Digital maps: Part 2

By Todd Cohen

The New York Public Interest Research Group in New York City started using “geographic information systems,” or GIS, in the early 1990s to create visual tools to support its community-organizing work on environmental issues.

Working with a group on Long Island worried about the impact of contaminated sites in a big industrial park, NYPIRG obtained data on the location of the sites and mapped them to show how close they were to homes, parks and playgrounds.

Using the maps in meetings with officials of environmental agencies, NYPIRG helped persuade the N.Y. Department of Environmental Conservation to give the sites higher priority for cleanup, says Steven Romalewski, director of the Community Mapping Assistance Project, or CMAP, a program of NYPIRG.

The maps “helped show the agencies the community really knew what they were talking about, and so the agencies were much more responsive in meeting with them and addressing the community’s concerns,” he says. “It really turned the situation around.”

In 1997, as NYPIRG was moving to use computer maps for work on a broader range of issues, it launched CMAP, which works with 50 to 60 nonprofit clients a year, charging fees to cover most of its $500,000 annual budget.

While total fees per project typically range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, larger projects lasting several years can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

CMAP, at, also does mapping for the NYPIRG staff, and receives support from the New York Community Trust, Long Island Community Foundation and Booth Ferris Foundation, as well as software donations from the Environmental Systems Research Institute in Redlands, Calif., the largest GIS software publisher, at, and hardware donations from Hewlett Packard Co. in Palo Alto, Calif.

In addition to the cultural map, which the arts alliance hopes to extend to the entire state in partnership with CMAP and the N.Y. State Council on the Arts, projects developed by CMAP include the Open Accessible Space Information System, or OASIS, an effort supported by the U.S. Forest Service to map information about open-space resources ranging from community gardens to large parks.

Combining city, state, federal and private data, the maps show the relationship of open spaces to vacant properties, transportation networks, social services, demographics and other aspects of the city.

The web-based project, which officials in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., are studying for possible use in their cities, also has served as a kind of meeting place for individuals and groups that use the maps, contribute and share data, and help develop new tools and information for the site, Romalewski says.

“There has been a great coming together of groups that would not have come together except for this mapping project,” he says.

Other stories in the series:

Part 1: Nonprofits build geographic perspective into their work.

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

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