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NYC Project Builds Resilience Via Utility Data Sharing

Bringing together utility companies, city agencies and experts, the Unification for Underground Resilience Measures project is using previously siloed data sets to build a road map to help prepare for natural disasters.

Manhattan manhole cover with moving taxi in background.
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. In a special series, the Innovation of the Month is currently focusing on the award-winning and innovative projects championed by MetroLab’s member universities and civic partners that advanced to Stage 2 of the NSF Civic Innovation Challenge. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

This month’s CIVIC Stage 2 Innovation of the Month installment highlights a project called “Unification for Underground Resilience Measures” (UNUM). The project, led by New York University, will work with utility companies, city agencies and consultants to design a road map for city-level implementation of a subsurface data model and assemble two pilot data sets to prepare study sites against natural disasters.

MetroLab Network’s Elias Gbadamosi spoke with the UNUM team’s civic and academic partners about their stakeholder engagement process, data management framework, and implementation plan in Stage 2 of the Civic Innovation Challenge.

Elias Gbadamosi: Tell us about the Unification for Underground Resiliency Measures project. What are you seeking to accomplish?

Alan Leidner, New York Geospatial Information System and Mapping Organization (GISMO)
board member and UNUM senior personnel: Initially we are seeking to develop a series of tools and methods for integrating underground infrastructure data from city utilities including water, sewer, gas, stream, electric, telecommunications and transit to support safer and more cost-effective excavations. We are also seeking ways to make underground utility and environmental information available to the public, starting with our pilot areas in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and Manhattan’s Midtown East neighborhoods.

Gbadamosi: The UNUM project has a huge scale and an extensive scope. How has the team been able to engage the many collaborators, partners and stakeholders and keep them engaged on this project?

Rae Zimmerman, professor emeritus, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and UNUM Co-PI: Collaborators and partners were identified early in the project. Their interest and experience in the project theme of the importance of underground infrastructure for community resilience kept them engaged, and this was supported by ongoing communication. The UNUM project began identifying stakeholders in the project’s pilot areas. These neighborhoods have contrasting social and economic diversity. The research group started with utilities and community groups, including the government. Using the research group’s prior experience, individuals were identified within those organizations, and were then asked to suggest others. Individuals signed supporting letters for the project for ongoing commitment.

Philip Meis, principal engineer, Utility Mapping Services, and UNUM Advisory Board member: Of unprecedented noteworthiness is how the UNUM initiative is uniquely amalgamating a variety of semi-disconnected stakeholders, each with its own underground information use cases. UNUM will effectively demonstrate how standardized underground data can be shared and utilized by a wide variety of organizations for a myriad of beneficial purposes.

Gbadamosi: What mechanisms have been put in place to help the different stakeholders stay engaged with each other over time?

Starling Childs, co-founder and head of project, Ginkgo, and UNUM civic partner: For the Grand Central Partnership’s work with stakeholders in the Midtown East community, Ginkgo recently helped launch a new mobile app that enables public safety officers to report on a range of conditions in the streets and public spaces. For Sunset Park, we have launched a similar app through the UNUM project. For Sunset Park, however, the application is designed to be public-facing and available for the local stakeholders themselves to report on issues around their neighborhood. It is a little like a hyper-local 311 system, and perhaps, one day, local stakeholder-run systems like this could even tie into the city’s existing 311 service, which is rather siloed as a database at the moment.

Meis: Some advisory members, such as myself, are directly or indirectly involved with other related initiatives spearheaded by people or organizations that are also stakeholders for UNUM. So there is ongoing synergy between various stakeholders and advisers, which further enhances the effort and makes the UNUM project even more distinct.
2 schematic of data output.png
An example overhead data schematic, one of UNUM's project outputs that they intend to show to community members so they can identify approximate location of infrastructure for capital planning purposes.
Gbadamosi: How is the team handling data security and privacy among the many data sources and collaborators?

Alan Leidner and Wendy Dorf, GISMO board members and UNUM senior personnel: The team has adopted a federated model for data management, which allows utility data holders to retain their data within their own secure environments. Information encompassing small, discrete areas, when requested, would be shared to a central application using encryption and other security measures. This is the same approach adopted by other nations including Belgium, Scotland and Denmark. During the UNUM data development process, NYC Emergency Management will serve as steward for the data in small pilot areas, and apply their own internal security measures.

Gbadamosi: One of the team’s goals is to co-develop art and engineering activities to improve community-based infrastructure literacy. What does this entail and how is this literacy aspect of the project unfolding?

Kim Hertz, NYU Tandon School of Engineering doctoral student: Throughout the spring we co-hosted workshops with the Chinese-American Planning Council in Sunset Park where we taught the community about the importance of the sub-surface and underground infrastructure. Our team of high school students gave presentations to groups of participants from the community, including informative games with questions about the above and below ground.

Steve Mei, director of the Chinese-American Planning Council: As a community-based organization, the Chinese-American Planning Council’s core values include outreaching, educating and leveraging the expertise of community members. We are excited to work with the UNUM project to better educate our community and have a better understanding of the underground structure and the space around Sunset Park.
High school UNUM team members giving a workshop at the Chinese-American Planning Council in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
High school UNUM team members giving a workshop at the Chinese-American Planning Council in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Gbadamosi: How do you think this project will evolve in the coming years?

Debra Laefer, professor, NYU Tandon School of Engineering and UNUM PI: UNUM started with over 40 signed stakeholders. That group grew at a rate of more than two new stakeholders per month. The tremendous work done by each and every member of the UNUM team has allowed us to host or participate in more than 150 activities in barely nine months. Many of these activities have been presentations to senior leadership within New York City government, as well as industrial and community leaders across the U.S. and beyond. The sustained involvement of UNUM’s stakeholders gives me great hope that UNUM will become the poster child project for an entirely new model of underground utility data management. Now more than two full decades after the 9/11 attacks, I believe that the time has finally come for this type of cooperation for interoperable utility data — the kind of cooperation that is essential for maximizing community resilience to disasters of all kinds.

Leidner: If we can successfully integrate underground utilities in our two pilot areas, then we will know that we can do it citywide. It is key that at some point, the New York City government assumes responsibility for the citywide rollout and future management of the excavation information network.

Dorf: We would also like to see UNUM methods and practices considered and hopefully adopted by other jurisdictions across the country with data connected across boundary lines. The Model for Underground Data Definition and Integration (MUDDI) data model will probably be utilized as federal and state agencies, along with the Open Geospatial Consortium, look into leaks and other inefficiencies of the water infrastructure serving the drought states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The status of underground aquifers and wells will also be examined. Moreover, what we do in NYC will likely be considered for adoption by other nations.
Elias Gbadamosi is civic research communications manager for Metrolab Network, responsible for the organization's communication, outreach and engagement programs. His work and interests converge at the intersection of civic communication, civic engagement and policy research.