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Retired Texas geoscientist uses talent to connect rural community to the web

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Kristi Eaton, The Daily Yonder

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(Texas News Service) An unexpected volunteer, a geographic information system (GIS) mapping expert helped a rural community in Texas establish its broadband connection.

Bernie South is the GIS volunteer who mapped the data using information from the Census, school district hotpost addresses and areas of growth in the county. A former U.S. Navy electronics technician and geoscientist at Exxon Mobil, South has been retired for about a decade.

South began volunteering with Bastrop County Cares during the pandemic to vaccinate people, he said. Since the pandemic in 2020, Bastrop County Cares, a nonprofit organization, has been working to bring broadband to more individuals and families in rural Texas.

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"I've been doing things for broadband - to support that," he told the Daily Yonder in a Zoom interview. "I was sort of a recognized company expert at Exxon Mobil in the use of GIS. And I kind of bring that level of expertise to this project that I've been working on."

Using the data and maps, the task force has been convening different stakeholders to identify areas of need to help develop solutions to address the broadband shortage, Bastrop County Cares Executive Director Norma Mercado told the Daily Yonder in Zoom and email interviews.

"Bernie South's expertise in data science and geospatial analysis has been instrumental in pinpointing the areas with the greatest need for broadband access in Bastrop County..." she said, "...significantly advancing the mission of Bastrop County Cares to bring people together to collaboratively tackle large community challenges and improve the conditions where our neighbors live, work, pray and play."

Using data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Census data and other data sources, South provided detailed maps of where the highest need for broadband was located.

"Basically, I've been able to convert all that data together to give them a coherent picture of where the needs are, and where we need to focus the efforts. So a lot of the project has been driven by that data analysis," he said.

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For example, South examined hotspots that students used during the pandemic. "That's kind of a direct indicator of where you have deficiencies in broadband coverage," he added.

Thanks to the assistance of South and others, Bastrop County Cares has been able to identify an antenna where S.O.S Communications will be able to provide broadband access to the 700-person community of McDade at a reasonable cost, Mercado said.

Debbie Bresette, the retired CEO of Bastrop County Cares and now a volunteer with the organization, said broadband will be a game-changer for the McDade community.

"They have four churches in this small town. They can hold their church services if need be, both online and in person," she told the Daily Yonder in a Zoom interview. "It means their kids can have access to better quality education. And if they have to be at home, they can do it at home. It means that the seniors in that community who are pretty far from doctors can do telehealth visits."

Bresette said the maps South has created will help the community in a multitude of ways.

"We now know where people who really struggled to make ends meet live. So we could do some small business development, help people do small business development in certain areas," she said. "We know where the majority of children under certain ages are. So we could do special programming in those communities so those kids start school ready to learn. The applications that we're using for broadband can be used for a wide variety of things."

Across the country, volunteers are helping to support efforts to bring broadband to their local communities. In Vermont, a community-based solution known as Communications Union Districts brings organizations of two or more towns together to build communication infrastructure together. Volunteers from electric co-ops have also brought supplies and line crews to the Navajo Nation.

South has not only focused on broadband-related maps but on maps related to other subjects as well. He has also mapped police calls to domestic disputes, which he said, showed a correlation between calls and economic stressors. Additionally, he has mapped rural hospital closures and the impact on low-income residents and other demographic data.

South said the biggest challenge to Bastrop County is people educating themselves as to how to think and work with a system like the one he worked with.

"That's always been the biggest challenge to me," he said. "People don't know what they don't know about what can be done."

Kristi Eaton wrote this article for The Daily Yonder.