Jenny Leblanc gathers GPS point data for a research project at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus last week. She is a student earning her master's in Geographic Information Systems at Delta State University. Jenny’s research will eventually result in a phone app for those interested in the history of Friendship Cemetery. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
June 12, 2017 11:20:28 AM
For the capstone project of her master's degree program at Delta State University, one Columbus native has taken on what she calls "a monster of a project."
Jenny Leblanc, who studies geographic information systems, is spending her summer combing through thousands of graves in Columbus' historic Friendship Cemetery, determining the GPS coordinates of each plot and searching for the history behind the names. Leblanc plans to eventually create a phone application -- using her collected data and crowd-sourced history of individuals buried in the cemetery -- that would allow for self-guided cemetery tours.
"I have one (friend) who went looking for the grave of some Mason in Georgia. They went on a big trip to find the grave of this person, and they had instructions of how to get there. It kind of took them close, but it didn't tell them how to get there," Leblanc said. "They spent an entire day looking and looking, and they finally found the marker for this guy."
She hopes a cemetery-focused GPS app would help people like her friend, making the graves of friends or relatives easier to locate. By refining the app and adding stories, Leblanc dreams of offering more complete pictures of people's lives.
Leblanc said she'll gather facts about those buried in the local cemetery from documents at places like the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. She also hopes to involve Lowndes County citizens by asking people to submit short biographies of loved ones who have been laid to rest in Friendship Cemetery.
"The plan is to try to get stories on people, and eventually crowd-source those stories because the library is not going to have stories about my Uncle Kenny and how much of a Bulldog fan he was and about how he was a self-made man," Leblanc said of her uncle, who is buried in the cemetery.
Leblanc started collecting GPS data last week, and while she said it's a small portion of her larger project, she considers it the hardest part.
She tries to get each GPS coordinate within eight feet of accuracy. Stopping at each plot, Leblanc places her GPS unit in the center of each piece of property, waits for the device to collect coordinate points and keeps a record of the names on each headstone.
It takes the graduate student several minutes to collect data on a plot in Friendship Cemetery, and between two children and two online classes, she only gets to spend a couple hours in the cemetery daily. Leblanc plans to cover as many graves as possible before the end of July.
At that point, she'll return to teaching forestry at East Mississippi Community College, simultaneously completing the last semester of her master's degree at Delta State.
"I'm going to get as far as I can until the end of the summer ... but I would like to get as much as possible," Leblanc said. "I really want to do it, not just for my research project and my master's, but because it's cool and interesting."
Reading about a cemetery utilizing GPS for grave location inspired Leblanc to tackle her mapping project. As the idea grew, she wanted to connect her study of geographic information systems with the history of her hometown.
With an undergraduate degree in forestry from Mississippi State University, Leblanc recognizes the widespread use of GPS devices and techniques in her field and others. She is excited for the prospect of what these global innovations can provide at home.
"(Geographic information systems) is everywhere," Leblanc said. "Locational data is starting to get connected to everything. Cities have GIS analysts to figure out where needs are. Fire departments have (GIS) to figure out where needs are, and which hydrants have how much power in what locations, and for finding hot-spots and doing so much more than just making maps."
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