CUSP map: taking a look under the hood of the city

CUSP map showing variety of problems and solutions: here, selecting 2020 flood plain and white reflective rooftops. (CUSP)

CUSP map show­ing vari­ety of prob­lems and solu­tions: here, select­ing 2020 flood plain and white reflec­tive rooftops.

From one per­spec­tive, New York City real­ly is an amaz­ing machine. 

For a pop­u­la­tion of eight mil­lion, every day, elec­tric­i­ty, clean water, and trans­porta­tion are sup­plied, and waste is tak­en away — large­ly with­out our atten­tion, except when the train is slow, or the city beach­es close after a heavy rain­storm. Or, in the case of Sandy, when the entire sys­tem shuts down from flood­ing, except for the mirac­u­lous cen­tu­ry-old water sup­ply.

A new online map shows some impor­tant fea­tures of the city and describes how we can respond to chang­ing cli­mate. The project devel­op­ers are a sci­ence team called the Cli­mate Urban Sys­tems Part­ner­ship, work­ing under an NSF grant:

The Cli­mate & Urban Sys­tems Part­ner­ship (CUSP) is a group of infor­mal sci­ence edu­ca­tors, cli­mate sci­en­tists, and learn­ing sci­en­tists in four North­east U.S. cities (Philadel­phia, Pitts­burgh, New York City, and Wash­ing­ton, DC.), fund­ed by the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion to explore inno­v­a­tive ways to engage city res­i­dents in cli­mate change issues.”

Maps for Pitts­burgh and New York launched ear­lier this year. In our city, the New York Hall of Sci­ence in Queens is the part­ner insti­tu­tion for CUSP. Chiara Zac­cheo sat down with Dustin Grow­ick, the first edu­ca­tor attached to the project.

New York’s CUSP map serves as an online hub and dig­i­tal plat­form for indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties in New York City to come togeth­er and share data, infor­ma­tion, sto­ries and visu­al­ize the changes relat­ed to cli­mate hap­pen­ing in our neigh­bor­hoods.

Cli­mate change is both a threat and an oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple to engage with their city, and the CUSP map demon­strates this link. I sat down with Dustin Grow­ick, a Sci­ence Instruc­tor at the New York Hall of Sci­ence to learn more about this excit­ing new resource for New York­ers:

What is the CUSP Map?

The CUSP Map is an inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal toolk­it. The CUSP Map gives peo­ple and the dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions work­ing under the umbrel­la of cli­mate change a place to real­ly start a dis­cus­sion about the ways in which cli­mate change already is, and will con­tin­ue to impact, New York City, the activ­i­ties we love, and specif­i­cal­ly, the city’s sys­tems upon which we rely.

The idea is to have a mar­ket­place for peo­ple to share ques­tions, ideas, con­ver­sa­tions, pro­gram­ming – events that are hap­pen­ing – that have some­thing to do with cli­mate change. To real­ly dri­ve home the point that when we think about cli­mate change as New York­ers, it’s not real­ly about a polar bear on a ice floe up in the Arc­tic, it’s about the way that more sev­ere storms are going to impact the city with effects like flood­ing, com­bined sewage over­flow, and things like that.

At the launch event it was said that CUSP edu­ca­tion starts with someone’s pas­sion. Can you expand on that idea?

Any­thing you can key as far as per­son­al rel­e­vance is going to res­onate with peo­ple. It goes back to – if I tell you we have to do some­thing about cli­mate change because there is this polar bear thou­sands of miles away – while some peo­ple might have some very hard, fast feel­ings about envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion or endan­gered species, that might not res­onate with them imme­di­ate­ly. Some­one who just enjoys bik­ing in the city might not be con­cerned with things hap­pen­ing thou­sands of miles away.

