GIS Common Core Part 3: Health and Human Services (HHS)

Through a sequence of articles posted in eSpatiallyNewYork, I have proposed a series of GIS applications which provide a framework for establishing and maintaining  GIS/geospatial programs in local  governments (villages, towns, cities, and counties) across  New York State.  These applications areas are referred to as the Geospatial Common Core, many of which are integrated with local government office and administrative business systems.  Others are utilized in the support of regulatory reporting programs.    Together, the Geospatial Common Core contribute towards building sustainable geospatial capacity for local governments.   This is the third installment of the series.

“GIS Common Core” application areas in New York State local governments

The first article entitled Part 1:  Infrastructure and Asset Management focused on the growing and critical role local government GIS geospatial programs continue to serve in rehabilitating and maintaining the decaying and outdated New York State – and national – public infrastructure.  The second article Part 2:  Work Orders, Permitting, and Inspections (WOPI) published in March 2016 focused on geocentric software packages which are ubiquitous in government programs supporting work flows in areas such public works, health, planning, clerk, assessment, buildings/code enforcement and inspections.  Organizations investing and integrating WOPI systems with GIS will continue to help build long-term sustainable geospatial programs in local governments.

Part 3:  Health and Human Services (HHS)

Health and human services can often be broadly defined from one location to another but for the purposes of this article it includes a wide-range of government programs including, but limited to, public health services, social services, public assistance, youth and veterans programs, disability programs, housing and homeless services, child protection services, as well as the important network of contracted service providers governments rely upon in providing counseling and related support services.  I have long been an advocate of building geospatial capacity in these local government program areas.


Statewide local government HHS budgets typically dwarf other local government operational program areas with regard to annual appropriations.  While I am not a budget analyst and admittedly it’s sometimes difficult to follow the money trail of appropriations vs. revenues vs. actual tax payer costs in county budgets, here are a few examples to illustrate the size and magnitude of HHS programs in a selected 2017 NYS county budgets (Data/information from County webpages as noted):

  1. Stuben County 2017 Budget. (Page 3).  Pie chart indicates nearly 47% of the appropriated budget dedicated to Health and  Economic Assistance/Opportunity (includes Social Service disciplines) program areas
  2. Ulster County 2017 Budget. (Pages 1 & 2). Table and pie chart indicate nearly 42% of the appropriated budget dedicated to Public Health and Economic Assistance/Opportunity program areas
  3. Erie County 2017 Budget. (Pages 93, 159, and 174). Appropriations (rounded in millions) in Health ($86M), Mental Health ($47M) and Social Services ($591M) account for almost 50% of the $1,455,000,000 recommended general fund budget.  (Note:  There are other references to the 2017 budget being closer to $1.7B). Either way, HHS budgets are a significant portion of the overall county budget
  4. Albany County 2017 Budget. (Page 34). Employee Count table lists 657 of 2,535 County employees (26%) are in the Child, Youth, and Family Services (170), Social Services (308), Mental Health (90), and Dept. of Health (89)
  5. Suffolk County 2017 Budget. (Pages 101 and 366).   Appropriations (rounded in millions) in Health Services ($249M) and Social Services ($628M) account for nearly 30% of a recommended $2.9B budget
  6. Monroe County 2017 Budget. (Pages 157 and 275).  Appropriations (rounded in millions) in Human Services ($536M) and Public Health ($62M) account for nearly 50% of an adopted $1.2B budget
  7. Continue reading

Jonathan Levy: Cartography Remixed

Jonathan Levy is yet another geospatial enthusiast I have made contact with via the burgeoning GeoNYC Meetup group. It’s a small world indeed as Jonathan and I share some common interests including music, sports, and time spent in one of my most favorite spaces: Idaho. His path down the cartographic road might be considered a bit different than the conventionally trained geospatial professional.  However, what is coming out the other end today is a wide range of interesting cartographic products and services.  Enough for an interesting dialog and blog post – including some interesting personal stuff on the side.  Enjoy.

Jonathan Levy grew up in the Durham and Chapel Hill areas of North Carolina spending lots of time running around in the outdoors.  His dad was a huge fan of National Geographic exposing Jonathan to both the beauty and vastness of the publication’s cartographic products and at the same time taking him camping and trail hiking around  in the Appalachian Mountains.  In his teens, he completed an Outward Bound course which introduced him to orienteering and using maps for navigation and survival.

