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. Continue reading

10 Questions: Dale Morris

Dale Morris is one of New York State’s most recognized and senior GIS statesmen.  With a distinguished civil service career spanning 38 years, he has contributed significantly to the NYS GIS community in many capacities to say the least of directing one of the most established GIS programs in the state at Erie County – and its far reaching influence in western New York.  Ten questions seemed like a slight to an individual with such a body of professional work, so the eSpatiallyNewYork editorial team gave him permission to push it to 15 questions. Or something like that.  Enjoy.

eSpatiallynewyork:  How long have you been with Erie County?

Morris:  I’ve been in the Department of Environment and Planning since 1981. Prior to this I worked as a Planner for the Town of Amherst, NY and before that the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board. I graduated from Cornell University with a Master’s Degree in Regional Planning in 1977.

eSpatiallynewyork:  When did you start doing GIS work?

Morris:   Working initially as a Planner for Erie County presented  many opportunities for making and using maps. In the 1980s we were still using Mylar, zipatone, and Leroy Lettering Sets for making maps, which is tedious, time consuming, and not easy to change. I began to investigate the world of digital mapping, which was still in its beginnings as a desktop product. I started with the DOS version of MapInfo. I recall how amazed we all were that we could do something as simple as draw the County and municipal boundaries on-screen. Looking back on it now it all seems so rudimentary!  Regardless of how basic it was, my Division became known for our ability to make computer drawn maps. At that time there wasn’t much concern about the database behind the maps- it was enough to be able to draw and edit maps digitally rather than by hand.

As desktop mapping grew in popularity through the 1990s a number of County departments began independently looking into it. This usually resulted in them calling me to ask for advice or data. Of course, this also meant that everyone was using different systems, and at that time it made exchanging data between systems very difficult or impossible. It was a classic case of disjointed silos of data and applications.

A change in County administration in the late 1990s brought new management in our department, and I was challenged to prepare a white paper for moving the County further forward into the digital mapping world. I proposed creating a new County Division that would be empowered to centralize decisions relating to geospatial technology (by then we could use terms like “geospatial” without getting blank stares!). The Office of Geographic Information Services (OGIS) was born in 2001, and I have been the Director since then. So for me personally, my career started with both feet in the urban planning field, then a gradual shift to one foot in planning and one in digital mapping, and then finally both feet in GIS. I do very little “typical” planning anymore, even though OGIS is part of the Planning Division.

While OGIS is an Office within the Department of Environment and Planning, only a portion of our work is related to this department. We work very closely with our IT shop to maintain and operate the County’s GIS technology infrastructure, and with other departments and outside agencies who either use our enterprise GIS technology or who need direct assistance with their mapping needs.

eSpatiallynewyork:  What’s the relationship between your office and Niagara County?

Morris:  We have a formal Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) with Niagara County for GIS Services. The agreement is for a five year period and we are well into the second of these five-year agreements. Erie County hosts Niagara County’s geospatial data and provides on-line mapping services to Niagara County. The two counties are connected by a high-speed microwave link, which operates very well. In essence, Niagara County is simply like any other Erie County department that taps into the Erie County enterprise GIS network. In addition to providing Niagara County this service for a fee, the IMA provides a framework for backup of GIS data between the two counties, and as well defines a GIS “mutual aid” protocol for sharing of GIS resources and staff in the event of an emergency.
Continue reading

Queensbury Geospatial: A Model for NYS Town Government GIS

Northbound New York State Northway Exit 20 leads to the Town of Queensbury which is the seat of Warren County.  With a 2010 population of 27,901 the town covers nearly 65-square miles including shoreline along Lake George and lands within the Adirondack Park.  Further into town, several of the usual NYS town government program offices are located at 742 Bay Road including staff and resources which support the town’s geographic information system (GIS).

GIS Background

Prior to 2002, Queensbury officials had worked with consultants to establish initial GIS capacity including the creation of ArcIMS applications and investing in multiple ESRI desktop licenses.  In 2002, the town’s GIS initiative changed significantly with the hiring of George Hilton.  Hired as a GIS Specialist and planner, George was brought onboard to build and advance the town’s  GIS program.

