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Homage to the people behind OASISnyc

Last week’s UrbanOmnibus features an article I wrote about a new and completely revamped version of the OASIS mapping website in New York City — see “A new OASIS for New York“.  (Also see an earlier blog post about how we designed the cartography in the new OASIS maps.)

OASIS is the Open Accessible Space Information System.  The UO piece focuses on the site’s new mapping tools, richer data sets, and a new approach using “web 2.0″ techniques to encourage more interaction and engagement via the OASIS maps with urban planning in New York.

But equally impressive, though not the focus of the piece, is the part of OASIS that doesn’t directly involve mapping and web technology.  It’s the people and groups “behind the scenes” that make it all worthwhile.  Their work and the collaborative effort that OASIS has helped facilitate are really amazing.

OASIS was the vision of several people in the Forest Service (Jim Lyons, Michael Rains, Phil Rodbell, Matt Arnn, Robin Morgan to name a few), ESRI (especially Dave LaShell), and local greening organizations in New York back in late 2000.  The idea was to bring together a bunch of groups interested in sharing resources and ideas about open space stewardship, create an online mapping site to integrate all this info (way before Google Maps was on the scene), and see where that would lead.

The OASIS mapping site is powerful, but the website without the people and partnerships would just be one more (though impressive) map mashup.  The collaborative nature of the effort from the start — inspired and sustained especially by Matt Arnn — always seemed special.

Some folks who deserve special mention (though this is certainly an incomplete list) are:

  • Council on the Environment of NYCLenny Librizzi at CENYC is absolutely wonderful, and has a great vision of involving students and community groups in the greening of the city.  He trains high school youth to inventory street trees in a way that teaches ecology, math, science, and urban planning in an engaging way.  He’s also led the effort to map community gardens across the city, maintaining a comprehensive database of gardens for analysis, advocacy, and teaching.  It’s been great working with Lenny as we’ve integrated all that data into OASIS.  The maps are powerful, but in some ways it’s more important that they’ve been a vehicle to get to know him and to give his students invaluable hands-on experiences.
  • Open Road of New York  — Paula Hewitt Amram is an inspiration to untold numbers of city youth who want to change the world or are just looking for a better spot to play in.  (Here’s an example: Amy Poehler interviewing 11-year old Valentine about her community gardening work at Open Road.)  She’s brought that energy and spirit to the groups involved in OASIS, with a real passion for wanting the collaborative effort to endure so it will continue to be an educational and participatory resource. 
  • The greening groups involved in GROW (Grassroots Reassuring OASIS Works) – they coordinated a series of focus groups early on to make sure that whatever online mapping tools were created, were developed with an eye toward the neighborhood organizations and activists who needed the information the most.  Their insights continue to resonate with the OASIS participants, even as the GROW coordinators Wendy Brawer and Hugh Hogan have gone on to do other amazing things.
  • The Forest Service team at its Northern Research StationErika Svendsen has consistently pointed out that maps of buildings and park boundaries are nice, but maps also need to convey a sense of who’s doing what where: the people and their activities in any given geographic area are obviously and critically important.  This interest enhanced the Forest Service’s Living Memorials Project, and simultaneously was a key theme in discussions among OASIS participants about the need to understand local environmental stewardship (who’s doing what environmental work where).  Eventually Erika, Lindsay Campbell, and the Forest Service’s NYC Urban Field Station turned this concept into reality with the unique Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP).  Erika and Lindsay and their colleagues provide a refreshing perspective to us online cartographers, and hopefully this will also become obvious to anyone using the new OASIS maps when they view the STEW-MAP “turfs” that are displayed.
  • ESRIDave LaShell helped develop OASIS early on and has been a consistent booster.  Though Dave works for a software company, I think in another life he’d be an environmental and community organizing visionary. ESRI has provided substantial software and technical support resources to OASIS from the beginning.  But Dave always saw far beyond that, understanding intuitively that bringing people together was the important thing, not any particular technology or software package these people happened to be using.  He also does that in his ongoing efforts at ESRI’s NYC office, and in extracurricular work — for example, he volunteers with the Academy for Urban Planning, which has the only high school level GIS program in the city.  Dave epitomizes what I said about ESRI when Matt Arnn and I accepted the Municipal Art Society’s “Certificate of Merit” award for OASIS in 2001, that it’s a private company with a public conscience.
  • Individuals like Jane Sokolow, Bob Alpern, and Jack Eichenbaum – I’ve known Bob and Jack for years, and more recently Jane, and it’s been wonderful and enriching working with them together on OASIS.  Also, my colleague Christy Spielman was involved with OASIS at the start, designing the maps and managing the data and website.  But she’s been critical at coordinating and facilitating the various organizational partnerships that have developed through OASIS; those contributions have been as important as her GIS & graphic design skills.  And Dave Burgoon, who’s a dream to work with, has used his programming skills to make the new OASIS website worthy of this recent praise from a financial blogger at Reuters: “This is the most amazing map of NYC I’ve ever played with. Just, wow.”
  • Last but not least, the Forest Service itself.  When I first heard that the Forest Service was convening a meeting in 2000 to talk about mapping the city’s “urban canopy” (i.e., trees), I was skeptical.  I was most familiar with their work managing land in the western US or fighting forest fires, not working in cities, let alone New York.  But even then they had developed a strong argument for caring about trees and open spaces in urban areas – both for environmental reasons as well as for the ability to relatively easily engage large numbers of people in these densely populated areas.  Phil, Matt, Robin, et al. provided great and consistent support for OASIS in its early years and still value the benefits that this collaborative effort has provided.  It’s been terrific getting to know them and work with them.

