Digital maps: Part 1

By Todd Cohen

Early in 2001, gearing itself well in advance to work with a new mayor and city council that would take office the following January, the Alliance for the Arts in New York City started working with a consultant to create computer maps showing the location of the city’s roughly 2,000 cultural organizations and their dependence on city funding.

Those maps, initially intended to educate the city’s new leaders about the arts, and to limit anticipated budget cuts in the face of the economic downturn, took on even greater importance in the wake of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001.

Showing that many cultural groups were scattered in smaller neighborhoods throughout the city’s five boroughs, and depended more on city funds than did arts agencies in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, the alliance used the maps to persuade city officials to keep cultural budget cuts to a minimum at time when many other agencies suffered deeper cuts.

“The maps brought the whole subject alive for members of the city council,” says Randall Bourscheidt, president of the alliance.

The maps also gave the alliance “a much higher level of credibility,” says Steven Romalewski, director of the Community Mapping Assistance Project, or CMAP, a program of the New York Public Interest Research Group at that prepared the maps and continues to work with the alliance.

While computer-mapping remains the main business of only a handful of nonprofits throughout the U.S., it gives their nonprofit clients a powerful tool to improve the way they deliver services, shape policy and communicate, computer mapmakers say.

“People who don’t see the geography of a place miss one track,” says Larry Orman, executive director of the GreenInfo Network, a San Francisco nonprofit at that provides computer-mapping services for nonprofits. “Any good communication strategy comes at people in multiple ways, and having geography to add to the mix is very helpful.”

Computer-mapping technology, known as “geographic information systems,” or GIS, “lets nonprofits link places and information through very sophisticated analysis,” Orman says.

Other stories in the series:

Part 2: Computer maps help nonprofits make their case.

Part 3: Nonprofits use computer-mapping to make data make sense.

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