The Blue Highways of GIS: Brooklyn, New York

Among the brownstones and sycamore trees on Carroll Street in Brooklyn, New York is the office of HabitatMap.  Founded in 2007, HabitatMap is an established metro-New York City non-profit environmental health justice organization whose goal is to raise awareness about the impact the environment has on human health.

HabitatMap was created as a nonprofit by activists focusing on the impact of hazardous facilities and sites on the well-being of residents in areas adjacent Newtown Creek in Brooklyn.    Today, HabitatMap’s products and services, including online mapping and social networking platforms, provide a framework for hundreds of community groups across the country to maximize the impact of community voices on government and industry, as well as strengthening ties between organizations and activists. The Founder and Executive Director of HabitatMap is Michael Heimbinder.

Utilizing Habitat’s shared advocacy and mapping platform individual and organizations can:

  • Alert the public to environmental health hazards
  • Hold polluters accountable for their environmental impacts
  • Highlight urban infrastructures that promote healthy living
  • Identify future opportunities for sustainable urban development
  • Promote policies that enhance equitable access to urban resources

Just a small sample of community-based organizations in the metropolitan area which use HabitatMap includes the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods,  Sustainable South BronxNeighbors Allied for Good Growth,   Brooklyn Compost Collective, the Bronx River Alliance, and the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park.   The HabitatMap website is accessed and used worldwide.

Similar to other smaller organizations with limited infrastructure and technical staff, HabitatMap integrates Google Maps to support it’s map viewer as well as a customized toolkit to edit and add “markers”.  Google products are also used as a means to publish content from their AirCasting platform.

The HabitatMap homepage at

The HabitatMap homepage at

HabitatMap Interactive Website

Once a personal profile is created, participants can start making maps on, mapping (aka “Add a Marker“) items of interest either by geocoding or clicking on a specific location on the map viewer  – which is based on Google Maps.  For example, I quickly created an account and mapped the location of a community facility in my hometown which is in need of minor repairs and perhaps retrofitted to provide space for community groups in a section of our town with limited such facilities.  As tags are associated with each marker location,  users can search the HabitatMap database for specific projects or areas of interest by using keywords such as water quality, recycling, fracking, community gardens, or greenways.  Keyword matches are then rendered on the viewing screen.

Community groups and individuals across New York State, particularl in the NYC metropolitan region, contribute to the HabitatMap by adding “markers” to identify a wide range of community-based issues and projects.

Community groups and individuals across New York State, particularly in the NYC metropolitan region, contribute to the HabitatMap by adding “markers” to identify a wide range of community-based issues and projects.

The Forums tab enables registered participants to start a discussion among other like-minded HabitatMap participants in categories such as Community Health, Water & Air Quality, Energy, Transportation, and Mapping.  Participants click on the forum category that best matches their intended topic of conversation and click “Post New Topic”.  The Blog tab is largely dedicated to the HabitatMap funded and developed Airbeam monitor which measures fine particulate matter (PM2.5), temperature, and relative humidity   Being used by community groups and activists across the country, the AirBeam connects to the AirCasting smartphone app via Bluetooth to map, graph, and crowdsource exposure to fine particulate matter in real time.

The Forums page enables participants to contribute and engage in dialog with others in topical areas such as Community Health, Mapping, Water and Air Quality, and much more.

The Forums page enables participants to contribute and engage in dialog with others in topical areas such as Community Health, Mapping, Water and Air Quality, and much more.

An excellent example of HabitatMap’s primary online mapping product can be seen as part of the Creek Speak map which provides access to stories of people and places near Newtown Creek. In addition to mapping the locations of local issues and events, the HabitatMap interactive map enables users to also include and associate URLs, graphics, and similar files with each mapped location.  Similar to other community organizations which partner with HabitatMap, the   Creek Speak Project map’s purpose is to highlight and document the knowledge of individuals who are “inside narrators” of day-to-day life in the Newtown Creek community.

Founded in the Newtown Creek areas of Brooklyn, New York, there have been many contributions to the online HabitatMap from individuals and organizations located nearby.

Founded in the Newtown Creek areas of Brooklyn, New York, there have been many contributions to the online HabitatMap from individuals and organizations located nearby.

.Other groups use the HabitatMap interactive map to identify locations in their community that either enhances the quality of life such as parks, scenic vistas, farmers markets, civic programs, or public parks, or those might  cause for concern, such as a graffiti, unsafe properties, traffic/pedestrian issues, or illegal dumping or discharges.  Users can also create individual maps highlighting a specific area of interest, embed maps on a personal or agency website or blog, invite fellow activists to contribute to maps, and discuss issues and recruit collaborators in the online forums.

