NYC agency finds digital maps worth the wait

One bureau of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has

converted mounds of paper maps into an electronic system, a move officials

say tremendously increased productivity and efficiency.

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Water and

Sewer Operations has updated and transferred some 5,856 water-main maps

to an electronic database. The conversion has brought a universal look to

the city's five boroughs — the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island

and Queens (except for a small section that is supplied by a private company).

The maps reflect 6,150 miles of pipe.

Vincent Soriano, chief of mapping and records for the Bureau of Water

and Sewer Operations, described the electronic conversion as "a necessity"

in order to preserve maps, update them and make them more useful.

"In some areas, maps were out of date by 40 or 50 years," Soriano said.

Before the conversion, all detail and schematic maps would have to

be manually updated, causing draftsmen to do the same work twice.

"What we did at that point was took the paper maps, updated them and

converted them to an electronic format. By doing that, we created universal

scale and symbology — a map in Queens would look the same as a map in Manhattan,

which is the gist of the water-main mapping," explained Soriano, the technical

project manager of the water-main mapping project

Though officials consider the conversion a success by any measure, the

process spanned a decade. They first realized the need in the mid-to-late

1980s. However, budget crunches and technology limitations delayed the beginning

of the installation process until 1990. And during the decade-long conversion,

procedures were re-engineered to keep up with the latest advances in technology.

The bureau contracted with URS Griener Woodward-Clyde of Paramus, N.J.,

to orchestrate the conversion, at a cost of $9 million. The base contract

was completed in March of this year.

"The beginning of the project was a learning period for both our staff

and the consultants," Soriano said. "Manhattan was the first borough approved

in 1994, and we have been on a good pace since."

The conversion involved two kinds of maps, schematic and detail. A schematic

map shows basic configurations — where the street grades and water mains

are and where a hydrant sits on the street. The detail map shows that data

plus more in-depth information, including references to how the pipe was

installed, construction notes, curb-to-water main distance and numbers that

are assigned to valves and hydrants.

The old system consisted of approximately 5,700 detail distribution

maps, 150 schematic distribution maps and six trunk main maps — all needing

to be converted to an electronic format.

"When we went to the computer [system], menus were set up, programs

were set up so that if you needed a certain pipe style, a certain pipe length — say, a 12-inch pipe — it's on the screen. You pulled it down. If you updated

the detail drawing, you updated the schematic drawing at the same time,"

Soriano said, adding that some steps cut the updating time in half.

Proper hardware and software were vital to the conversion, Soriano


The workstations currently in place at the bureau have 64M of RAM, a

1G hard drive (a couple of the machines have 2G hard drives), a 233 MHz

CPU and 21-inch monitors.

"The faster the better. The more memory the better," Soriano said.

Now the department plans to buy newer workstations with 256M of RAM,

dual 9G hard drives and a 550 MHz CPU.

Soriano says the project thus far has been hugely successful and has

increased efficiency within the Bureau of Water and Sewer Operations. The

process is easier and makes communicating a lot faster, he said.

The software and the drawings are on a central local-area network server,

enabling the revisions staff at the Queens headquarters to log on, access

the server and pull up drawings and data. Field officers receive CD-ROMs.

"You take a paper map and a full set of drawings out into the field

and it's 4 o'clock in the morning in the pouring rain and you're trying

to find something — that wasn't good," Soriano said.

"There are certain divisions that go out into the field now with laptops....

We give them the CD, and right at the site they can put in the CD and do

what they need to do," he added. "There's no more fumbling through the hard-copy

paper. It's right at their finger tips."

"It saves the department,'' Soriano continued. "You can get on emergency

situations, ... make shutoffs a lot quicker, and minimize water damage and

property damage by doing that. That's a cost savings."

As far as downsides to the electronic system, Soriano said there are

no major problems.

"There are always glitches in any new system," he said. "You will learn

that something was fine when you first started the job and as you get more

experienced in it, then you say "you know, we can do things a little differently.'

We've come up with ideas and technologies and methodologies to increase

productivity and streamline the system."

Like New York, other municipalities are looking into how technology

can enhance their sewer and water operations and other divisions.

Gary Litherland, program specialist for the Chicago Water Department,

says his city's water-main maps are currently in drawers, although some

officials recognize the merit in being able to update and preserve maps

electronically. The department is discussing converting to an electronic


"Several years ago someone had the insight to start digitizing our information,"

said Scott Drabicki, a civil engineer for Schaumburg, Ill. He said that

technology allows the city to circumvent problems and readily fix main breaks.

Drabicki said Schaumburg has completed the digitization of its sanitary

division and is almost finished with the water main-related map conversions.

Next they'll target the storm system.

New York City is looking into digitizing other departments, too. As

for what's next for the Bureau of Water and Sewer Operations, Soriano said

he plans to stay abreast of the ever-developing technologies.

"As technology improves, you want to go with it,'' he said. "As far

as the water-main mapping, you want to develop this more into a GIS system.

We have the basis of it already. We're in the beginning stages of getting

there. We want to ride the technology wave."

—Kelly is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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