Prior to arriving in Queensbury, George had honed his GIS skills while a student at Central Connecticut State University and later in government positions  in the Denver and Kansas City areas as well as three years with Westchester County.  Now, 15-years after his arrival, George oversees a program which can be considered an exemplary NYS municipal government GIS program.

Current Queensbury Geospatial Products and Infrastructure        

George designs, codes and maintains the Town’s Interactive Mapper (Firefox and IE only) and a host of other ArcGIS.com map viewers including Fire and EMS, Planning and Zoning, and Phase II Stormwater Infrastructure.    He also supports emerging mobile mapping and data collection efforts which includes Trimble GPS units with Trimble Positions to collect data and update feature services and Geodatabases in the field.  The town also collects data (hydrant inspections, site inspections) with ArcGIS Collector using feature services and make maps available through ArcGIS Online.

The Town of Queensbury Interactive Mapper includes many locally developed datasets as well as data from other authoritative sources including Warren County, NewYork State and the Adirondack Park Agency.

The Town of Queensbury Interactive Mapper includes many locally developed datasets as well as data from other authoritative sources including Warren County, NewYork State and the Adirondack Park Agency.

Other software components – much of which has been self-taught – George uses inlcludes Sybase (RPS) and SQL Server with ArcSDE as well as ArcGIS Server, ArcSDE, ArcGIS (Advanced), and Spatial Analyst.  The town is currently at ArcGIS Server 10.22 and are testing 10.4 with plans to upgrade very soon.  He also works with QGIS and Global Mapper from time to time.  Global Mapper has been particularly helpful in importing updated USGS topo quads (DRGs) in GeoPDF format into our GIS.

The Queensbury GIS program has grown from primarily providing support to the Planning Department to becoming a very important resource for many departments across town government.  Both the Town Board and Town Supervisor are very supportive of GIS and recognize how much of an important tool GIS has become to the Town.

Parts of the Town of Queensbury is actually within the Adirondack Park and therefore subject to stringent land use regulations. This image highlights zoning districts on the southeastern shore of Lake George – within the park boundaries.

Parts of the Town of Queensbury is actually within the Adirondack Park and therefore subject to stringent land use regulations. This image highlights zoning districts on the southeastern shore of Lake George – within the park boundaries.

George maintains an excellent working relationship with Warren County GIS which is under the direction of Sara Frankenfeld where he obtains  parcel data.  The town creates town-wide datasets (zoning, subdivisions, hydrants, infrastructure, environmental, street centerlines, address points, etc) which are then shared back with the County. Referencing her ongoing GIS work with Queensbury, Sara explains:

“George is great to work with and especially in a rural environment where we don’t have any other full-time GIS staff within our respective local governments, it’s so helpful to have a colleague to bounce things off.  He’s a very good sounding board and when I’m considering starting a new project, I often call to get his thoughts.

 We’ve worked closely together on a number of projects.  We recently worked together to streamline the way e-911 addresses are assigned, and this has been a huge improvement to workflows in both of our offices, as well as in the Real Property office, the zoning/building inspectors departments, and the assessors’ offices

 Our current cooperative project is a NYS Archives LGRMIF grant funded project to make the SAM data, along with information about truss roofed structures (as required by a NYS law that went into effect 1/1/2015), and other relevant data such as hydrant locations, available to first responders via an Android/iOS app”.

George also works closely with several state agencies including the Adirondack Park Agency, NYS Parks and Historic Preservation, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and NYS Information Technology Services (ITS).  Queensbury Town Supervisor John Strough adds:

“Like today’s computers, I do not know how we lived without him. His GIS services have helped us map the town’s infrastructure structures, trail systems, historic places and many other location details that we absolutely need to comply with the needs of today’s municipal world. I am in his office requesting his services almost as often as am in my budget officer’s office, that’s how important GIS services have become to the town.

