach policy-makers.” These goals make photovoice an attractive method for use in community asset assessments by addressing the relevance of concerns some communities may have about participating in asset or deficit driven research projects (Carlson, Engebretson, & Chamberlain, 2006). The popularity of photovoice, in large part, can be attributed to its potential for use across population groups, goals, budgets, and settings as a vehicle for identifying community assets and increasing community dialogue (Brazg et al., 2010; Castleden, Gacuin, & First Nation, 2008; Downey, Ireson, & Scutcfield, 2009).

Marginalized communities obviously benefit from having their stories told to increase positive attention and resources to their communities. However, participants also benefit from photovoice by engendering a sense of control over their lives and an increased awareness of the importance of relationships and their potential to be agents of social change (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). Participation, in essence, is intended to be a transformative experience and represents a critical element in any form of participatory democratic based intervention (Delgado & Staples, 2008).

Photovoice lends itself to use by a variety of groups, regardless of literacy skills. In addition, it has been a method that seems to be able to engage residents across the lifespan, as well as people with varying degrees of abilities. Photovoice has been found to be a particularly viable method for assessing the assets of people with disabilities (Jurokowski & Paul-Ward, 2007; Jurokowski, Rivera, & Hammel, 2009).

Wang (2006), one of the nation’s leading proponents of photovoice, has undertaken numerous studies involving this method and opened the door to other researchers reaching out to marginalized groups in this society. Photovoice has also been used with homeless people, for example, and Wang, Cash, and Powers (2000) report on their effort involving homeless women and men in shelters who photographed their daily existence, documenting strengths and struggles. Participants, in turn, shared their perspectives in group discussions using photographs that best represented their lives. Youth, too, have been found to benefit from using photovoice method research in developing a critical consciousness of their strengths and challenges, and developing a better understanding of their communities (Wang, 2006).

Photovoice has also been effectively used to create community “photo mapping” as a means of integrating health and place research with young people (Dennis, Gaulocher, Carpiano, & Brown, 2008). For example, development of a greater awareness of how place of residence and health are associated has resulted in actions to alter their environment to create healthier options for youth and other residents.

Carlson, Engebretson, and Chamberlain (2006) report on the success of photovoice in an African American community in helping participants identify (p.141) things in their community of which they are proud and things they wish to change. McIntyre (2003) used photovoice as a means of capturing how women create place and identity within the contexts of everyday life. Internationally, one photovoice project in South Africa sought to promote food security among the poor with HIV/AIDS (Swaans, Broerse, Meincke, Mudhara, & Bunders, 2009). Kelly and colleagues (2006), in turn, used photovoice as a tool for promoting physical activity in communities.

The field of health promotion, in particular, has found this method of engaging community, identifying assets, and translating these findings into health promotion strategies beneficial. Barridge and colleagues (2010) describe the use of “photo-elicitation,” or photovoice, as a means of increasing community dialogue on community assets, and incorporating these resources into health initiatives.

Wang and Pies (2004) undertook a photovoice research project on maternal and child health that sought to accomplish three goals: (1) enhance community health assessments and program planning; (2) encourage community use of photovoice to record and communicate health assets and concerns; and (3) educate and introduce this research method for use in grassroots driven initiatives.

Catalini and Minkler (2010) conclude, based upon a review of the literature on photovoice, that this method invariably (60%) is closely associated with social change efforts following a photovoice activity, facilitating the empowerment of participants. Hergenrather, Rhodes, Cowan, Bardhoshi, and Pula (2009), too, undertook an extensive review of the literature on photovoice as a research methodology and conclude that, despite limitations, this method holds much promise for facilitating community participation in assessment and bringing about community change and empowerment.

Photovoice does present challenges along a variety of dimensions, though. Mitchell, DeLange, Moletsane, Stuart, and Buthelezi (2005), for example, identify challenges related to technical aspects, documentation and interpretation of findings, ethics, and translating findings into action. The popularity of photovoice and of digital cameras, however, has made the process less expensive than the use of conventional cameras requiring film to be processed, making photovoice a research method more appealing for community asset assessment. This new “tool” in the hands of community residents has provided a vehicle through which a community can be better understood internally and externally (Delgado, 2006).

Expert Panel

The expert panel method generally has been underutilized or unused, even though it provides tremendous flexibility for asset assessments. An expert panel is a group of members specifically selected because of their experiences, expertise, or positions within a community, providing a unique perspective on analysis of data or information. The use of an expert panel provides an opportunity for specific input by a group on a particular form of asset. It can, for example, consist of religious/spiritual stakeholders giving their input into religious capital (p.142) or small business owners into economic capital assessment. Expert panels also supplement a steering committee and provide flexibility when a particular type of expertise is missing from a committee. These panels are very different from the one established for a Delphi Technique. The Delphi panel gets selected both because of its unique views on a community and also because of the corresponding social network that it can tap.

