10 Questions: Steve Romalewski

Steven Romalewski is currently director of the Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center / CUNY.  During his 32-year career he has helped hundreds of nonprofit groups across the country leverage the power of GIS; helped develop more than two-dozen online mapping services analyzing environmental issues, social services, transit routing, demographic trends, voting behavior, and legislative representation.  He has also coordinated the work of community groups and others across New York to advocate for sensible environmental policies at the local, state, and federal levels.  For the past 10 years, he has taught students at Pratt Institute how to use GIS in their urban planning careers, and helped educate many others through presentations about the value of GIS.  He lives in Manhattan.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How did you end up in your current position at Center for Urban Research?  

Romalewski:  Before joining CUNY I ran the Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP) at NYPIRG for about eight years, providing mapping services to nonprofit organizations across the country.  (Before that I was an environmental researcher and advocate at NYPIRG.)  By 2004 or so, CMAP’s work had started to outgrow our advocacy-oriented parent organization. Internally we discussed options of spinning off CMAP as a social business venture, merging it with another organization, or launching it as its own nonprofit.

At the same time we were going through a strategic planning effort for the OASIS project, and one of the key findings was that OASIS would benefit from an institutional setting such as academia where the OASIS website would be able to leverage more stable technology resources and organizational support.

One of the academic programs we talked with was the Center for Urban Research (CUR) at the CUNY Graduate Center.  I had worked on projects over the years with CUR’s director John Mollenkopf, and he was a big fan of our work. It seemed like a great fit, and in January 2006  I moved to CUNY.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How do CUR projects come to be or developed?

Romalewski:  We’re fortunate to have a good amount of leeway in deciding on projects.  Generally CUR engages in applied research projects in the areas of neighborhood change, immigration, and urban development broadly speaking. Within those areas, we look for mapping projects where we can have an impact, where we can leverage CUR’s mapping skills and expertise in analyzing urban trends, and that come with funding support so we can cover staff time and related expenses.

We’re especially interested in working with our colleagues throughout CUNY, as well as within city government (since CUNY has a close relationship with New York City agencies), but we also take on projects with a wide array of partners.

If the project involves an online mapping component we try to structure it so we can incorporate the latest and greatest interactive web and mapping techniques and technologies.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How you position CUR  projects  as “unique” and/or different from others in your space? 

Romalewski:   We may not be unique, but we have a lot to offer in ways that may not be as easy to find elsewhere.

Collectively at CUR and in particular within our mapping team, we know a great deal about New York City (and other cities), its development and demographic history, and its past and current political trends.  And we’re very familiar with NYC data – which of course is at the heart of any good GIS project.  We’ve been doing this work for years and we bring that history and those experiences to bear on each project.

We have solid technical expertise in data analysis, cartography, visualization, and interactive map development. And we have long-standing relationships within CUNY and at other academic institutions, nonprofits throughout the city, numerous government agency staff and elected officials, media representatives, urban planning researchers, and people in the GIS/technology industries, providing us with insight and understanding about the spatial and data visualization needs of multiple constituencies.

But New York City’s a big town, and we’re hardly the only ones doing this work.  For example, Pratt Institute recently launched SAVI, the Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative, to provide certificate courses in GIS.  SAVI also provides mapping services to partner organizations.

Other academic programs within CUNY and outside CUNY provide GIS services.  Baruch College has a GIS Library that helps CUNY staff and students leverage the power of GIS with a focus on NYC data.  Columbia University’s planning program hosts a Center for Spatial Research which develops research around spatial analysis and visualization.  Hunter College and Lehman College both provide undergraduate, masters level, and certificate programs in GIS, which often involves students and professors providing GIS services to groups in the community.

Nonprofit urban research and advocacy organizations – such as the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association – have GIS staff who develop online mapping applications and help other groups use GIS in their work.

And the “civic hacker” community in New York City has grown steadily in recent years, developing interesting mapping projects and online mapping websites in many of the areas in which CUR focuses.

New York has been home to numerous GIS providers for a long time.  When we were involved with the strategic planning effort for OASIS in the early 2000s, I participated in a conference call with other programs around the country that were creating GIS data warehouses and providing GIS services in urban settings.  The featured presenter on the call was from a GIS program in Providence, RI that was basically the only game in town, and indeed the only major GIS provider in Rhode Island, working with local agencies and nonprofits as well as several state agencies who relied on their work.  We were all impressed that they were able to develop such a niche for themselves.  But I commented on the call (only half-jokingly) that in New York, there were probably a half dozen efforts like theirs based just in Brooklyn, let alone across the five boroughs and many more throughout the state.