After graduation from high school, Jonathan attended Brandeis University majoring in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies with a minor in Environmental Studies focusing on conservation biology and environmental politics.  After finishing his undergraduate work he traveled to Grenada, West Indies, to teach environmental/social science to children with Dr. Dessima Williams.   Afterwards, he worked for Polaroid’s Corporate Environmental Department in Boston, MA for nine months before heading to Salmon, Idaho as part of the Student Conservation Association working with the U.S. Forest Service in the Frank Church Wilderness Noxious Weed Inventory program.  It was here he was introduced to Global Positioning System (GPS) data collection concepts and GIS software to make maps of field guides of rare plant species in the wilderness area.

Completing his internship work in Idaho in 2002, Jonathan was  given a grant towards graduate study at at Hunter College in New York City in the MA program specializing in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)  and Media during which time he was able to intern at the United Nations and the New York City Office of Emergency Management.  He received his Masters from Hunter College in 2005.

Getting Started

His first job out of Hunter College was with the NY State Legislative Task Force for Demographic Reapportionment which Jonathan notes “was very GIS heavy and really interesting”.  At this point he began picking up freelance work on the graphics side of things with, and Not For Tourists – the latter of which was has continued to be a successful long term contract.

Along the way he has continued to expand his use of the ESRI software particularly with regard to the spatial/network analyst extensions as well as becoming proficient in QGIS and Carto. Because he extends his cartographic product beyond the what is available with GIS software, Jonathan uses Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for graphics processing, texturing and post production. For 3D renderings he uses Cinema 4D, After Effects, and Sketchfab.

Sample Cartographic Products

Lower Manhattan Buildings:

This 3D rendering of buildings in Lower Manhattan show the years in which they were built from 1700 to the present. The gradations of dark orange to light orange correspond to the newest to the oldest buildings. The data used to create this map came from NYC Open Data.

Environs Map Series:

This series is a way of sharing Jonathan’s life experiences of favorite places and spaces in his  life through map renderings and illustrations.  It is his personal experience of specific places and the personal “visions” of that space.  He gets requests to produce custom maps for friends, family and clients who want their town or neighborhood mapped in this style. He’s currently working on a Valentine’s day gift for a client who wants a map of Roncolo di Quattro Castella in this style.  These images are created using: Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, scanned textures and GIS data.

Jonathan notes: “I love seeing Long Island City from across the East River. The Pepsi and Long Island City signs are featured prominently although here I’ve replaced them with my sister and brother in law’s names in lieu of their recent marriage.”


Jonathan notes this was a “fun” project. Using some fancy internal tools Airbnb developed, Jonathan helped map out neighborhood boundaries in 20+ cities across the U.S – including New York City.   It involved lots of research and involvement with city planners, residents and/or a combination thereof to get a feel for the individual city.

Sample of one NYC neighborhood maps – Chinatown – Jonathan researched and created for Airbnb helping users better define which areas and neighbors they are looking for lodging and accommodations.

Montauk 3D:

This was a personal project that was inspired by his time this past summer learning to surf in Montauk. He was struck by the interesting topography of the area. He took digital elevation model (DEM)  data, exaggerated the contours in Cinema 4D for effect, created custom topographic palettes and created a website that uses Sketchfab’s API to switch out textures on the 3D surface. Link to website:  (Note:  Sketchfab recommends WebGL to display 3D content in real-time  which is a standard in most modern browsers.  Check your browser for compatibility at

Amped Topography of Montauk: If you know the Montauk landscape and locations of specific geographic features (i.e., Lake Montauk and the Lighthouse – chances are you would find these renderings of the area very interesting – and different.

Loud Noise/Noise Complaints:

Jonathan also enjoys scrapping data from public web sites to develop maps and visuals.  While living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jonathan created a Party/Loud Music Complaints map based on 311 data obtained from New York City’s Open Data Portal. These maps include and reflect his interest in rendering the “personality” of geospatial data through design choices – as illustrated in this map/web map – including a dark background, a purplish nighttime color palate and star animated Gifs.  Indeed an interesting map from a person who loves loud music and spends his spare time playing in a metal band!

Built with OpenStreetMap, this interactive map allows users to pan around Manhattan to see which NYC zip code has the largest number of noise complaints as filed through 311.

