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New York City’s Digital Map Puts In-Depth GIS Data a Few Clicks Away

NYCityMap takes user input and generates maps that show nearby services and locations.

In New York City, there are many people who experience the plethora of things to see and do — more than 8.3 million in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That’s a lot of activity for city government to support — and a lot of local services and information for citizens to know about.

To help navigate this terrain, staff members in the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) developed NYCityMap, a Web-based interactive mapping application that offers a one-stop information shop for those on the prowl. And the cost to utilize this tool? Nada, zip, zilch — it’s free.

NYCityMap Technicalities

This new map portal has input fields and drop-down menus that allow people to search for locations by various criteria, such as address, intersection, council district or ZIP code. Once a location pops up on the map, the application generates more options. Users can view information about specific properties, or view neighborhood and elected official data. Users also can locate nearby services like colleges or day-care centers.

“You can click anywhere in the city — click on a building or whatever the case may be — and you can bring up all the information about a particular building, which is integrated with existing city systems but with a common front end,” said Nicholas Sbordone, the DoITT’s director of external affairs.

When users maneuver around the map, their pointer turns into an arrow with a black circular identifying tool icon next to it. The circle has a white lowercase “i” symbol inside, which indicates that more information is just a click away.

“You can bring up the year the building was built, the square footage and any violations the facility may have had — elevator inspection violations or whatever the case is — and then you would have restaurants you can access from there [or] restaurant inspection information,” Sbordone said. “There’s a whole host of things you can do just by looking at particular locations on the map.”

Among the extra information that pops up are links to other city Web pages about services offered in specific locations. In addition, users can draw from point to point on the map to see distance between locations.

And consequently, the map can change based on what users are searching for. If someone wanted to know where the closest art gallery is within a mile of their location, the gallery will be marked by an easel and paintbrush icon. Then that person can draw a line from the gallery to another location to see how far it is. Queries for more types of nearby places, like universities or hospitals, will generate more icons and changes to the map.

NYCityMap lets users save their custom maps with a hyperlink feature: Clicking the chain link icon allows users to copy and paste a hyperlink elsewhere, like on a document, that will take them back to that unique map — a nifty way to share or store directions.

Collaboration and History

NYCityMap integrates data from multiple city agencies to generate the maps. Sbordone likens the application to 311 on a map because a user doesn’t necessarily need to navigate numerous department websites within the portal for facts — the user could likely find it on NYCityMap.

“A lot of the data we have out there is not even owned by DoITT, but we act as a forum for city agencies to publish that data,” said DoITT GIS Director Colin Reilly. “So that was really the basis behind developing CityMap — to develop a mapping application that was extendable.”

But today’s NYCityMap isn’t the first — it’s the latest in a line of citywide map portal tools. In 2000, DoITT created base maps that other departments could layer data onto or build other applications with. Over the years, DoITT’s GIS Unit has developed applications from the base map, which has undergone changes since its inception. The first iteration, My Neighborhood, came out in 2001, and Reilly said the technology behind it became outdated, so modernization was in order. In 2004, the NYC Map Portal debuted, followed by the original NYCityMap in 2006. In 2009, New York announced this current version. According to Reilly, the first NYCityMap delivered the goods as far as users were concerned, but it wasn’t as functional as it could be.

“It was very well received, but from the back end, it very much locked us into a corner,” he said. “It wasn’t very easy to extend, adding additional data sets required a lot of additional probing and work, so that’s when we conceived the plan of building this next version of CityMap.”

But the mapping application isn’t just a convenient way for New Yorkers to locate things, it provides cultural enrichment as they learn about their surroundings.

With one click, New Yorkers can satisfy their cultural curiosity and see aerial views of the city from 1924, 1951, 1996, 2006 and 2008. DoITT mined the city archives for the photos, Reilly said, adding that the agency is looking to upload photos from other years, like those taken before the 1964 World’s Fair.

The city implemented a procedure in 2004 to “refly” the city every two years, and DoITT is working to get the 2010 aerial images ready. The images’ presentations differ by time period mainly due to technology differences. Some of the 1924 images, for example, have seams running through them.

“Nowadays, there’s onboard, immersive GPS where they have these land-based systems that are continually communicating with the plane and sky. The plane knows where it is in relation to the ground,” Reilly said. “You can, through triangulation, determine where the imagery falls on the ground.”

More Tooling to Come

New York uses GeoServer, an open source Java server, to share and edit geospatial data from multiple sources in the city government. Dojo Toolkit provides JavaScript tools for creating Web applications. Using open source software helped cut the cost of the project, said Tim Keane, software development manager for DoITT’s GIS team.

“Having gone the open source route, we actually saved some monies,” he said, “because we were able to reduce some licensing costs that we had for other stuff that ended up not being necessary.”

NYCityMap also contributed to the development of Web applications by other city agencies, including one for the Street Conditions Observation Unit, dubbed NYC*SCOUT, which comprises inspectors in the Mayor’s Office of Operations. Citizens can click on locations in NYC*SCOUT and view reports on problems like graffiti or potholes, when the complaints were filed, which city departments will handle them, and whether the problem has been fixed.

The underlying base map also contributes to the Citywide Performance Reporting application tool, also from the mayor’s office. The website presents information about various city complaint reports like asbestos, robbery or civilian fire fatalities. Concerned civilians can click on a globe icon to generate a map showing the problem’s location.  

The base map also supports NYCStat Stimulus Tracker, which allows the public to view maps of where in the city federal stimulus dollars are allocated.

Keane added that more applications are on the way.

“For other agencies, we’re going to build domain-specific city map implementations,” Keane said. “There’ll be an application coming by the end of the year for digital tax maps, and there’ll be one coming for land use and zoning and things like that. So it won’t be right in the CityMap app, but there’ll probably be a way to get at them from the CityMap app.”

Until those are created, though, Sbordone said he thinks there’s enough information to see and read to keep users interested and satisfied — especially with the historical aerials.

“For someone who’s fascinated just by that stuff, you can easily lose hours playing with this thing,” he said.


Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Emergency Management magazine.