Broad User Base

The town enjoys a wide user base including ESRI desktop clients in Planning, Water and Sewer, Assessor, and Parks departments though George is commonly called upon to assist in more detailed data creation, analysis, and cartographic products throughout town government.  He also provides training for users in many local, regional and statewide agencies including the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Champlain Watershed Improvement Coalition of New York, and the NY State Conservation District Association at their statewide conference in Auburn and Syracuse.

Additionally, George provides maps and data analysis for many community groups, nonprofits, schools, as well as for other municipalities and quasi-governmental agencies in the area.   Queensbury if one of the few municipalities in the area with a GIS program and is often asked to provide support throughout the area.

Creating More Queensbury GIS Programs

While George brought years of GIS experience to the town when accepting  the job, his ability to advance the town’s GIS program has certainly been augmented by ongoing political and administrative support.  Such combination of experience, competitive salary, technical skills and political support is often hard to replicate –   or even find for that matter –  in small town governments across the Empire State.

The Town of Queensbury GIS program speaks to the importance of educating elected officials in the benefits and  importance of investing – both financially and institutionally –  in the role of geospatial technologies in small town governance.  While the Queensbury GIS solution might be considered a typical for similar-sized communities across the state, it nonetheless can be a model for the GIS community to aspire to and replicate.

Visit the Town of Queensbury website at http://www.queensbury.net or George Hilton directly at GeorgeH@queensbury.net.

 

The Federal Geospatial Data Act of 2015: A NYS Local Perspective

There has been a limited amount of fanfare and support – or even discussion for that matter – here in the Empire State on the proposed Geospatial Data Act of 2015.    Beyond one or two acknowledgements on  the state listservs, the announcement really didn’t generate any buzz or visible discussion throughout the GIS community.   Though it comes as no real surprise as few in New York statewide GIS community have had any meaningful exposure or introduction to past legislation/bills regarding federal agencies referenced in the proposed 2015 act introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.  In absence of any real meaningful dialog here in the New York  between the GIS professional community and elected officials on federal legislation (or any geospatial legislation for that matter except perhaps the never-ending “Surveyor” Legislation), one wonders if New York’s federal delegation is even aware of the proposed act.  Or its stated benefits.

At the core of the proposed 2015 Act is a combination federal legislation and policies including (in no particular order of importance) OMB Circular A-16, the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC).   Very government-like and uber confusing, a little background includes: In 1994, Executive Order 12906 was issued by President Clinton to direct the development of the NSDI.  Unfortunately, twenty-one years later,  many of the requirements of EO 12906 have never been acted on.  Circular A-16 was originally issued in 1953, revised in 1967, revised in 1990 (establishing the FGDC), and revised again in 2002 outlining specific federal agency obligations.  A-16 Supplemental Guidance was also issued in 2010. Similar to EO 12906, federal agencies have struggled to implement many of the provisions of OMB A-16 over the same period of time.

The August 2002 revision to Circular No. A-16 was particularly significant in context of naming the stewardship of over 30 data themes to federal agencies in support of both the NSDI and FGDC programs.  Specific datasets included:

 Biological Resources, Cadastral, Cadastral Offshore, Climate, Cultural and Demographic Statistics, Cultural Resources, Orthophotography, Earth Cover, Elevation Bathymetric, Elevation Terrestrial, Buildings and Facilities, Federal Lands, Flood Hazards, Geodetic Control, Geographic Names, Governmental Units, Geologic, Housing, Hydrology, International Boundaries, Law Enforcements Statistics, Marine Boundaries, Offshore Materials, Outer Continental Shelf Submerged Lands, Public Health, Public Land Conveyance, Shoreline, Soils, Transportation, Vegetation, Watershed boundaries and Wetlands.