Of course there are too many people and groups to mention in detail, so please visit the OASIS participants page to see the full list.  (And even on that page we’ve probably missed a few.) 

Although active participation in the steering committee has ebbed and flowed (it’s probably at a low point at the moment, with most of the effort going toward the website redesign), you can still get involved.  Here are some links with more info:

All in all, OASIS has made its impact felt – in me and my professional and personal relationships, in the work of many people and groups across the city, and hopefully beyond all that to the city and metropolitan region at large.  I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to have been (and to continue to be) a part of it all.

Online cartography for richly layered maps

Several recent items have called attention to the growing effort to make really good-looking maps online – see Matt Ball on the coming “cartographic explosion” and Peter Batty’s posts highlighting the great maps from OSM and CloudMade and of course Stamen Design (hardly an inclusive list, but it’s already a long-ish intro sentence).

It’s an exciting time for all that.  We’re hopefully moving well beyond the ubiquitous pushpins of more map mashups than we can count (no dig against Google Maps, but the pushpins can get a bit old — see EveryBlock’s insightful post about “Google Maps fatigue” and FortiusOne’s original — and on-the-mark — blog title “Moving Past Pushpins“). 

From what I can see, however, most of the latest online cartography efforts are focused on road-centric basemaps.  This is great, but there’s a lot more mapped information out there that eventually will be either layered on top of these basemaps or provided online directly.  And we’ll need good cartography to display richly layered online maps effectively.

I wanted to add a note about our humble contribution to that effort.  Our team at the City University of New York (and earlier at the Community Mapping Assistance Project, CMAP) has maintained an online mapping platform for the New York area since early 2001 called OASIS — the Open Accessible Space Information System.  OASIS displays open space resources (broadly defined) to help sustain these resources and visualize the nexus between community greening and broader urban planning issues.  The project is guided by a collaborative partnership of almost 60 greening groups, educators, individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies.


We recently completely revamped the website (see above screen shot).  The old site is at www.oasisnyc.net.  The new one is at http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/oasis/map.aspx (best viewed in Firefox but tested in IE 6 & 7, Chrome, and Safari).  Our cartographic challenge — as Christy Spielman, a long-time colleague who helped create the original version of OASIS, noted — was to create an interactive map that certainly included transportation features, but in a way that kept them in the background while emphasizing parks, gardens, housing, land use patterns, zoning, schools, and more – plus aerial imagery.

Also, the recent upgrade includes neat new data such as local environmental stewardship “turfs” (in partnership with the USDA Forest Service) and *very* historical imagery and data from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project — photorealistic imagery of Manhattan circa 1609 as well as layers representing eco-systems, soils, Native American trails, and the 1609 Manhattan shoreline (more on Mannahatta in a separate post — it’s an amazing project). 


So we needed to figure out styles and colors and scale dependency that would work together (we have easily more than 4 dozen layers with distinct map styles), allow room for more layers of data in the future, and potentially be able to integrate data feeds and user generated data on the fly.

I think we did ok, though there’s always room for improvement (feedback is welcome!).  Christy (and I, though to a lesser extent) spent many hours developing color styles and symbology to find the right ones that worked well together.  We used ArcGIS to develop the maps (we’re most familiar with that, and it was quicker than having to learn SLD customization, for example).  We relied heavily on ColorBrewer, an amazing resource for GIS color symbology. 

ESRI’s New York City office — in particular, Patrick Gahagan – also helped us by providing ArcGIS techniques to create the map of subway stations and routes, and providing a DEM mosaic that we used as a backdrop for the new OASIS map.


Cached tiles were key, but deciding which layers to cache and which ones to be dynamic was an involved process.  We wanted to preserve as much flexibility for the map user while of course trying to speed up performance.  We ended up caching most of the transportation data (with the option to turn on/off the entire transporation cache layer) as well as the land use information – lot boundaries, building footprints, and parcel-by-parcel color shading. 


The parcel and building footprint layers were the most cumbersome as dynamic layers, each of them with literally a million features, so the performance gain by caching them was huge.  But Dave Burgoon (who coded the site from top to bottom – more on his impressive work in a separate post) customized the “land use” section of the legend to enable our users to display either the entire cached land use layer or to display each land use category dynamically (see screen shot below). 


This was a good compromise between performance (showing all land use patterns at all scales) and user flexibility (showing one land use category at a time dynamically isn’t too slow, and enables people to see all the commercial property versus residential versus industrial at a time).

The tiles, btw, were generated with ArcGIS Server and integrated into the map directly via OpenLayers.

We also took a page from the O’Reilly book “Designing Web Interfaces” plus Axismaps (who helped design GeoCommons Maker!) plus MapTube – and created a “dynamic transparency” tool that can accomodate each map layer on OASIS. 


The ExtJS transparency tool allows for a smooth, real-time transition as you slide from fully opaque to 100% transparent.  It makes for a powerful user experience.  The relevant quote from Designing Web Interfaces

Things move smoothly in the real world.  They do not “pop up”.  Transitions smooth out the jarring world of the Web, making changes appear more natural. (p. 233)

… and from Axismaps:

The transparency control lets mapmakers decide what works and what doesn’t.

Hopefully the cartographic result works well.  We’d love to know what you think!