But if we step back we can talk about how the warmer our plan­et gets, the more mois­ture is going to be avail­able in our atmos­phere, we’re going to get stronger and more sev­ere storms as we have start­ed to see over the past cou­ple of years, which is prob­a­bly going to lead, as we’ve seen, to more flood­ing in our streets, more sewage being com­bined with water over­flow that then is pumped into our water­ways.

So, CUSP edu­ca­tion is show­ing peo­ple the ways in which cli­mate change con­nects to things that they are pas­sion­ate about.

When and how was the need for the CUSP map iden­ti­fied? What gap are you aim­ing to fill?

I think the major gap we are aim­ing to fill is that mid­dle ground between peo­ple who have a hun­dred per­cent buy-in – who rec­og­nize that cli­mate change is an issue and rec­og­nize how, where, and why it is affect­ing our city – and peo­ple who know kind of neb­u­lous­ly this is an issue and it is going to con­tin­ue to affect us but aren’t exact­ly sure in what way it will affect the city.  And even more impor­tant­ly, it’s for peo­ple who want to know the ways they can get involved.

We hear the sci­ence about cli­mate change a lot…but you know, if I’m a mom of two liv­ing in Wood­side, Queens: ‘A’ – how does cli­mate change specif­i­cal­ly affect me? and ‘B’ – what can I do per­son­al­ly to either help, get involved, spread the word, or what can I do as a home­own­er, an apart­ment own­er, to help try to mit­i­gate this prob­lem?

By def­i­n­i­tion it is a glob­al issue. So I think it is very easy for peo­ple to think of it as large and abstract, and what we are try­ing to do is try to bring it home to the per­son­al­ly rel­e­vant lev­el.

What was the biggest sur­prise for you when you put togeth­er the data?

There was so much out there. It is hard to fig­ure out what exact­ly is real­ly good and nec­es­sary, and will help peo­ple under­stand and visu­al­ize the prob­lem, as well as what is almost…too much.

I think that is some­thing sci­en­tists do a lot when we talk about mod­els, mod­el­ing dif­fer­ent com­plex sys­tems. There is tons of data out there but how do you boil that down to the most impor­tant points that are going to res­onate with peo­ple and help them under­stand the broad­er issue with­out feel­ing over­whelmed by infor­ma­tion?

I was unaware of how water runoff from sev­ere storms can lead to over­flow into our water­ways. The way com­bined sewage over­flows work is we have the same pip­ing sys­tem for sewage as we do for water runoff and storms. From a mod­er­ate­ly or mea­ger rain­fall they do not mix, and the treat­ment sys­tem can han­dle the amount of water, but when it is extreme, a lot of rain fast, the sys­tem is such that the storm runoff mix­es with sewage [and is released untreat­ed into water­ways].

That’s where you get the term com­bined-sewage over­flow. There are dozens of com­bined-sewage over­flow pipes along the Hud­son River, Jamaica Bay, and the East River.

On the CUSP map you can turn that lay­er on and see how close you might live to one. It is may­be the spot you do not want to be swim­ming in the day after a sev­ere storm.

What were some of the chal­lenges of putting togeth­er the data?

Fig­ur­ing out what kind of data we want­ed to use and fig­ure out exact­ly what would res­onate with peo­ple, and the best way to dis­play it. One chal­lenge we had is that to get some­thing like this rolling, we need­ed per­son­al rel­e­van­cy, and we talked about the idea of once you land on the map, you could zoom straight to your neigh­bor­hood and imme­di­ate­ly see what is going on in your neigh­bor­hood – the imme­di­ate impacts.

But this is sup­posed to be a cit­i­zen sci­ence map, where peo­ple load their own infor­ma­tion, so when you first start using it there is not a lot on the map. So it is kind of a chal­lenge to see where on the map we want­ed to start, before there is much data on the map.

The map includes in-depth sidebars on climate, energy and wastewater. (CUSP)

The map includes in-depth side­bars on cli­mate, ener­gy and waste­water. (CUSP)

What is an excit­ing fea­ture that the CUSP map offers that new users might not know about or is not obvi­ous when first using the map?

