Every inch of New York City

The Big Apple is using GIS to produce an even bigger map that shows the city like never before

In New York City, a massive effort involving numerous city agencies and academia has produced a wide-ranging, yet intimately detailed, interactive map of the entire city.

The $5 million NYCMap project is a joint effort between the city's DOITT — Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doitt/home.html) — and the Department of Geography at Hunter College (www.geo.hunter.cuny.edu). It involves a complex marriage of composite, bird's-eye view "orthophotos" of the entire city and precisely corresponding maps of the city's nooks and crannies — everything from streets, alleys, driveways and curbs to ventilation grates, cemeteries, wetlands and antennas.

Geographic information systems software makes it possible to bring together those layers with city maps showing water main locations, property ownership records and census tracts. The result is a vast, multi.faceted view of the entire New York City area, accurate to within 12 inches, giving people in-depth views of the city never before possible.

"Basically, since the map is digital, and seamless, you can motor from the Bronx to Staten Island in a second," said Al Leidner, director of citywide geographic information services for DOITT.

Visitors to the site will be able to view the entire city in one frame or zoom in on a patch as small as 17 feet by 27 feet. With a few clicks, people will be able to do things such as plot driving and boat trips through Manhattan; study census data by neighborhood; research construction project sites; track emergency response times; review engineering designs; check infrastructure maintenance; and locate parks and recreation sites.

The project is remarkable not only because of the details it provides, but for the way it brings together information that previously was kept by separate agencies.

Tracking infrastructure maintenance, for example, would not be possible without the New York City Housing Authority (www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/nycha/home.html) supplying its data. Nor would researching water quality by neighborhood without input from the New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority (www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/nyw/home.html).

Indeed, the biggest challenge was not the technology, but getting 15 major city agencies to essentially drop their individual preferences and agree to collaborate on a system that would serve all, Leidner said.

"We really had to work with a lot of people," he said. "The oversight committees; the funding committees; the Office of Management and Budget. And then on top of that, getting executive approval for it all — that took some kind of vision."

Procurement for the various aspects of the project also proved to be a major challenge. With the ortho.photo shoots alone, they had to contract with someone for the flights, handle the photos and their analysis, and then get the proper clearance from the city authorities and local air traffic control, "let alone the usual time delays that always arise," Leidner said.

The $5 million cost quote for the project is for the base map alone. Add to that costs for agencies to fine tune and, in some cases, create databases. Then there's maintenance and general upkeep of the map — all together, it's slated to run another $5 million, according to Leidner.

Early Benefits

Though the map is still a work in progress, people are already using certain parts of it.

Health officials, for example, are studying the deadly West Nile virus on Staten Island by using the map to determine how closely clusters of dead crows correspond to human infections.

The map's history dates to 1996 and came from work by the city's Environmental Protection Department and the City Planning Department.

The City Planning Department was working to combine a full-scale map of streets and addresses with separate information on citywide tax blocks and tax lots from the city's Finance Department records. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Department was working on a citywide sewer diagram, trying to expand it to contain water mains as well.

With computer and GIS technology blossoming, it became apparent to DOITT that it would make sense to put everything on one map.

"We were pretty much the co.ordinators," Leidner said, "but by bringing everyone else together, we found that everyone could help everyone else out. The agencies were helping us, we were helping the agencies, and agencies were helping each other."

Though NYCMap may represent the most advanced case of local government using GIS technology to better perform its duties and serve constituents, it's hardly the first.

Officials in Fort Collins, Colo., are working with different GIS media to assist the city in determining flood plains. North Carolina has embarked on a similar program.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture uses GIS to study gypsy moths and their defoliation effects on tree species around the state. And the city of Norfolk, Va., and the Norfolk Department of Utilities are using GIS to map more than 860 square miles of water and sewer data to help with a $100 million water treatment plant upgrade.

"Let's face it — people don't want to sit around and read spreadsheets," said Randy Johnson, commissioner of the Local Leaders for GIS Consortium (www.llgis.org). "But when you can see that information mapped out in front of you, you get it."

"GIS is moving out of the offices of the surveyors and the tech nerds, and moving into the boardrooms and the city council offices — and being used by people who don't write code for a living," Johnson said.

Two to three years from now, he believes the general public will be the ones really using this technology.

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