The size of an expert panel can range from several members to 10 to 15 members, depending upon the importance given to a particular asset. If an intervention that results from an asset assessment will involve the religious/spiritual organizations and stakeholders, for example, it allows a steering committee to engage these individuals early in the process to make an intervention easier to market and implement. The size of this panel must also be taken into consideration if training and extensive support will be needed to facilitate the process. Consequently, local goals and circumstances will dictate the ideal number of members.

Nevertheless, there must be a consensus definition of who constitutes an “expert” for this method to wield influence in asset assessments. Expertise can be defined along educational and experiential dimensions. Although this distinction can appear rather straightforward, who is considered an expert is not simple and is very much dependent upon who is deciding.

Expert panels can meet on a regularly scheduled basis and be asked to respond to very specific questions or findings. This method, however, must not be confused with the role of a community asset steering committee because its “charge” is quite specific and time limited. This method complements the other methods presented in this section and chapter and should not be used on its own.

Oral Histories

Oral history research on community assets can be as broad and exploratory or narrow and focused as the goals of the assessment. Janesick (2007, p. 111), for example, found 70 different definitions of oral history in a review of the literature, many of which overlapped with each other, and defines oral history in the following manner: “It is regularly defined in this era as some variation of a person who has had first hand knowledge of any number of experiences.” Although this definition may initially appear simple, oral history projects are far from simple, as evidenced by the number of definitions in the literature.

Methods can vary, for example, according to the use and type of recording device employed (tape recorders, video, paper and pencil, etc.), depth and frequency of interviews (one lengthy interview or a series of interviews over an extended period of time), use of observations, and documents. The focus of oral history projects can also differ. Some may focus on local residents, others may focus on providers or elites, and still others may focus on a combination of these. Language used takes on importance in cases in which English is not the primary language spoken. This necessitates having interviewers who are fluent in the interviewee’s language. Also, knowledge of culture takes on prominence because (p.143) the symbols used in conveying stories and experiences necessitate translating this information in a culturally meaningful manner.

Asset assessment projects utilizing oral histories as the primary mechanism for discovering or, as the case may be, rediscovering community assets have enjoyed considerable popularity in communities that have been marginalized. They include, for example, groups new to this country, those with long histories of oppression such as African Americans, and those that had these histories erased such as Native Americans.

Thomas (2004), in writing about neighborhood planning, discusses the potential for using oral history as a way of obtaining historical insights from community residents. She sees it as a particularly good method to include people who are marginalized and whose voices have not been heard. Thomas (2004, p. 56) states: “The need to tap resident knowledge is particularly important in distressed central-city neighborhoods precisely because they need whatever resources may be available. Resident initiative, wisdom, and participation are important resources.” Community asset assessments relying on oral histories are not an “inexpensive” way of tapping community assets, though. Oral history projects are labor intensive and require considerable training, supervision, and support of interviewers and careful recording and analysis of data.


There have been innovative approaches toward tapping community asset related information, with CommunityLine being one such example. This is the establishment of an Internet site or an around the clock, toll free, telephone number that residents can call to share their views of community assets (Thompson, 2009). This method is particularly appealing for those residents who wish to remain anonymous or whose written and reading skills severely limit their participation in more conventional data gathering methods. Hours and days can be adjusted, and a period of time can be established during which the line will be operational, taking into account budget and other forms of resources. Extensive advertising throughout the community is required for this method to be viable, though.

Specific lines can be promoted for residents who do not have English as their primary language. YouthLine, for example, can target youth, and it can be staffed by them, too, as a method for specifically reaching out to this age group that generally gets overlooked even in more comprehensive asset assessments. Alexander and Cagle (2009), for example, describe the use of an Internet site for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth to use to record their concerns, and such a model could also be used to record assets.

A gathering of data in CommunityLine, although with limitations, is relatively easy to implement and staff. Yet, data obtained through this method are not generalizable and will necessitate transcription, which will be expensive, time consuming, and may require bilingual transcribers. This approach is recommended as a supplement to other methods but not as a primary way of tapping community assets.

(p.144) Geospatial Analysis Technologies

Needs assessments have often relied very heavily upon quantitative data gathered through existing agency and governmental data gathering methods. These data, unfortunately, have been heavily deficit oriented through their focus on problems and needs. Geospacial analysis technologies have the potential to make important contributions to community asset assessments through the gathering and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data.