Mapping & Educational Programs

One area which best exemplifies HabitatMap’s use of mapping is through its educational outreach programs.  Central to this effort is  MapThink, an educational toolkit series developed by HabitatMap which introduces maps-based research methods to high school students and community based organizations so that they can become active participants in their community and advocate.  The MapThink Toolkit series focuses on creating planning and advocacy maps using their online tools: and

Illustrative projects in this regard include youth program workshops in Brooklyn and San Francisco during 2014.  In San Francisco, HabitatMap worked with 60 seniors from the Galileo Academy of Science & Technology, a public high school that provides students with career pathways in biotechnology, environmental science, health, hospitality and tourism, computer science, and creative media technology.  In Brooklyn, HabitatMap worked with UPROSE which is a grass roots, multi-ethnic, intergenerational community-based organization dedicated to environmental and social justice. UPROSE Youth Justice members were introduced to the AirCasting product which was used to map the air quality problems in their neighborhoods, which is host to multiple power plants and waste transfer stations, dozens of auto shops, and bisected by the Gowanus Expressway.

Another HabitatMap mapping effort was conducted by the students at the Green School in East Williamsburg Brooklyn.   Their project, entitled “Drip, Drop, the Water Don’t Stop”, focused on the New York City water distribution system.  Using Habitat’s online mapping and the “Go With the Flow” toolkit, students developed maps based on research of the NYC water storage, filtration, delivery, and disposal infrastructures.  You can learn more by clicking through the project map, looking at photos, and reading student learning reflections.

The Green School’s research project of the New York City drinking water system as rendered on the HabitatMap interactive map.

The Green School’s research project of the New York City drinking water system as rendered on the HabitatMap interactive map.

This summer, HabitatMap is working with the North Brooklyn Boat Club and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission mapping and collecting water samples in Newtown Creek with the new HabitatMap WaterSense monitor, which measures dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and temperature.  The instrument connects to the AirCasting app via Bluetooth to record, map, and graph the data in real time.  Made possible through funding from the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, the project was initiated to address water quality concerns in Newtown Creek, a Federal Superfund site that is inundated by over a billion gallons of raw sewage annually, the result of combined sewer overflows.

HabitatMap:  Looking Forward

While boasting a diverse collection of partners and collaborators including Google Earth Outreach, New York Community Trust, Mozilla Hive NYC, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Carnegie Mellon CREATE lab, and the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, among others, the likes of NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Michael Heimbinde remains the only full-time staff at HabitatMap and envision’s a bright future for the nonprofit.  He notes:

“We’re excited to continue growing the AirCasting community. Our ambitions for AirCasting, and it’s true potential, lie in 1) creating ultra-dense networks of AirCasters that network together multiple schools and community based organizations in a single neighborhood and 2) scaling nationally and internationally. HabitatMap, in partnership with Sonoma Technology, NYU School of Medicine, NYU Wagner, and the Newtown Creek Alliance have crafted a proposal for a community based participatory research project that would enable us to create an ultra-dense network of AirCasters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, bring together the technical experts needed to address improving air quality in a neighborhood overburdened with pollution sources, and establish a model for expanding nationally and internationally.”

Tim Dye, Senior VP at Sonoma Technology, adds, “Our collaboration with Michael Heimbinder and HabitatMap on the development of the AirBeam sensor has been very rewarding. Together, we launched the Kids Making Sense program, which combines education and technology to empower students to drive positive change in their communities, in the U.S. and abroad.”

One community group and one map at a time.  Communicating community geospatial data that matters from Brooklyn, New York.  HabitatMap.

Along the Blue Highways of GIS.

Thanks for reading and see you down the road.



The Blue Highways of GIS: Seneca Nation of Indians


The Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI) is a federally recognized tribe located in what is now Western New York State.  It consists of five territories.  These territories are adjacent to the counties of Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara in an area of the state where communities are primarily rural in geographic location. The territories are not contiguous and each is unique in its economic, social, and environmental profile.  With 53,947 acres, the Seneca Nation controls and holds a significant land base in Western New York. The Seneca Nation of Indians traditionally lived in New York between the Genesee River and Canandaigua Lake and as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio; however, currently the Nation is located strictly in the Western New York area.