While all data themes are clearly important in supporting the broad national NSDI efforts, most New York State local governments  have a limited number of day-to-day business work functions directly related to NSDI spatial data themes itemized in the 2002.  (In fact many of the 2002 NSDI spatial data themes are only developed and maintained by federal resources.)  Adding to the disconnect is that many 2015 local government GIS programs, especially in urban areas, have business needs which are not supported by either the content or spatial accuracy of core 2002 NSDI spatial data themes.  For example, local government geospatial programs in the areas of  infrastructure management (drinking water, sanitary sewer, and storm water systems), utilities, vehicle routing and tracking, permitting and inspection systems, service delivery programs in the health and human services, local planning, zoning, and economic development activities are not closely aligned with many of the 2002 NSDI spatial data themes.    While many federal mapping programs and geospatial datasets continue to be consistent at 1:24,000 (2000 scale), most local urban government GIS programs are built on top of large scale (i.e., 1”=100’ or even 1”=50’) photogrammetric base maps.

Not all is lost, however, as some local data products such as parcel boundaries and planimetrics (building footprints, hydrology, transportation) actually are consistent selected 2002 NSDI spatial data themes (Cadastral, Governmental Units, Hydrology, Geodetic Control, Transportation) albeit at a higher degree of accuracy.  Unfortunately, limited capacity or systems have been established to leverage or normalize such datasets into the NSDI.

Unfortunately, even though the federal government continues to identify and list local governments as key stakeholders in most legislative proposals, it’s common belief among federal agencies that resources are not available to monitor or engage local GIS programs (i.e., 3000 counties vs. 50 states).  And there continues to be the (wild) belief state level GIS programs can serve as the ‘middle man’ or conduit between local and federal geospatial programs.  Somehow magically rolling up local government data for use by federal agencies and integrated into the NSDI.  Not really.  At least here in New York State.   And no, old school NSDI Clearinghouses nor the current rage of soon-to-be-yesterday-news “Open Data” portals being equivalent mechanisms in supporting and maintaining 2002 A-16 data themes.

Perhaps sponsors of the Geospatial Act of 2015 could model collection of local government geospatial data assets after the ongoing efforts associated with the HIFLD (Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Data) program.   Though obviously a very different end product from the NSDI, federal agencies producing the HSIP (Homeland Security Infrastructure Protection) Gold and HSIP Freedom datasets have enjoyed relatively decent success in collecting large volumes of local government data – much of which has been paid for at the local level.  And many of the same federal agencies associated with the HIFLD program including National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense (DOD), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have stewardship responsibilities of NSDI spatial data themes.  Different.  But similar.   And adding more bewilderment to the discussion is that it is easier to contribute crowed sourced data (structures) to the USGS than it is for local governments to push large scale photogrammetric data of the same features (structures) to federal agencies and incorporated into the NSDI.

Georeferenced 2013 US Topo White Plains quadrangle.  While selected structures such as schools, fire houses and hospitals are identified on  default US Topo product, this image shows all Westchester County building footprints

Georeferenced 2013 US Topo White Plains quadrangle. While selected structures such as schools, fire houses and hospitals are identified on the default US Topo product, this image shows also shows how local content such as Westchester County building footprints can be made available to the NSDI structures data theme.

Unless a methodical and accepted process – adopted by pertinent local/state/federal stakeholders – is institutionalized  by the FGDC, the Geospatial Data Act of 2015 will continue to be more about federal and state geospatial programs and less about truly integrating and taking advantage of the vast amount of local government data.   The Act needs to specify and fund building work flows which communicate directly with the source of the data as well as working towards reducing the reliance on state “middle men” GIS programs as means to acquire local geospatial data. (Local governments were not even mentioned in a February 2015 General Accounting Office report entitled “GEOSPATIAL DATA: Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Effort”.  A report which appears to be eerily similar and a rebaked version of the  (ill-fated) 2013 “Map It Once, Use It Many Times”   federal geospatial legislation attempting to reposition the federal effort to coordinate National geospatial data development.