So we’re happy to excel at our work in a collaborative, collegial way with many other peer organizations here in the city and across New York.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Tell us about your staff

Romalewski:  The mapping team within CUR is a lean operation – I work with one full-time colleague (Dave Burgoon) and periodically we work with CUNY graduate students.  We also have a great, ongoing relationship with a consultant who works on various projects related to the OASIS website: Christy Spielman, with whom I’ve worked now for almost two decades (at CMAP she helped create the original version of OASIS and has been closely involved in the project ever since).

I can’t say enough good things about Dave Burgoon.  He’s the application architect for all of CUR’s online mapping projects.  He has a focused professional work ethic, he’s creative and inspired when it comes to programming, and he moves seamlessly across multiple development environments. Importantly he’s expert at coding as well as GIS, being able to create applications that leverage the best of both worlds.

And our mapping staff works hand in hand with our colleagues at CUR – John Mollenkopf, Joe Pereira who directs the CUNY Data Service, and Lesley Hirsch and her staff at the NYC Labor Market Information Service (providing analysis of workforce data for the New York region). We also work with other visiting researchers at CUR, and many others throughout the Graduate Center.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How does the original OASIS project fit into the CUR framework? 

Romalewski:  OASIS is one of our foundational projects.  The team at CMAP developed it originally in 2000 working closely with the USDA Forest Service and a coalition of open space groups.  The Forest Service asked us to migrate the OASIS project to CUNY when I started at CUR in 2006.  And in 2009 Dave Burgoon completely revamped and upgraded the OASIS web platform.

While the OASIS maps are still popular and highly valued (thousands of people use the website daily), we’re keenly aware that the cutting edge web technologies we used to revamp the site in 2009 are getting stale compared with all the amazing interactive data visualization tools available these days.  So we need to plan ahead for the best ways to sustain the OASIS map platform while continuing to provide the data access and cartographic features that our users expect and value.

You can access OASIS directly at www.oasisnyc.net, and we also highlight it along with a dozen or so other online mapping projects we’ve developed at http://www.gc.cuny.edu/urbanresearchmaps.

eSpatiallynewyork:  What technology does your shop use?

Romalewski:  We’re primarily an Esri shop, but we use whatever works for the task at hand.  I learned GIS using MapInfo, and I still use MapInfo for geocoding and data manipulation.  We use QGIS as well as other open source software such as GeoDa.

Our online development environment is mainly .NET, and we incorporate frameworks such as Bootstrap, JQuery, etc.  We use ArcGIS Server for our online maps but also use Leaflet, Google Maps, Carto, Mapbox, and Google Fusion Tables. And we’ve been doing more with the spatial features  of Microsoft SQL Server.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Any upcoming projects?

Romalewski:  We have several projects in the works:

  • Working with the Long Island Index to upgrade the online mapping platform at www.longislandindexmaps.org[longislandindexmaps.org];
  • Developing an online mapping site for the NYC Campaign Finance Board to visualize where campaign contributions are coming from for the 2017 municipal elections;
  • Updating and enhancing our NYC Election Atlas (in conjunction with the CUNY Journalism School and Center for Community and Ethnic Media) to include maps and analysis of the latest presidential, state, and local election results;
  • Working closely with the NYC Department of Homeless Services to develop a robust geospatial warehouse and common frontend web framework for multiple projects within the agency; and
  • Looking ahead to the 2020 decennial Census to help organizations throughout the country target their outreach efforts in “hard to count” areas (reprising our work along those lines for the 2010 Census), and also preparing for the post-2020 redistricting efforts using interactive maps and spatial analysis to help the public understand the implications of drawing new Congressional, state legislative, and council (or county legislative) district lines.

eSpatiallynewyork:  Mets or Yankees?

Yankees!  (Though I grew up as Mets fan – my childhood hero was Tom Seaver.)


Steven Romalewski
Director, CUNY Mapping Service
Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center / CUNY
365 Fifth Ave., Room 6202
New York, NY  10016
Phone: 212-817-2033


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