In two different offices (Irving and Salamanca) nearly forty miles apart, Nation GIS staff communicate daily on a wide range of tribal GIS projects.   The GIS Division is a part of the Community Planning and Development Department.  The SNI-GIS Team consists of Ms. Gerri Jayne Jimerson GISP (tribal member) who has served the Nation for nearly 14 years, Todd LaQuay GISP, who covers the Cattaraugus Territory and has been with SNI for 11 years, as well as Trever Annis who handles GIS duties on the Allegany Territory. Continue reading

The Blue Highways of GIS: Watertown, New York

On the second floor of the main visitors building within the New York Zoo at Thompson Park in Watertown, New York are the offices of the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust (THTLT).  The Trust is a regional, private, nonprofit organization founded in 1990 by a group of Tug Hill residents, and incorporated as an independent, nonprofit organization.   Since 1991, the Trust has permanently conserved more than 15,000 acres, and worked with over 86 landowners in Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Herkimer, St. Lawrence  and Oswego Counties.   The conserved land includes working farms, productive forestland, recreation and wild lands – all conserved through voluntary, private land protection.   The Trust works collaboratively with many local and statewide conservation organizations – including Ducks Unlimited, Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, among others – to make conservation projects happen.  THTLT is one of dozens of other statewide Land Trusts associated with the Land Trust Alliance and is an accredited land trust through the National Land Trust Accreditation Commission. Continue reading

The Blue Highways of GIS: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

The Bard College Field Station is located on the Hudson River near Tivoli South Bay and on the mouth of the Saw Kill. Its location affords research and teaching access to freshwater tidal marshes, swamps and shallows, perennial and intermittent streams, young and old deciduous and coniferous forests, old and mowed fields, and other habitats. A library, herbarium, laboratories, classroom, and offices are open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and environmental researchers by prior arrangement. Also based at the field station are laboratories and offices of Hudsonia Ltd., an environmental research institute. The Field Station is owned by the College and operated with support from  Hudsonia and other public and private funding sources.

Founded in 1981, Hudsonia is a not-for-profit institute for research, education, and technical assistance in the environmental sciences. Staff scientists, applying long experience in regional ecology and natural history, collect and analyze data and recommend measures to reduce or mitigate impacts of land development on the local environment. While biological sciences and research is at the foundation of the Hudsonia mission, geospatial technology provides tools which are used extensively throughout its programs.

Leading the GIS mapping efforts with Hudsonia is Gretchen Stevens who has been with the organization for 24 years. Receiving her B.S. in Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire, Gretchen is a botanist and is self-taught in using GIS software with Hudsonia which has standardized on the ESRI platform. She is Director of Hudsonia’s Biodiversity Resources Center and has over 34 years’ experience in remote sensing, habitat assessments, habitat mapping, rare plant surveys, and other field biology in the Northeast. She manages the GIS laboratory at Hudsonia, curates the Bard College Field Station Herbarium, and supervises the Habitat Mapping and Biodiversity Education programs.

Over the past 13 years Gretchen has led and produced a significant amount of GIS work in the lower Hudson River Valley for the benefit  of local governments and organizations which would otherwise have been unable to take advantage of geospatial technology. Of particular focus in her work has been the use of GIS to support detailed mapping of ecologically significant habitats throughout towns in Dutchess and Ulster counties, as well as selected watersheds and stream corridors in Orange County (Trout Brook and Woodbury Creek), Schoharie, Albany, and Greene Counties (Catskill Creek) and Fishkill Creek in Dutchess County.

Hudsonia’s approach to most of their habitat mapping efforts has been similar by combining desktop ArcGIS tools, including the analysis of common data layers such as bedrock and surficial geology data, topography, and soils, with the interpretation of color infrared aerial photography to predict the occurrence of ecologically significant habitats. Gretchen notes:

 “These projects involve lots of detailed, hands-on remote sensing analysis and lots of field work – both of those aspects help to distinguish the final products from most other maps in the public domain. By “hands-on” I mean that we do not rely on mapping software to interpret our spatial data such as geology, topography, soils, and aerial imagery. We visually pore over the spatial data ourselves to arrive at our habitat predictions, and then digitize the boundaries ourselves (click-click-click) onscreen. And then we visit as many areas as possible to answer our questions.”

Illustrative to the high quality of work, many of Hudsonia’s GIS products are incorporated into local master plans, open space plans, and local land use policies. For example, in Dutchess County, the towns of Amenia, Clinton, Hyde Park, Rhinebeck, and Woodstock in Ulster County, have incorporated Hudsonia’s habitat mapping information into local comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and/or review procedures for land development projects. Conservation Advisory Councils (CAC) in the towns of Beekman and Rhinebeck have been using Hudsonia’s GIS mapping data and habitat reports to make presentations to Planning Boards about biodiversity concerns associated with proposed projects.