Ironically, just one month prior to the Geospatial Data Act of 2015 being introduced, a scathing report was released by the Consortium of Geospatial Organizations (COGO) entitled “Report Card on the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure”.  In short an overall “C-“ to NSDI effort over the past two decades.  The report falls short in not holding state GIS programs more accountable and responsible as well as most have  jockeyed over the past two decades to be seen as enablers and partners of the NSDI  effort in context of framework layer stewards, recipients of FGDC grants, and establishing/maintaining NSDI Clearinghouse nodes.  States supposedly as “middle men” and conduits to valuable local government geospatial data assets.   Perhaps COGO report cards on individual State government GIS programs are forthcoming.

At the end of the day, NSDI supporters actually do have access to a wide range of local government geospatial assets as files, consumable web services, or perhaps through some other middleware provided by a software vendor.   Or a combination of all the above.  The data and the technology are here.  To the end of furthering the intent of the NSDI, legislation like the Geospatial Act of 2015 will fall on deaf ears and not advance as it should unless the federal government establishes the means to directly engage and connect to local governments.

 

 

Multi-Government GIS

Over the past 25 years the success of the Westchester County GIS program can be attributed to several key factors that include ongoing administrative and political support, a common technology vision over many years of management leaders, as well as continuous years of superior GIS staff and technical support.  However, one of the most important and enduring elements has been the collaborative work between multiple governments – specifically between Westchester County and its 43 municipalities.

Early on and even before web technology and services had matured to what is available today, local governments, not-for-profits, and community groups realized cost efficiencies in utilizing Westchester County GIS products and services in helping build geospatial capacity within their organizations. While expansion of the County’s GIS infrastructure was slow and at times limited due to early desktop GIS client software, expansion and deployment has changed dramatically in the last 18-36 months with the increased availability of easy-to-use web viewers, access to data-rich map services, and local GIS datasets.

Westchester County is not the only current multi-agency or regional government GIS effort in the state.  One of the best and more visible examples of cost effective geospatial shared services is the Erie County GIS program which continues to provide a framework for providing and developing GIS capabilities for both Erie and Niagara Counties as well as selected neighboring towns.

Other illustrative and successful multi-agency/regional GIS programs include the Southern Tier Western Regional Planning & Development Board “Community GIS” serving Chautauqua, Cattaraugus & Allegheny Counties and the Seneca Nation of Indians. In northern New York State, encouraging efforts are being made by the Development Authority of the North Country towards building and expanding geospatial capacity for the villages of Heuvelton and Clayton, the Town of Clayton and Jefferson County.  Other illustrative statewide multi-government GIS programs include both the Dutchess County GIS program and the Tompkins County – City of Ithaca Interactive Maps collaboration.  These and other selected initiatives across the state have built multi-government GIS business plans with support from the New York State Local Government Efficiency Program (LGe) which provides funding for the development of projects that will achieve savings and improve municipal efficiency through shared services and cooperative agreements.

As government downsizing continues, opportunities to expand and build GIS capacity in local governments across New York State will often be most feasible and practical in a multi-government or regional framework where financial, technical and administrative support can be consolidated. Such initiatives will support similar business needs as well as common organizational and business requirements.

“Cloud” concepts now resonate and are understood, if not embraced, among elected officials and managers across governments.   The GIS infrastructure is now in place so that multiple governments can have data housed in one location, accessing web services from other government agencies, combining local content – all at the same time while using one of several free viewing clients such as ArcGIS Explorer, Gaia 3.0, and Google Earth 7).  Such “mash-up” configurations dramatically decrease the time building GIS data access and viewing capabilities.  While such viewers come with limited spatial analysis capabilities, there is nonetheless a significant reduction in hardware and software investments – which is often a major GIS implementation obstacle for small to mid-range sized governments and organizations across the state.

Geospatial technology has evolved such that there is a very limited or viable business case for every governmental organization to fund and support it’s own GIS program.  Shared Services is no longer a “nice to have” but rather the new government reality.  The New York State geospatial community will do well to embrace and promote this new paradigm towards building multi-government and cost-effective GIS programs.