The role and potential of computers, software, and telecommunication equipment, such as mobile phones, necessitate that special attention be paid to their use in community asset assessments and mapping. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a geographic analysis technology that encompasses a system of hardware and software used for storage, retrieval, mapping, and analysis of geographic data (United States Geological Survey, 2007).

GIS can present and analyze spatial data in formats such as graphs and charts as well as on maps. It has gained in prominence in the new millennium. Also, in the past decade or so, technology has become more readily accessible to community residents without formal training in cartography or geography, and various computer software programs such as MapInfo, ArcGIS, and EpiMap typify this increased accessibility (Aronson et al., 2007a). Therefore, extra attention will be paid in this section to GIS.

It is important to note that GIS is a method that requires specialized computer knowledge, software, and hardware to implement it as well as staff to operate and maintain it. Computers must be available that are adequate to the requirements of the software, and special printers must be capable of printing large maps, if those are desired beyond the smaller sizes that standard printers can print. Although data can be obtained from existing government sources, for example, to input onto maps, often researchers gather data in the community using specialized handheld devices. Therefore, because of the expertise and funding needed to carry out GIS projects, it is often likely that this type of work would best be done in collaboration with an organization such as a university that already has the system in place, or a grant to fund it may have to be obtained.

Some free Internet training modules are available, but the novice also would have to learn about GIS in its entirety in order to understand how to apply the information from the training effectively. In addition, some free software is available, but technical expertise or consultation would be needed to integrate free or “open-source” resources, such as Google Maps, with other parts of a GIS system, such as software for analysis. Like other technologies, though, the expertise needed and costs may decrease over time, and some progress has already been made, which will be discussed below.

A major way in which GIS has become more accessible to communities is the development of applications that can run on smart phones that have greater computer capabilities than earlier mobile phones. Therefore, instead of carrying specialized handheld devices made only for GIS data gathering, regular smart phones can have applications downloaded that work with the Global Positioning (p.145) System (GPS) that generally now is built into mobile phones. This makes it easier to include community people in an asset needs assessment data gathering process. Oversight of the large number of people who are able to gather data increases, but the inclusionary aspect of the process is improved as well.

The City of Boston, Massachusetts, provides an example of the use of smart phones to gather data by surveys conducted on foot (L. H. Delgado, 2012). Although more sophisticated handheld devices were used previously, it was found that the smart phones were more efficient. The survey obtains citywide data on foreclosed and distressed properties as part of the Department of Neighborhood Development’s ongoing work to help address these issues. Using GIS, the survey data are combined with various other data sources, mapped, analyzed, and interpreted regarding trends and geographic areas that need the City’s attention. This method identifies assets and improvements, in addition to deficits and areas needing further attention (L. H. Delgado, 2012).

Another example of the use of smart phones in GIS data gathering is the Beacon of Hope Resource Center’s project in New Orleans, Louisiana (ArcNews Online, 2010). In addition, this is an example of a collaboration of a community organization with both a university and a municipality. The Beacon of Hope Resource Center was developed in 2006 in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and a major part of its work has been to assess neighborhood conditions throughout New Orleans. Although it began with paper surveys done in the field, which it arduously entered into its later GIS system, it progressed to surveying with smart phones (Beacon of Hope Resource Center, 2011). This was an effort that began with the community, which then collaborated with a university, and which finally engaged a municipality, resulting in a three way collaboration. Residents have remained engaged throughout the process and found the spatial data presented on maps of the community and its neighborhoods to be very helpful in conveying information about New Orleans and its recovery (ArcNews, 2010).

A review of the literature on GIS and undervalued communities will uncover a variety of terms that make GIS empowering and inclusive of marginalized groups. Terms such as “public participation GIS” (PPGIS) and “Participatory GIS” (PGIS) are often thought of as postmodern adaptations of conventional GIS applications. GIS has emerged to fulfill a variety of functions, including being used to record community assets. Elwood (2006) sees GIS research methods as offering urban marginalized communities the potential to create their own narratives or stories that reflect their priorities and understanding of community assets and problems. Hyland and Owens (2005) stress the value of computer generated neighborhood asset maps as a means of obtaining and presenting information in a highly visual form that increases its accessibility to residents.

GIS, in a fashion similar to the other methods covered in the chapter, has the potential for positive change or for further oppressing communities. How it is conceptualized, and the values and goals guiding its use, will dictate the approach. GIS is a research tool that can be empowering and liberating, if used by residents to seek social justice and social change. However, its true measure of potential and effectiveness will be when it goes beyond conventional reliance (p.146) on location of organizational, religious, and educational settings and seeks to uncover hidden talents and gifts not widely recognized within the community.