Town of Clinton Significant Habitats

Town of Clinton Significant Habitat Mapping

The Woodstock habitat map, augmented by many other publicaly available geospatial datasets, has enabled the Woodstock Land Conservancy to prepare a Strategic Conservation Plan (completed in 2013) for their service area, which includes Woodstock and neighboring towns. Hudsonia is also helping the Town of Ancram prepare a Natural Resources Conservation Plan which includes a series of 20 GIS maps depicting such elements as bedrock and surficial geology, elevations, farmland soils, aquifers, unusual habitats, and conservation priorities throughout the town.

Ancram Habitat Mapping

Town of Ancram Significant Habitat Mapping

2014 is year three of a five-year collaboration with biologist Jason Tesauro on a project that uses grazing dairy cows to restore habitat for the bog turtle (an Endangered species in New York) at a site in Dutchess County. The project includes the radio tracking of turtles and monitoring the vegetation changes. Hudsonia biologists and interns collect GPS data while tracking turtles and use  ArcGIS Tracking Analyst to create maps showing the movements of each turtle through the tracking season, overlaid on an orthophoto image. Cool stuff.


Bog Turtle mapping and tracking in Dutchess County

Praise for Hudsonia’s GIS work at the local level is widespread. “The Woodstock Planning Board has adopted the Hudsonia map as our official town map and the planning board uses the map on the big screen at all our meetings so the public can see what issues the planning board is looking at” offers Peter Cross, a member of the Woodstock Planning Board, “I use the Hudsonia biodiversity map all the time as part of my work as the Woodstock Wetlands and Watercourse Inspector.” Across the Hudson River in Rhinebeck, Michael Trimble, current chair of the Town of Rhinebeck Planning Board, and Interim Zoning Enforcement Officer notes “Gretchen and Hudsonia do remarkable work and our area has benefited from their efforts.” Additionally, Cliff Schwark, Chairman of the Town of Beekman CAC replies “My best description of Gretchen Stevens is that she is a true professional in her field, an excellent educator, always helpful and a pleasure to work with. The results of their work were excellent, on time, and at cost and have proven to be valuable to the Town of Beekman.” In the Town of Clinton, Norene Coller comments “We are very fortunate in Dutchess County to have an organization with the knowledge of native species and difficult to observe small habitats as well as GIS capabilities to help communities make important land-use decisions”.

While she and her colleagues at Hudsonia have made presentations on their GIS-based work at venues such as the NYS Wetlands Forum, the Northeast Natural History Conference, and the Association of American Geographers – there has been limited interaction with the larger and existing statewide GIS community. Nonetheless, she remains a dedicated member of the statewide geospatial community who works meticulously with little notoriety beyond the Hudson Valley communities she serves.

Gretchen and her work with Hudsonia illustrates the role of similar nonprofits which fill a geospatial role providing support to conservation agencies and smaller, more rural governments typical of the mid-Hudson River communities where they work, often with organizations with very limited, if any, technical staff and largely being supported through grant funds and private foundations.

Gretchen summarizes  “Our GIS capability has enabled us to gather and analyze huge amounts of physical and biological data, and has greatly advanced our understanding of the Hudson Valley ecological landscape. In addition to expanding our research on the known and likely occurrences of rare plants and animals and their habitats, GIS has allowed us to convey a giant body of information about significant habitats to landowners, land trusts, and municipal and state agencies who can put it right to use in protecting the most sensitive areas.”

Just another person working the smaller venues across the Empire State.   Thinking Globally, Acting Locally.   Number 177 under “S” on the NYS Clearinghouse Who’s Who in GIS Listing by Alphabetical.

Gretchen Stevens and others along the Blue Highways of GIS.

Thanks for reading and see you down the road.

The Blue Highways of GIS

One of my all-time favorite books is William Least Heat-Moon’s 1982 classic Blue Highways.   Considered a masterpiece of American travel writing, Blue Highways is Heat-Moon’s personal journey along the nation’s back roads chronicling his curiosity about “those little towns that get on the map – if they get on at all – only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill.”

When published, I saw myself in Blue Highways relating to the wonder and fascination of the open road.  Raised in industrial northern Ohio in the 1950s/1960s, I journeyed westward to attend forestry school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, working several years during and after college with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho, Montana, and the High Sierra in California.   After the Forest Service work, my personal  journey took me back across the country to attend graduate school at the University of Vermont which provided the foundation of my educational work in GIS getting started with ESRI’s earliest software product PIOS (Polygon Information Overlay System) and then on to Westchester County, New York to begin my professional career.    Blue Highways intersected with other parts of my life as Heat-Moon’s journey began (and ended) in Columbia, Missouri –  close to many of my relatives and adjacent to the Wear family farm in Prairie Home, Missouri.   And his journey also went through Moscow where he interviewed a local resident who happened to be a graduate student friend of mine.

