Watchdog neighbors win with GIS
- By Nicholas Morehead
- Jun 04, 2001
Ten years ago, the Greenpoint and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn incorporated
then-fledgling geographic information system technology to keep an eye on
the community's environment.
In the wake of a successful lawsuit brought against the New York Department
of Environmental Protection for, ironically, polluting, the two communities
used money from the settlement to create the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Environmental
The neighbors wanted a way to continue monitoring the situation. They
approached Jeffrey Osleeb, a professor of geology at Hunter College in New
York, who thought GIS could be the answer.
"What we did was take all the information we could get from federal,
state and local governments and plug it into the GIS," Osleeb said. "It's
little sister watching big brother, as we liked to call it, because here
was the community now with the technological capability to watch over not
just geographic but environmental aspects of itself."
The community group then cross- referenced things such as toxic release
inventories and hazardous material storage sites with locations of schools,
for example, or public housing developments. By plotting the environmental
databases onto a physical map of the area, the neighbors could get a feel
for the "environmental load" on their community. They could see how at-risk
a particular neighborhood actually was to environmental problems.
"This was really forward use of the technology at the time," Osleeb said.
The Department of Environmental Protection provided much of the data
for the system. Inez Pasher, president of the Watchperson Project, which
continues to monitor the communities' GIS system, said it was only logical
to get the department's data because it was most relevant to the project.
Pasher says the department's data helped residents back up their claims
of environmental polluting, and they used it to track trends and predict
future developments in the communities.
Since July 1995, GIS technology has helped the communities close the
city's largest garbage transfer station, issue some 80 pollution violation
notices to local businesses and settle 20 local environmental disputes.
None of which could have been done without the GIS, according to Robert
Lewis, GIS coordinator at the Watchperson Project (www.walrus.com/~terminus/wp/home.shtml). Lewis, a community activist who claims to be "pretty good
with computers," said that with manufacturing plants so prominent in a residential
community, residents would never be able to "figure out who the bad actors
"The way in which we're continuing to use the GIS, and the information
we can use with it, allows us to generate precise, comprehensive environmental
analyses of the various impacts on the communities," he said.
The technology worked so well that the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation sought the input of
the Watchperson Project for data validation of the impacts of dry-cleaning
operations on residential apartments.
But with funding for the program dried up, these days the neighbors
rely on community activism and grants to continue working with the GIS technology.
"It's more of a labor of love really," Lewis said.