Turner and Pinkett (2000) advance the notion that tremendous synergy and the capability to empower communities to improve their environment can be found at the intersection between community building and community technology. Glantz and McMahan (2007) also echo the importance of mapping and edited a special issue of Practicing Anthropology devoted exclusively to illustrating the benefits of a merger of anthropology and GIS community maps to increase the understanding of the dynamics of health and well-being, and community participation.

GIS serves to provide a more in-depth understanding of resident perceptions of local issues and priorities and can help put multiple variables into a spatial view, which would not be possible through plain statistics. GIS also lends itself to identifying resident perceptions of community assets. It has the potential to improve delivery of social services, too. For example, GIS maps of social service providers can help social workers identify and make referrals to resources for their clients (Hillier, 2007).

Dunn (2007) presents a variety of ways of democratizing GIS to capture and utilize indigenous and local knowledge and increase community control and ownership of geographic information. Dennis (2006) reports on a youth community asset assessment project that utilized a range of qualitative methods (photography, narratives, and drawings), which were then incorporated into GIS. Ghirardelli, Quinn, and Forester (2010) describe the use of GIS and local food store data focused on the availability of fresh produce within low income communities in California to identify resources within food deserts.

Schlossberg (undated) reports on a GIS initiative in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that was spearheaded by United Way. A GIS analysis of assets and needs supplemented an ethnographic and traditional needs assessment. Schlossberg (undated, p. 15) comments on the attractiveness of GIS: “GIS has demonstrated…that it can be an effective methodology for converging the dual goals of bottom up and top down decision making. Data presented with the aid of GIS is more easily understood by the communities served as well as organizational administrators, funders and public officials.”

Introduction of GIS as a community participatory mapping tool, as to be expected, will necessitate addressing challenges concerning preconceived perceptions of a “steep learning curve,” competing ideology of how to use this tool, and difficulty in interpreting results (Kothari et al., 2008). The challenge is to give community residents more access to GIS and mapping.

Grassroots Mapping is a project that began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do participatory research and democratize mapping by local communities (Warren, 2012). Its work relies heavily on low technology and low cost materials. For example, in Lima, Peru, Grassroots Mapping worked with children and adults to launch their own “community satellites” of helium balloons and kites, obtaining data to enter into maps. It also did aerial mapping using balloons in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida after the Deepwater Horizon oil (p.147) spill on the Gulf Coast. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, which grew out of the Grassroots Mapping project and of which the Grassroots Mapping project now is a part, makes available both free directions for communities to use their own materials and an extremely low cost kit for communities to do their own balloon mapping projects. Currently, many sites throughout the United States and abroad are doing mapping using the Grassroots balloon or kite mapping methods (Grassroots Mapping, 2010; The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, 2012).

Grassroots has benefited from so called Web 2.0 developments that resulted in flexibility in using data (Diehl, Grabill, Hart-Davidson, & Iyer, 2008). Web 2.0 generally refers to the interactive use of the Internet that was developed after the initial Internet was created. Diehl and colleagues (2008), like Talen (2000), recognize that GIS is often for the elite and tends to exclude a large majority of the population. Therefore, Grassroots strives to make maps accessible to the general community in order to harness a “collective intelligence.” Most importantly, Grassroots is a mechanism for creating asset maps that allow community members, as well as the general public, to view the community in a new, positive light (Diehl et al., 2008). To achieve this, the programmers made it easy to add and edit information on the maps, facilitating participants’ abilities to access their previous and current maps along with other community members’ maps. The goal was not only to help users get a feel for mapmaking, but also to give them a better sense of their community as a whole.

GIS, as already noted, has the potential to help to empower communities and get them involved in the creation of a better community. In particular, GIS can be very useful in helping to show disparity in a community. Because the process of getting communities involved is a relatively new concept, though, the reliance of GIS on computers and technology can make it not easily accessible to the general public (Talen, 2000). However, what Talen (2000) calls bottom-up GIS (BUGIS) is trying to combat this trend and involve the general public, specifically community members, in mapping efforts.

Talen (2000) describes two significant efforts at BUGIS in Dallas, Texas, that were conducted at visioning events. The first step was to select an appropriate venue for the mapping. When necessary, groups were broken down into smaller groups according to communities. The second step was to prepare all relevant GIS data for the participants. It was important to keep all the data straightforward and to address all geographic areas of relevance that could be covered. Third, there were GIS facilitators whose role was to work with participants and act as translators in order to make the maps and accurately display the individuals’ preferences. This technical support was important in clarifying the process and helping participants with questions.