The Other Stuff

Jonathan always finds his legal mapping client work interesting as it requires mapping and data development to such a fine level of detail.  Often such work involves boundary disputes requiring the review of historical deeds and historic photogrammetry to determine boundary line changes. Looking forward he continues working with Sketchfab in context of mapping in the 3D space.  He supports Sketchfab because it is “accessible, light and has a community for sharing 3D models with annotation”.

As a one person shop, Jonathan does not have a large marketing and public relations budget and as such all of  his business development is  word-of-mouth.  He’s recently created an interactive presentation for a close friend and chef/owner Will Horowitz (Duck’s Eatery / Harry & Ida’s) which he presented at the Food on the Edge conference in Ireland. He’s working on an online platform, Common Scraps, which addresses the issue food waste.   As an extension he has produced some animated maps that show how food scraps can be saved and reused in an exchange system between local farms/suppliers and restaurants.

Jonathan covers a lot of ground and styles in his work which is more detailed and described on his website. Take a look, and if you are really lucky you might find him playing at a local club down the street with his band Autowreck.  Go check them out.

Though take some ear plugs and hold on.

Contact:  Jonathan Levy @


Geospatial Business Spotlight: Mapzen

Company Name:                Mapzen


Established:                        2013

The Company

Mapzen is currently under the leadership of longtime colleagues Randy Meech and Brett Camper.

Together they come with years of experience in mapping and product development. Previously, Meech was Chief Technology Officer of Mapquest and Camper was Director of Product and Engineering at Kickstarter.  Mapzen consists of a professional staff that includes software engineers, product managers and mobile application engineers located at the offices in New York , San Francisco, Berlin, and several remote sites.

Mapzen was created on a shared vision to establish an open, accessible, and resilient mapping ecosystem.  Today this vision is being implemented and facilitated through the Samsung Accelerator  which provides the financial framework and stability.   Mapzen supports the geospatial community through building tools and promoting open source map technologies which follow a long tradition of community-powered cartography.

Geospatial Products and Services

Mapzen products and services are focused in four core areas:

  • Search (geocoding)
  • Graphics
  • Navigation
  • Open Data

Mapzen staff and developers leverage GitHub extensively as an environment to communicate technical issues with colleagues on projects.  It provides access control and several collaboration features, such as a wikis, email threads, and basic task management tools for every project.

Illustrative examples of Mapzen projects include:


Tangram is a map renderer designed to grant significant levels of control over map design. By drawing vector tiles live in a web browser, it allows real-time map design, display, and interactivity.  Using WebGL, Tangram leverages the graphics card to a new level of cartographic exploration. Animated shaders, 3D buildings, and dynamic filtering can be combined to produce effects normally seen only in science fiction.


Tangram draws maps live in a browser enabling developers to update styling properties in real-time, instantly. But changing the color is just the beginning – as every Tangram map is a 3D scene, you also have control over lights and cameras.

In this view just south of Central Park in Manhattan,  an isometric camera’s perspective is varied along with the color and direction of a light (morning), resulting in a time-lapse drone’s-eye view.

In this view just south of Central Park in Manhattan, an isometric camera’s perspective is varied along with the color and direction of a light (morning), resulting in a time-lapse drone’s-eye view.


Using Tangram’s plain-text markup language, developers can write graphics card programs (called “shaders”) and even JavaScript to add interactivity, mix data sources, and control the design of maps.

This example of lower Manhattan uses a shader to color geometry with hand-drawn textures, blending between them based on the color, angle, and amount of light on each face.

This example of lower Manhattan uses a shader to color geometry with hand-drawn textures, blending between them based on the color, angle, and amount of light on each face.


Tron uses procedural shaders to create a view of the future.  The shaders, defined by mathematical functions, are applied to various data layers with UV maps, just like texturing an object in a 3D application like Blender.


Other current Mapzen projects include:

  • Vector Tile Service: a free vector and super fast OSM base layer
  • Pelias: a modular open-source geocoder
  • Open by Mapzen: a proof of totally open source and open data app
  • Valhalla: a unique routing engine based entirely on open data
  • transitland: a community edited aggregation of transit feeds

Find out more about Mapzen’s data products, employee blog postings, and additional information for developers on their website.


Alyssa Wright, VP, Partnerships and Business Development, President of OpenSteetMap US, and co-organizer of the GeoNYC Meetup group.