Two things: first, it is geared for peo­ple to add to the map, to add their sto­ry of cli­mate change in the city. Users can add their own data points, whether it is an obser­va­tion you made or some infra­struc­ture project you see going on in your neigh­bor­hood that allows peo­ple to fill in the gaps that we have in the data.

DEP does not have a full map of their bioswales, which are basi­cal­ly side­walk plant­i­ngs that allow for drainage water to be absorbed and pre­vent streets from flood­ing. We can use this tool as a place for peo­ple to make obser­va­tions and see those, and start fill­ing in the map.

We can actu­al­ly have a full map of all the dif­fer­ent types of green infra­struc­ture through­out our city.

Sec­ond, you can see future flood­ing and storm pro­jec­tions of where sea lev­el rise may be in ten, twen­ty, fifty years. Even more impor­tant for the next cou­ple years is where flood­ing is going to occur dur­ing the next storm. Users can turn on the Sandy flood­ing lay­er and see how far inland flood­ing occurred dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Sandy, and there are pro­jec­tions on how far flood­ing could occur dur­ing the next hur­ri­cane.

This is imme­di­ate­ly applic­a­ble for you if you live in Jamaica Bay, for instance, or near a lot of low-lying high­ways.

What do CUSP and its part­ners plan to do with the sto­ries, videos, pic­tures, and data relat­ed to cli­mate change that New York­ers upload to the map?

We hope that peo­ple start to see cli­mate change more as some­thing that is affect­ing us glob­al­ly as well as local­ly. An addi­tion­al ben­e­fit is that we have brought togeth­er small orga­ni­za­tions work­ing in dif­fer­ent parts of New York City, with often over­lap­ping mis­sions, that may have nev­er oth­er­wise come into con­tact with each oth­er, and that may have pro­grams that tie in real­ly well. This way we can get the word out to a larg­er audi­ence about the work that they do.

We like to think of CUSP not as a large project that is run by a speci­fic per­son. The ‘P’ stands for part­ner­ship. We try to get as many of those local, small­er orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er and see it as the whole is bet­ter than the sum of its parts.

Is there a speci­fic sto­ry that comes to mind that has been upload­ed on the CUSP map and stuck out to you?

There have been a cou­ple of points upload­ed by peo­ple show­ing sev­ere flood­ing on the high­ways – places that used to not flood after storms that are begin­ning to flood. Not only does that show me how it affects some­one try­ing to get to work and com­mut­ing but ulti­mate­ly the idea is to share the­se data points with the City to show where the places are that have issues that need to be addressed.

Is there a CUSP map appli­ca­tion (app) being devel­oped?

We do not have an app yet. Right now the inter­face works rel­a­tive­ly well on an iPhone. We are think­ing about mak­ing a mobile ver­sion so that it is a lit­tle more sta­ble. On your iPhone it does look fine, it isn’t per­fect, but you can add your data points and upload your data. As this is a pro­gram where we want peo­ple to make speci­fic obser­va­tions out in the field of New York City, I think it would be very help­ful to have an easy inter­face in your hand.

Com­ing back to the con­cept of neigh­bor­hoods and com­mu­ni­ties shar­ing infor­ma­tion, why is that espe­cial­ly impor­tant in fac­ing cli­mate change?

It is impor­tant for any issue. You have to make it per­son­al­ly rel­e­vant – the way it affects people’s lives on a day-to-day basis.

The ulti­mate goal of the CUSP map project is to help bring cli­mate change to a per­son­al lev­el to get peo­ple think­ing about and involved with the sci­ence of cli­mate change – how it will affect us and our lives here in New York City.

In addi­tion to that, we are already see­ing the Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (DEP) look at our map to see dif­fer­ent fea­tures of our green infra­struc­ture data set. We are see­ing the White Roof Project use the map as a place for peo­ple to upload white roofs through­out the city.

