Steven Romalewski to GeoHipster: “If our maps help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled”

Steven Romalewski
Steven Romalewski | Credit: CUNY Graduate Center

Steven Romalewski directs the Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of NY (CUNY). The Mapping Service engages with foundations, agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and CUNY researchers to use spatial analysis techniques in applied research projects. They specialize in online applications providing intuitive access to powerful data sets, displayed visually through interactive maps and other formats.

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How (why) did you get into GIS?

A: In the late 1980s/early 1990s when I worked at a nonprofit environmental and consumer advocacy group (the New York Public Interest Research Group; NYPIRG), my boss was starting to use GIS for our work to help residents who were living near toxic waste dumps. Eventually he left to launch his own company using GIS in the environmental consulting industry. But he sparked my interest in GIS, and by the early 1990s I was using MapInfo to support NYPIRG’s environmental research and organizing.

Soon after that I was fortunate to be accepted as a Revson Fellow at Columbia University (the program no longer exists, but it was intended for mid-career urban activists). I spent the year exploring technology for community organizing (not just GIS but also the burgeoning World Wide Web, email, relational databases, etc). I enrolled in Columbia’s urban planning graduate program and for the next two years learned much more about GIS, census data, spatial analysis, and urban planning generally. All told it was a terrific experience learning about New York City, how cities around the world had developed, and acquiring GIS and data visualization skills and knowledge in the planning discipline.

While I was at Columbia, a colleague and I at NYPIRG created the Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP). It was a nonprofit entrepreneurial venture – we provided GIS services for a modest fee to other nonprofit groups in New York and across the country. CMAP lasted about eight years and we made maps and analyzed spatial data for hundreds of groups, large and small, in all areas of nonprofit work: education, health care, transportation planning and advocacy, environmental groups, you name it. And we created several online mapping applications for “clients” (including NYPIRG), ranging from online maps that provided subway directions in New York City, identified elected officials based on a user’s street address, visualized green infrastructure, and more (several years before Google Maps, etc!).

Q: Tell us about your current job — overall duties, daily routine…

A: Since 2006 I’ve directed the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. The Mapping Service is part of the Center for Urban Research, one of the academic/applied research centers at the graduate school.

My job involves lots of things. I work with my staff colleagues (Will Field, our senior application developer, and Valerie Bauer, a recent graduate of Lehman College’s graduate-level geography program) on our projects, collaborate with our Center for Urban Research director John Mollenkopf on research initiatives, and help other CUNY colleagues integrate GIS into their work.

I’m the point person who interacts with our partner organizations outside CUNY including nonprofit institutions such as the New York Academy of Medicine or the American Museum of Natural History, national civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, or government agencies such as the NYC Department of Homeless Services of the NYC Campaign Finance Board.

We’ve developed projects with each of these organizations, either online mapping applications, static/printed maps, or services such as geocoding. I also manage our funding for this work, whether it’s grant support from philanthropic foundations, contractual payments for our services, or both.

In addition to managing all this work, I still use GIS on almost a daily basis, usually ArcGIS but sometimes MapInfo or QGIS. I work with the Graduate Center’s IT staff and my colleague Will Field to manage our web server environment. I help maintain our data resources.

Q: Tell us about the tools you use in your job. Where do you stand on the open source vs proprietary debate?

A: We use whatever works 😊.  We’re mainly an Esri shop as far as desktop GIS goes. I started using Arc products in the mid-1990s through nonprofit grant support from Esri. We’re fortunate that CUNY – the nation’s largest urban public university – has site licenses for pretty much all of Esri’s software products (CUNY comprises more than 20 individual colleges attended by more than 275,000 students, and GIS is used by students, professors, and researchers throughout the system.)

But we also continue to use MapInfo, mainly for geocoding and data management. We use QGIS and Postgres/PostGIS. Students working at our Center have used the spatial features of R to analyze data, and our colleagues at the Graduate Center make extensive use of R and QGIS as well as Esri’s software suite.

For our online mapping applications, we use a variety of platforms and technologies. Most of our applications are built around Leaflet, but some use OpenLayers. The Graduate Center server environment provides us with access to SQL Server, but we’re starting to use PostGIS for our online maps. Although we have a local instance of ArcGIS Server and we use ArcGIS Online to provide spatial data sets for our online maps, more and more we are using other options such as GeoJSON, SQL Server’s spatial features, and other online providers such as Mapbox and Carto.

Q: Do decision-makers pay attention to your work? I just learned (ht Joshua Stevens) that John Snow knew water was the source 5 whole years before he commissioned his cholera map from cartographer Charles Cheffins.The map was used to convince authorities and the public. Do today’s authorities listen? According to anecdotal evidence, policy makers in New Zealand take the advice of science researchers ~80% of the time, versus less than 20% in the US. What is your experience?

A: We tend to work on projects that decision-makers need, or that organizations want to leverage in order to make the case to decision-makers. In our work, decision-makers typically pay attention and respond to the maps we’ve produced (either for our partners, or in our own research).

For example, we provide maps for the NYC Department of Homeless Services that visualize the locations of shelters and facilities providing temporary residences, along with nearby services such as schools, other housing developments, parks, etc. In recent years these maps were used at the highest levels of policy debate to help restructure how New York City addresses the homeless crisis.

