Geospatial Intelligence

Designing and Financing a Unifying Basemap of New York City

Source:  New York Historical SocietyMoscow on the Hudson – Information Stovepipes Add Costs and Risks

Up through the 1990s, New York City agencies maintained separate maps, drawings, and other data in separate data silos, evolved for their purpose solely as standalone information:  Water pipes were mapped by the Department of Environmental Protection, separate from the Fire Department’s needs to know which fire hydrants would have sufficient water pressure.  Tax maps for real property assessment purposes were separate from the Building’s Department’s system for tracking which Manhattan buildings had been restored and renewed by landlords and tenants; and so on.

With the computerization of City workflows, the inability of Agencies to know whether a map existed, and whether it was outdated or incomplete or unfit for the scale and purpose intended (all map metadata), presented huge obstacles for the public and private sectors in rebuilding City infrastructure, responding to City emergencies, and competing with cities whose infrastructure systems and City management of such systems had modernized.

Annual surveys of the health of City infrastructure required by bond rating agencies and government accounting standards (GASB Statement 34) and multi-agency Uniform Land Use Review and Environmental Impact Assessments, provided additional arguments for moving from standalone geospatial fiefdoms, to shared Citywide geospatial intelligence.

Moving beyond Information Stovepipes

At the time of the August 1989 steam pipe explosion outside his 32 Gramercy Park South apartment building, Urban Logic’s co-founder Bruce Cahan worked for a Hong Kong merchant bank. Bruce had practiced law for ten years with Weil Gotshal & Manges, specializing in corporate, municipal and real estate finance. Bruce had experience as a hobbyist programming computers and used “computerized legal solutions” in his law practice to speed and track client work.

Bruce saw the potential for creating a digital map of the entire City of New York, from bedrock to the top of the World Trade Towers. His vision became a 1991 proposal from Urban Logic to the Mayor’s Office of Operations for NYMAP, as a public-private partnership. Urban Logic’s implementation challenges included persuading the Mayor’s Office and agency commissioners that their paper maps were outdated, incomplete, pilfered and inaccurate, and proving the cost savings of creating and using a common base map.

$537 million of Waste for Stovepiped Data

Urban Logic, aided by the City’s Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, the Mayor’s Office of Operations,  the GISMO users group of geospatial enthusiasts and practitioners and then City Councilman Andrew Eristoff, estimated that unless a common base map were built for $20+ million, the City would ultimately spend $537 million over the next 10 years on projects that would partially map or depend on partially mapping various attributes of City operations, and none of such maps would necessarily align, or be interoperable.

Leveraging Procurement Optimization and Synergies

The DEP was then designing its digital water main and sewer main mapping project, the Department of City Planning was then designing its replacement land use and zoning maps, and the Transit Authority was designing its facility mapping system, the New York Police Department’s crime mapping project was being expanded, the City’s Department of Finance was enhancing its tax parcel assessment maps and the Building Department’s building information system was being enhanced.

Urban Logic used a survey of the many City Agency and safety functions that generated and relied on maps to estimate the ultimate benefits and costs of having the Agencies share a common base map. By arguing that the name of Fifth Avenue and its dimensions do not change annually, an accounting custom of City OMB was reinterpreted as well to permit “data,” not hardware and software, to be treated as a capital asset eligible for capital budget (instead of operating budget) funding; like most cities New York’s operating budget is frequently in deficit, while its capital budget is in surplus, so that the effect of making a project “capital eligible” is to get it currently funded.  

Advocating Public Access to Government Geospatial Data

In the mid-1990s, Urban Logic advised New York City against trying to sell its geospatial data at a profit, arguing instead that the economies of scale to the City Agencies of requiring and receiving standardized geospatial data would make operations more efficient and effective, at a cost savings far outweighing the net revenues from selling historic Bytes of the Big Apple or similar digital mapping products.

Eventually, the Mayor’s Office of Operations was persuaded through City Council hearings in which Urban Logic and other allies participated to create a “NYCMAP – A GIS Data Utility,” to serve Citywide needs for accurate geospatial information. The NYCMAP was quality-assured by the CARSI Lab of Hunter College‘s Professor Sean Ahern and his team. Today, the award-winning NYCMAP Data Utility and its public portal NYCityMap are essential tools for managing New York City daily and especially in emergency situations.  And in 2012 – nearly 20 years later – New York City adopted and officially embraced a Citywide policy of Open Data as Local Law 11.

Sharing NYC Experience Nationally and Internationally

By the mid-1990s, Urban Logic’s work in New York City became known and requested by federal and state geospatial and government technology allies in DC, Europe (OECD Paris), and elsewhere, as shown in the sample of papers and presentations below:

Papers and Presentations

Keynote Speaker, European Commission GIS Conference and INSPIRE Initiative Working Group (Dublin Ireland – July 3, 2002),

Presenter, Aero States Association, GIS & Homeland Security Forum (February 6, 2002 – Rayburn House Office Building).