Opening the GIS Data Vault

The geospatial “open government” effort received a significant boost recently when the State of California Supreme Court ruled Orange County must grant access to its electronic mapping data without charging a licensing fee. The case was brought by the Sierra Club seeking access to mapping data in its fight to protect public land.  The case started in 2007, when the Sierra Club requested from Orange County a copy of its GIS parcel database, containing the location and layout of each legal parcel of land in the county. At that time, Orange County licensed copies of the parcel database to private companies and public agencies for $375,000. The county also required licensees to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing further distribution.  The California ruling augments one closer to home when in 2005 the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in a similar case involving – and against – the Town of Greenwich.  There are several other relevant GIS legal challenges in the states of Florida, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and here in New York (Suffolk County copyright on tax maps) which are summarized in an excellent   2012 State of Indiana GIS Conference presentation entitled “Legalities of GIS” (Sparks and Estes).

Also in July 2013, whether mere coincidence or bowing to years of pressure and in response to the California ruling, New York City’s Department of City Planning quit charging fees for one of the most-demanded city datasets: PLUTO.  PLUTO (Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output) contains detailed information about every piece of land in the city ( including tax assessments, historic districts, year built, number of units, lot size, etc. Before doing so, users had to pay $1,500 ($300 per borough) for the first time and then again for every update.  Not only did urban research institutes, community groups, nonprofits and planning firms have to pay the city each year for access to the data, but also had to stay compliant with a 14-page license agreement that, among other things, forbid them from sharing the data or putting any part of it on the internet.

So what?  What does the California ruling and release of the NYC PLUTO data really mean to the broader New York State GIS community?  In the short term, probably little. However,  it does seem the time is nearing when various New York statewide GIS organizations can come together to discuss, and perhaps, set in motion an effort to challenge the practice of charging fees and/or licensing tax-payer funded GIS data.  And at the center of this discussion would inevitably be New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  Granted the long procedure of litigation, appeals, etc., is costly requiring deep pockets for even those who have the financial resources and legal support to endure the lengthy process but there are potentially dozens of organizations – environmental, not-for-profits, business interests, even governments – which have been confronted with the GIS data fee/licensing issue and have an interest in the issue.

Also, any serious statewide discussion on removing barriers towards selling and licensing geospatial data will first have to include a major review, revision, or complete elimination of the 16-year old NYS GIS Data Sharing Cooperative, which by extension, administers Cooperative Data Sharing Agreements for governments and not-for-profits.  The agreement itself may conflict with the basic tenets of “open government” in that the agreement currently excludes industry and business as Cooperative members as well as including provisions which allow Cooperative members to sell or license their own data.
And as if the growing body of legal decisions mandating governments to make GIS data available for free (beyond the reasonable cost of reproduction) is not enough, there is also a plethora of examples documenting the financial benefits for making geospatial data available at no cost. Note the NYC BigApps 3.0 competition which challenges software developers to create apps that use city data to “make NYC better”.  The 3.0 competition included $50,000 prize money.  Similar efforts are underway in other metropolitan areas of the country including Portland, Oregon.   There is also the new Open New York data portal albeit how well the Socrata-based system integrates with the existing statewide GIS data infrastructure is to be seen.    A very timely and outstanding read on the benefits of making public GIS data open and free was recently published (April 2013) by MetroGIS (Minneapolis/St. Paul). The report contains a myriad of rational and financial justification on making GIS data available for free – including a multi-county breakdown illustrating on how little money is actually made by individual counties after factoring in the COSTS of administering their GIS sales/licensing programs.    Further reading can found in a similar 2011 National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) publication entitled “Geospatial Data Sharing:  Guidelines for Best Practices”.

In the long run, the charging of fees and licensing for tax payer funded geospatial data will ultimately be recognized as neither sustainable or cost effective.  Personnel and organizations will change as government programs are reduced, and to survive, must become more public and business friendly.  Organizations will simply not have the personnel and/or rational to administer data sharing and licensing agreements developed 10-20 years ago. Finally, although there will always be a few exceptions, the belief that the selling or licensing of data somehow supports operational elements of public GIS programs, or is a large money maker, will finally be proven otherwise.

However, to wait for the issue – or problem – to simply take care of itself and ultimately fade away is not the most prudent course of action.  As we can reasonably expect the continued high demand for government GIS datasets to continue, combined with the growing body of judicial cases and “open government” initiatives supporting unrestricted access, the time has come for the discussion, and action, to be taken seriously here in New York State.