A major project we’ve been working on since 2016 has been the 2020 Census. We created an online map for census stakeholders across the country to prioritize census outreach and track the progress of census self-response (originally the self-response phase was going to be a month and a half, but due to COVID-19 it ended up being extended over 8 months). Our map was used by state agencies and local governments coordinating census planning (the State of Hawaii embedded the map at their census website), Census Bureau staff used the map, the House Oversight Committee and other congressional subcommittees referenced the map in news events and reports about the census, foundations supporting census stakeholders used our map to help guide their funding, and the many hundreds (thousands?) of groups across the country leading the effort to boost census self-response relied on our map, often on a daily basis. (The Census Bureau had several online map applications of its own for the 2020 Census, but ours combined all the data and features – and more – from the Bureau’s maps into one website, was easier to use, and was more flexible and responsive to community needs.)

Another local example is our collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s “Age Friendly NYC” program contacted us a few years ago for help in visualizing demographic patterns of the 65+ population across New York City, compared with services and other programs of interest to this population. We created the “IMAGE NYC” online map to support the Academy’s work in this area, and the map has been used extensively by philanthropic foundations, city agencies, and nonprofit groups.

Q: Authorities were “surprised” when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, even though spatial analysis models had been predicting such an event for decades. Have things changed since 2005? To judge from a recent Sharpie map action, they have not. Why are we even doing what we do if the consumers of our output — the policy makers — ignore our product? I sometimes ask myself “What’s the point?” Don’t you?

A: Maps are incredibly efficient visuals (when done right). And the analysis of spatial patterns in data is fascinating and powerful. But an effective map or analytical model doesn’t really matter if the policy makers aren’t paying attention or don’t want to pay attention. I think that’s best left for a larger discussion about politics and the potential for sustained community organizing and advocacy to make a difference (whether maps are involved or not).

Q: I got into GIS from planning, where GIS was lauded as a technology which would evolve beyond mere mapping into a decision-support system, and ultimately become a decision-making system. Are we there yet? Will we ever get there?

A: GIS-made maps, spatial analysis models, and online interactive mapping applications are pretty ubiquitous these days. It seems to me these efforts to understand real-world spatial patterns and trends have become integral to so many industries and government infrastructure. Take COVID-19 as an example. Almost from the start of the pandemic, organizations such as Johns Hopkins Institute and The New York Times used maps to visualize the spread of the virus. When New York City started publishing local data on positivity rates and other metrics, journalists and the public demanded that the data be mapped and that the city share its data publicly using small-area spatial units (the city is using ZIP Codes, but there’s an ongoing debate – at least on Twitter! – about the pros and cons of ZIP Codes versus neighborhood areas, census tracts, etc.). When the vaccine(s) are available, I’m sure GIS will play a key role in determining how it (or they) will be distributed locally and globally (Esri is already touting this.)

Q: You are a media celebrity in the area of election mapping, census mapping, COVID mapping, voter registration. From 1984 when you appeared on the front page of the New York Times, through your NYT analysis of the AOC surprise upset victory in the 2018 primary, to November 2020 where you offer voter turnout analysis for the Gotham Gazette and your FAQNYC podcast, you are the go-to person for in-depth discussion of all things public policy/geospatial. Has CNN called yet? John King’s magic map wall is getting long in the tooth… Would you say yes if they called?

A: One thing I learned at NYPIRG was the importance of the media, and how to present your work to journalists so they would want to use it for their stories.

You’re generous to say that I’m a media celebrity, but I’m much more interested in making sure our maps get covered rather than me. I work hard to make sure journalists are familiar with our work and how maps can help them report on stories. I’m not as interested in getting quoted myself (I had my share of that for the 20 or so years I worked at NYPIRG – I was quoted in news articles, TV reports, and radio all the time), but these days if our maps are cited or if they help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled.

Also, my work with GIS at the CUNY Graduate Center (just like at NYPIRG) is very much a collaborative effort. I might be the one getting quoted in an article, but we couldn’t do this work without the support and involvement of lots of people and organizations: so many folks at the Graduate Center itself and CUNY overall, our partners for whom we make the maps, our funders supporting our work, etc. 

One point to note about media coverage is that it is sometimes hard to get reporters interested in the maps themselves, partly (I think) because maps, online or otherwise, are so pervasive. But we’ve had some notable exceptions. In 2016 when we launched an online map for the NYC Campaign Finance Board showing the spatial patterns of campaign contributions for NYC’s 2017 municipal elections, a New York Times reporter was interested. The great thing for me was that our map itself was the story. The map made it easy for New Yorkers to see where funding was coming for local elections, and that was important enough to merit coverage in the paper of record.

An earlier example was in 2000 when the Times covered our CMAP project. It was newsworthy enough for the Times to write about how nonprofits in New York at the time were benefiting from “detailed maps using sophisticated Geographic Information Systems software” to support their advocacy work. It was wonderful to see that in the paper.

If CNN wants to improve on their election maps – or any other maps – we’d be more than happy to help them out!

Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipstery hobbies we should know about?

A: My teenage kids would be the first to tell you I’m decidedly un-hipstery. But a fun thing I’ve been doing for the past few years is (re)learning guitar. I grew up in a musical family and I learned piano at a young age, and I tried my hand at being a teenage rock n roll guitar player. After high school I put all that aside, but then my son’s middle school offered a music class. He needed to pick an instrument and chose guitar, so I thought I’d start taking lessons with him. Now I’ve got the bug, and I’m learning as much as I can about fingerstyle guitar (focused on the blues in all its variations and music theory and technique more generally). It’s a blast. I really love it, and it provides a great sense of accomplishment and helps keep me sharp (fingerpicking is hard, but really rewarding!).

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership? 

A: Plan ahead, but try to live each day to the fullest, whatever gets thrown in your path.

3 thoughts on “Steven Romalewski to GeoHipster: “If our maps help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled”

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