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ASU grad maps water pathways in Phoenix

While studying abroad in Chile her junior year, Chloe Warpinski started thinking about water in a new way.

“I was studying in a water-scarce area of Chile, where we had to use a single bucket of water to shower and had to boil water before drinking it,” said the ASU Barrett Honors College senior.

However difficult, the experience compelled her to enroll in the ASU course “Poverty, Social Justice and Global Health,” which focused on water as a basic human right and the challenges that vulnerable populations often face in accessing it.

The course became the starting point for Warpinski’s senior honors thesis – mapping the city’s water pathways and social service infrastructure to address water accessibility in Phoenix for people experiencing homelessness.

When Warpinski graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in global health, she will leave behind a valuable resource for Phoenix social service providers and those who rely on them – a project that epitomizes ASU’s emphasis on innovation, social embeddedness and use-inspired research.

Water, water – not everywhere

While many people are familiar with the term “food desert,” less is known about water scarcity.

“Historically, there’s been a lot of focus on food and ‘food deserts,’ and that’s because only until recently, water has typically been a community resource rather than a commodity,” said Warpinski, who began laying the groundwork for her thesis last fall by studying the ways homeless people in the Phoenix metro area access water.

What emerged was a problem of distribution, especially during the hot summer months when daily temperatures rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and lead to greater demand for water – putting vulnerable communities at greater risk and overwhelming homeless support service providers who are unable to keep up with the demand.

“In Phoenix during the summer, a person who is homeless can only travel about a half-mile radius due to the extreme heat,” said Warpinski, explaining that while some of the city’s service providers become overwhelmed, others are underused – indicating a need for greater awareness and coordination. 

The power of geospatial data

A student worker at ASU Library, Warpinski felt at home using library resources and so enlisted the help of Mary Whelan, a geospatial and research data specialist at ASU Library, to help her design, from the ground up, a map of Phoenix and its social service infrastructure.

“Chloe’s work makes a great contribution and in many ways illustrates the power of GIS (geospatial information systems) to help people visualize inequality. She also is part of a new generation of students for whom the library is not just books on a shelf, but a space for active, engaged learning opportunities with access to new technologies (GIS, makerspaces) and support from experienced, knowledgeable library personnel,” said Whelan, who helped Warpinski use the GIS mapping tools she needed to conduct her research – resources available through the ASU Library Map and Geospatial Hub.

Leveraging map, data and technology resources, as well as technical expertise, the Map and Geospatial Hub is exactly that – an all-inclusive library hub servicing the geospatial research and learning needs of the ASU and broader Phoenix communities.

“Our model is pretty simple,” said Matt Toro, director of the Map and Geospatial Hub. “We make thousands of maps, aerial photographs and geospatial datasets available; provide training and consultation so that people can extract meaningful information and add value to those resources; and then conduct or facilitate projects that can have an impact on the spaces that were mapped and analyzed.”

According to Toro, Warpinski’s research serves as an excellent example of how to apply geospatial technologies to better understand and bring attention to a pressing socio-environmental issue such as water scarcity.

“Maps, and the geographic stories they tell through data, can be powerful tools for informing community development policies,” Toro said.

A lasting legacy

Warpinski says she hopes her geographic model of Phoenix can improve infrastructure for support providers as well as alleviate the burdens of homelessness.

“The map I’ve created does a few things. It can be used to predict the movement of homeless populations at various times of year by locating refuges and resources – places where people can get water, food and shelter,” said Warpinski. “It can also assist social service providers in showing how to create greater infrastructure systems and provide and manage them more effectively.”

It’s difficult for the public to get this kind of data, Warpinski said, so she’s hoping her map can be updated each year at ASU Library and distributed freely – a lasting effort to inform and educate about the need for better access to resources that are necessary for human survival.

After graduation, Warpinski plans to travel to the Slovak Republic, where she will live for a year and teach English as part of a Fulbright Scholarship – an appropriate ending to an undergraduate career punctuated by service.

“What I love about ASU and the library, in particular, is that it’s truly the pinnacle of accessibility and impact,” said Warpinski. “It’s the place where you go to think differently, to find new ways to solve problems and make real change.”  

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