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GIS in the Trenches

GIS in the Trenches

Adena Schutzberg

See Also

Those who are living it tell the story of GIS in the NYC response

I received this submission from Jack Eichenbaum who works in the NYC Department of Finance and is the coordinator of GISMO, a NYC User group. It sets the scene in GIS in New York City right now.

"I am writing from ... where the NYC Office of Emergency Management has set up its HQ after the collapse of 7 World Trade Center. I am at an Emergency Mapping and Data Center, which serves this effort. We have about 15-20 GIS professionals and others with related skills in a frenzied effort around the clock.

"It seems to take us much longer to get things done here than on our home turf yet people are interacting wonderfully. The serendipity of people who have been thrown together is giving us a social base to proceed with long-term collaborations in the future for rebuilding and expanding GIS capability in NYC. The food they serve us reminds me of elementary school hot lunch a half century ago.

"There has been a tremendous outpouring of volunteerism, not only from greater NY, but from Washington, Boston and Albany. We can't possibly use all skills at this point but it sure helps our morale to hear from you."

For more on "real life" in NY, I caught up with several ESRI staff who'd returned from a week and a half at the Emergency Mapping and Data Center. Tom Schwartzman, Dave LaShell and Rich Laird are all based at ESRI-Boston. I also spoke with Mark Scott, who remained in the office to field technical questions.

One of the first things they mentioned related right back to Mr. Eichenbaum's note above. Soon after disaster struck, Mr. Eichenbaum was able to email his NYC user group members and ask for help. And volunteer they did - from public, private and nonprofit organizations.

The mapping center took form as software was installed and data was gathered. When I asked what gave them the most difficulty, the consensus was: data. New York City has a wide variety of agencies, all using GIS. Still, gathering the data, verifying its timeliness, finding its metadata and exploring legal issues of distribution all took time. And, with so many agencies coming together, it could be hard to determine which agency had the definitive word on what was most current.

Even as those issues were explored, requests came in for maps. Different agencies needed maps of the restricted area, areas of phone outages and transportation routes´┐Ż Some needed plots of imagery. Many wanted plots of the flag being raised over the rubble - those requests were sent to Kinko's so the plotters could be devoted to maps.

As the GIS workers tried to keep up with demand and add new layers of information, a system started to form. Requests for certain maps were common, so those were plotted and tacked to the walls with numbers. Requestors could simply ask for, say, "map number 6."

What was the role of the Web? As things settled a bit, maps were added to the NYC website, with updates added over time.

Although gathering and managing data was the most difficult part of the operation, other parts were more straightforward. The volunteers knew the software, so they could be put to work immediately. Plotters hummed day and night, since the center was, and still is, open around the clock.

ESRI users were very understanding. Many tech support calls to ESRI-Boston began with "I know you are busy, and this isn't that important´┐Ż" allowing calls in support of the relief effort to go the top of the queue. ESRI Redlands published a special toll-free number for those directly supporting the disaster effort.

Back at the mapping center, the work was hard, with long hours and "on-the-fly" thinking. After arriving home this weekend, one of the GIS workers slept for 14 hours straight.

Rich Laird noted that he "came away with a new appreciation for the impact that GIS and mapping can have in situations like this. Working with people from the fire department, police department, American Red Cross, and many others, I was continually being told what a huge impact the maps we were generating were going to have in the field. Often times, they were simple maps showing basic basemap layers. The sort of maps we see every day without giving them a second thought. Yet for some of these emergency workers, they were providing information far beyond what they would have had otherwise."

Dave LaShell highlighted the stark reality of building this type of emergency GIS with a single question, "Could your agency put together a CD with the latest data and metadata in three hours for inclusion in a disaster GIS for your area?" If more agencies worldwide can answer "yes" in the coming months, the Emergency Mapping and Data Center will have served one more purpose.

 
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