Stewardship Participant, National Infrastructure for Community Statistics, Brookings Institution’s Urban Markets Initiative to improve statistical methods and data to better analyze and leverage real estate, banking and other market opportunities in inner city neighborhoods.

Presenter, Pacific Northwest Spatial Data Framework Conference, sponsored by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (November 2001 – Portland, Oregon).

Presenter, Urban Parks Institute, Green Infrastructure Financing using GASB 34 & Spatial Data (New York August 2001)

Presenter, Partnership for Regional Livability, GASB 34 Green Infrastructure Accounting Options (Chicago August 2001)

Moderator & Presenter, National GeoData Forum, I-Team Workshop (Denver November 2001)

Principal Investigator & Chair Financing Solutions Team, OMB GeoSpatial Implementation Initiative (September 2000 to 2004),

Principal Investigator, EPA Project EMPACT, Development of a capital approach and incentives to align investments in environmental monitoring and information systems (September 2000 – present)

Member, Council for Excellence in Government’s Technology Leadership Consortium and Integration Team for E-Government Recommendations to the Nation (November 1999 – present),

Featured Speaker, OMB Information Initiative Roundtables:  Collecting Information In The Information Age (July 7 and July 18, 2000), pursuant to Federal Register Notice April 28, 2000

Panelist, Pennsylvania GIS Conference:  Interactive Forum on Legal and Finance Issues in GIS (June 2, 2000 – Hershey PA).

Featured Speaker, Financing the NSDI: National Spatial Data Infrastructure, A Briefing for Senior Administration Policy Makers held at The White House Conference Center (March 29, 2000), as captured in the Internet archive.

Presenter, OpenGIS Management Committee, Industry Briefing on Financing the NSDI Report (Vancouver February 2000).

Stewardship Team Member, National GeoData Organizational Initiative (October 1999 – January 2000).

Participant, The National Science and Technology Council’s Summit on Innovation: Federal Policy for the New Millennium (November 30, 1999),

Participant, National Partnership for Reinventing Government & Council for Excellence in Government:  E-Gov Summit of Public & Private Technology Leaders (November 9, 1999)

Guest Lecturer, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Center for New Media (November 4, 1999)

Presenter, Aurora Partnership: The Business of Decision Support (September 29, 1999)

Witness, Congressional Hearing of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology regarding Geographic Information Systems in the Public and Private Sectors (June 9, 1999),

Leader of the June 8, 1999 GeoData Workshop on Financing and Commercialization of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure,

Member, Steering Committee and Policy Roundtable for the 1999 GeoData Forum sponsored by the Federal Geographic Data Committee,

Member, OpenGIS Consortium, Inc., a non-profit research and development group established by the data base industry (hardware, software and networking) and its institutional customers

Speaker, Urban Regional Information Systems Association, Toronto 1997 Annual Conference, presenting Local Data Interoperability and Finance Options

Featured Speaker at New York Data Connection VII sponsored by the New York State Department of Economic Development discussing Regional Data Consortia

Member, Mayoral Brownfields Task Force organized by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the New York City Partnership (1997)

Member, Information Resource Management Task Force organized by Governor George Pataki (1996-7)

New York State Temporary Geographic Information Council (September 1995) – participant in the Finance and Legal Issues Working Group.  Co-Authored Proposal to establish county districts for Information Resource Management planning and funding Geographic Information Systems,

Testimony to New York City Council Technology Task Force Hearings on Information Technology Procurement (1995)

Testimony to New York City Council Technology Task Force Hearings on Geographic Information Systems (May 1995)

National Council of Public-Private Partnerships:  Hi-Level Roundtable on Local Government Information Systems (June 1994)

Government Technology Conferences in Austin and Sacramento:  The Economics of Data Sharing (March & May 1994)

Keynote Speaker, New York State Department of Economic Development Data Connection IV:  Building a Regional Information Exchange around Geographic Information Systems (November 1993)

Erie County Legislative Task Force on Geographic Information Systems:  Featured speaker on techniques for financing local government technology initiatives (February 1994)

New York State Senate Committee on Local Government:  Hearings into financing local government information infrastructure (November 1993 & January 1994)

New York State Geographic Information Systems Conference (October 1992 & 1993)

International Daughter Companies Network Symposium outside Paris France, Spatial Data as Infrastructure (November 1991)

Bruce Cahan

Bruce Cahan is CEO and co-founder of Urban Logic, a nonprofit that harnesses finance and technology to change how systems think, act and feel. He is an Ashoka Fellow, aa Lecturer at Stanford University's Department of Management Science & Engineering, a Distinguished Scholar at Stanford mediaX and a former CodeX Fellow at Stanford's Center for Legal Informatics. Bruce was trained as an international finance lawyer at Weil Gotshal & Manges in NYC (10 years) and as merchant banker at Asian Oceanic in Hong Kong (2 years). Bruce graduated The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (B.S. Economics 1976) and Temple Law School (J.D. 1979). Bruce has been licensed to practice law in California (2006), New York (1980) and Pennsylvania (1980).

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