Participants then constructed their BUGIS, relying on three things: description, evaluation, and prescription (Talen, 2000). First, the participants described their personal patterns within the community and then made greater, broader descriptions. In terms of evaluation, they expressed their opinions as to the value and significance of certain aspects of their communities. Finally, for prescription, (p.148) they expressed their desires and hopes for the future of their communities. All of these were mapped on a BUGIS map. Interestingly, although individuals were mapping almost the same geographic areas, the maps looked very different. Different individuals, not surprisingly, identified different points of interest as important. A result of the individual maps was the opportunity to increase the knowledge of community issues (Talen, 2000; Talen & Shah, 2009).

GIS has been explored as an aid for people who are blind or have visual impairments. For example, in the 1990s, tactile maps with raised features and Braille were developed using GIS at Pasadena City College, California (Clark & Clark, 1994). A more recent college campus example of a project to develop a tactile map with raised lines and symbols and Braille for students who are blind was done by a Kansas University graduate student who is blind, working in collaboration with the university’s Geography Department and Cartographic Services Office. Her insight directly brought in the specific needs and perspectives of a student who had to navigate the campus (Maines, 2006). Although there are challenges for making such maps so that they are effective and truly practical, the concept is promising for wider use. Development of tactile maps could be integrated into an asset assessment, too.

Goldman and colleagues (2008) at the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at the University of California, Los Angeles, present a compelling case for the use of what they call “participatory sensing” as a resident driven research approach and method. Participatory sensing seeks to increase community participation in the assessment design, implementation, analysis of data, and development of action plans. It utilizes a variety of data collection devices, such as mobile telephones, as a way to enable community residents to take geotagged images of various assets in their community; geotagging attaches location specific information to the images. These images can then be automatically uploaded and displayed on interactive maps. This approach can be used by special population groups to focus on particular assets or interests.

A number of scholars, however, have raised questions about participatory GIS and technology. Perkins (2007, p. 127) raises a voice of concern specific to participatory GIS: “Participatory GIS in theory belies a more democratic spatial governance…but the majority of this work emphasizes the incorporation of local voices into maps produced and controlled by specialists, and articulating their agenda, rather than subverting mapping, or changing what is mapped.” Perkins (2007), as a result, touches on issues about how existing power structures seek to elicit community voices without themselves being the target of change. There is untapped potential in GIS for mapping community assets. However, efforts to further include community residents in the use of GIS necessitate that a conscious effort be made to do so and that there be a willingness to modify this tool to encourage community participation and ownership.

Anchan and Katz (2003, p. 123), in turn, pose a provocative question pertaining to technology and marginalized groups: “Can we expect that providing access to information technology will change the status of a marginalized population? In the end, it is not whether the marginalized have access to information (p.149) technology. Rather, the critical issues are whether they want to use it and, if so, how they would use it. Possibly, the use of information technology or the surrounding debate on the digital divide remains an issue that does not relate to their immediate basic needs.” Sieber’s (2006, p. 491) assessment of GIS points out the potential of this method for creating positive as well as detrimental consequences for communities: “It is an odd concept to attribute to a piece of software the potential to enhance or limit public participation in policymaking, empower or marginalize community members to improve their lives, counter or enable agendas of the powerful, and advance or diminish democratic principles.”

It is possible to combine maps to create one that integrates information from all participants. However, Talen (2000) warns that synthesizing data in that way can compromise individual viewpoints. Also, Talen warns that planners must be willing to give control over to the community members instead of professionals, whom they have relied on for years.


Practitioners have a variety of tools and options that can be used to carry out community asset assessments. We believe that the more tools that can be used for a particular job, the higher the likelihood the results will capture the community’s assets. Realistically, though, the selection of methods must be based upon time, funds available, expertise, political will on the part of the community, and the questions one seeks to answer. Community asset assessment does not have to involve computer software, though, and can still be done with manually inputted information, as will be discussed in Chapter 7. In addition, there can be a combination involving computers and manual methods. This flexibility allows local circumstances to dictate how a community asset map can be accomplished.

The abundance of methods also does not mean that practitioners do not have favorite ones that resonate with their skills. However, it is important to warn community social workers that local circumstances must dictate the methods to be used in an assessment and not the practitioners’ preferences. This means that as a team is being put together, special attention should be paid to enlisting participants with complementary strengths. Steering committees and research teams must always be composed after deliberative planning and engagement in a thoughtful decision making process. In addition, as noted earlier in Chapter 5, research teams should be inclusive of all significant sectors of a community by race, gender, sexual orientation, age, abilities, and length of residence, to list but a few considerations. (p.150)