The City itself does not know how many white, blue, and green roofs there are in the city. This is a great way to fill in the gaps in the data from a lot of dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions. The City mov­ing for­ward is think­ing more and more about how do we imple­ment more green infra­struc­ture projects and get the city ready. The fuller the pic­ture you’re look­ing at when mak­ing those deci­sions, the bet­ter the plan­ning.

How can New York­ers get involved and spread the word, and along the same lines, how is CUSP reach­ing out to indi­vid­u­als in New York?

Indi­vid­u­als can become involved sim­ply by using the map, by upload­ing pro­grams, events, and map­ping obser­va­tions in their neigh­bor­hood.

There are already a lot of data points show­ing events and pro­gram­ming hap­pen­ing through our dif­fer­ent part­ners. So if you are curi­ous about what is being done or what pro­grams or events are hap­pen­ing with respect to cli­mate change in DUMBO, for instance, you can go on the map, find that area, and click on the data points and see what peo­ple in your area are con­cerned about and what events are hap­pen­ing.

The lead part­ner for CUSP is the New York Hall of Sci­ence part­ners who are doing awe­some work as it is, to help them get the work that they are doing out there, but also start­ing a con­ver­sa­tion between us, between them, and oth­er part­ners who are work­ing on sim­i­lar projects. A more col­lec­tive pow­er is going to be bet­ter than a bunch of indi­vid­u­al units try­ing to exact change on small neigh­bor­hood scales.

Say a New York­er looks at the map and sees the pro­jec­tions for 2020 are that her sub­way line might be heav­i­ly flood­ed dur­ing the next storm – this is impor­tant infor­ma­tion to know and to pre­pare for, but how can she turn this infor­ma­tion into a pos­i­tive action?

CUSP and all of our part­ners in New York have pro­grams that are list­ed. A lot of the­se pro­grams are about how you get the con­ver­sa­tion start­ing with the peo­ple that mat­ter, as far as deci­sion-mak­ing goes. The more of us that aware of infor­ma­tion, who to get in con­tact and how to talk to them about the issue, the BETTER. And the more like­ly we are to be able to address that issue. So if it is talk­ing to your local rep­re­sen­ta­tive or know­ing how to go about reach­ing and con­tact­ing the MTA for instance, that is a great thing.

We talk a lot in our work­shops about the lan­guage of cli­mate change and how to talk about this prob­lem in ways that res­onate, in ways that will help to enact change both on the neigh­bor­hood lev­el and the city lev­el.

One of the oth­er things that we are work­ing on with dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions is to design work­shops, fes­ti­vals, and out­reach kits – so that if you are an orga­ni­za­tion that does an envi­ron­men­tal fes­ti­val or you go to schools, we help to design hands-on inter­ac­tive work­shop fes­ti­val kits so that peo­ple will actu­al­ly have a tan­gi­ble way to under­stand the prob­lem.

We have a kit that mod­els the way that extreme storms are affect­ing our city and we have one that mod­els the hid­den [car­bon] costs of cer­tain types of food ver­sus oth­ers. We have work­shops about how you design and facil­i­tate engag­ing, hands-on expe­ri­ences that try show peo­ple the ways their lives are being affect­ed in a much more fun, hands-on inter­ac­tive way ver­sus for instance a video or some sort of scary mono­logue.

Is there any­thing else you would like to share about the CUSP map?

It just came out of beta mode, so we have been work­ing on get­ting it func­tion­al­ly right for almost a year now. We are excit­ed to see the ways in which peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions use it. Every­day when I open the map and see more data points, that’s a good thing! There are more and more data points being added every day, and there are more and more peo­ple con­cerned about the issue and want­i­ng to con­tribute to the con­ver­sa­tion. We start­ed CUSP because we want­ed to start a con­ver­sa­tion that mat­tered to New York­ers.

Take a tour of the CUSP map:

Top pho­to: Todd Narasuwan/