Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GIS

This week I started volunteering my time and skills at the Norwood News, a bi-weekly community newspaper serving the northwest Bronx communities of Norwood, Bedford Park, North Fordham and University Heights. The Norwood News is also part of the Bronx News Network, a series of community papers serving various neighborhoods in the West Bronx.

One of the projects I’m working on is a series of maps of various districts in the Bronx, starting with city council districts.

The first map was to be a simple graphic with no animation or interactivity. The second would be a map of all the city council districts in the Bronx, with clickable regions and information boxes for each district.

I started out with Photoshop and some images from the New York City Campaign Finance Board (for future reference, images are located here).

After about 45 mins of tinkering, I realized that method wouldn’t work. At the size that was required for the paper, I couldn’t get enough detail for people to easily figure out where the district lines were.

My next attempt was to start drawing the districts in Google Maps. By hand. (Using the My Maps Shape function)

I got frustrated enough with that to do what I should have done at the beginning: send out the call on Twitter asking for maps.

Derek Willis was kind enough to respond with the shapefiles from the New York City Department of City Planning. (A later search gave me this response to a question on Yahoo! Answers, with a long list of maps.)

Now, one of the reasons this hadn’t occurred to me before is that I’ve never really worked with GIS data before. I don’t have any software for it, and neither does the Norwood News.

So at this point I had to get the shapefiles into a format I could actually work with, preferably KML, which works with Google Maps.

A quick Google search brought me to Conversion of Shapefile to KML : An overview of tools available. It looked like my only option would be GeoCommons, a free online tool that lets users upload data and create maps from it.

GeoCommons will also provide a downloadable version of the data is CSV or KML format.

After downloading the KML file and uploading it to my own server, I plugged the link into Google Maps to take a look at what I had: city council districts for New York City.

Now I needed to narrow it down to just Bronx districts. A simple matter of removing the districts I didn’t need from the KML file, which conveniently labeled each data set with the correlating district number.

NYC_citycouncildistricts_BronxIn the end, this project probably took 5 or 6 hours. If I hadn’t been muddling around so much, I could have done it in one or two. But now I have a file of all the Bronx districts in KML, which can be altered to remove or add as much information as I want. And to see it, I just have to enter the URL for my KML file into Google Maps.

I’ve missed doing this kind of work (lately I’ve been doing more writing and very basic computing tasks) and really look forward to doing more projects like this one at the Norwood News.