Now over thirty years later, and in the fourth quarter of my career with Westchester County GIS, I begin a similar Blue Highways journey albeit of a virtual one across the State of New York.   Destinations where I, and many of you, share a common bond:  GIS.   But these places are different.  Places and cities not necessarily built along the New York State Thruway, the Long Island Expressway, or the Hudson River.  Instead, they are one gas station towns, small villages and schools, or cyber cafes off the beaten track.   Maybe an isolated office in a tiny village along the Southern Tier, the Adirondacks, or the western edges of the state.  A remote zip code.  Or maybe a small business in a midtown Manhattan high rise.

And you may not see the people behind these small GIS efforts at the state conferences, the GeoSpatial Summit, or participating on the statewide listservs.    Nonetheless these are individuals doing the same work you and I do all the time but with little fanfare. A single copy ArcView, AutoCAD, MapInfo, Google Earth, or some Open Source software.   No enterprise GIS spoken here.   Schools, villages, small business, nonprofits, community groups, volunteers, and everything else.  Small places.  Small budgets.  Off the grid and making a difference.   And the beat goes on.

This is the inaugural post in The Blue Highways of GIS which will occur occasionally along other opinions and stories in the eSpatiallyNewYork blog.  If you have similar places or programs you would like to share and appear in The Blue Highways of GIS, please feel free to contact me.

Waterloo, New York

Located in Seneca County with a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimated population of 5,171, the Village of Waterloo began developing GIS capacity in the 2009-2010 time period (following a Needs Assessment completed earlier) as part of an effort to automate and map the Waterloo water supply system (the Village is a water producer and supplier of water to surrounding towns as well).  Like many other similar sized local governments during this time period, funding to initiate the project was obtained through the New York State Archives  LGRMIF grant program.

With no prior exposure to GIS and about a day’s worth of ArcView desktop training by staff from the MRB Group (which currently serves as the village’s engineer),  Jared Bromka, NYS Water Treatment Operator, began scanning and georeferencing hardcopy valve “tie cards” to map the location of the water valves.  Using the scanned images, Jared then spent the next couple years in the field with a sub-foot accuracy Trimble GPS unit to field locate/verify all the valves, fire hydrants, and other water system related features.  From this data development effort he was then able to create a complete system-wide coverage.    Ultimately, MRB Group then used this data to create a hydraulic water system model in GIS (InfoWater extension for ArcGIS Desktop) for engineering purposes.

Village of Waterloo Water Distribution System

Village of Waterloo Water Distribution System

Jared maintains the water system, catch basin, and sanitary sewer system data (which MRB also assisted in mapping) on a village Dell Precision laptop which contains the village’s single license of ArcView.  Waterloo also has the ArcReader extension which allows him to distribute ArcReader projects to other workstations in the village.  Jared also makes maps for many of the various programs and events within the village including the police department, as well as various parade routes, 5K run routes, vendor location map for the Memorial Day committee, a shuttle bus drop-off locations map, county water distribution maps, zoning maps, and a bike trail map. He says that the street department references his GIS maps and the water department, understandably so, continues to use the maps heavily for various planning and expansion projects including hydrant and valve labeling and locating efforts.   (Several of his maps can be seen on the village website.)  Visitors to the village website are also encouraged to take a look at the village interactive map. Today, using both the desktop GIS software and the GPS equipment, Jared maintains all of the village GIS datasets while still serving as a Water Treatment Operator.

Jared has never attended any formal GIS training and notes that beyond the introductory training he received from MRB Group, he has also learned how to use Google Earth and that the amount of time he spends doing GIS work varies greatly, sometimes a few months between map use and creation, to other times when he is involved in three projects at once.  While attending statewide conferences and events is difficult, he has attended local events and meetings hosted by GIS-SIG.

Jared exemplifies many civil servants working in small governments across the state engaged in geospatial work and support – though it is not their primary job responsibility.   The many locations and programs with limited in-house or consultant resources, and little if any dedicated funding for geospatial development other than what comes through associated with regulatory programs, or increasingly, via public works and engineering mapping programs.  Many of us will probably never meet Jared but we can certainly appreciate what he has accomplished and will continue to contribute to the Village of Waterloo.

At the end of the day and all said, just one person in a small place making a big difference.  Jared Bromka and the many others along the Blue Highways of GIS.

Thanks for reading and see you down the road.