One of the things that I love about Orbitist is that it encourages me to get outside.
When winter storm Jonas dropped upwards of 30 inches of snow on the New York City area, I did what most other New Yorkers did — I stayed inside. I watched as the pictures from Central Park and local airports rolled in, and I watched from my window as my neighborhood disappeared under a blanket of white.
By Sunday, I wanted to go outside and see how much snow my neighborhood had accumulated and how well everyone was getting around. I grabbed my camera and walked north on Bushwick Avenue. As I took pictures of cars completely enveloped in snow, and streets that had not yet seen a plow, I started to think about the role that Orbitist could play when we think about citizen journalism. The rise of the I-report on local news has given a voice to audiences and allowed many stories, particularly weather events, to become conversations.
The thing about looking at a picture of someone’s back porch is that, while it is informative, it doesn’t necessarily give you precise geographical context. One of the biggest advantages of using Orbitist to document what you see around you is that you can do so on a map with great geographic accuracy.
As I walked north, I was able to document the conditions on a block-by-block basis. While plows had been up and down Bushwick Avenue many times, I observed that many of the side streets hadn’t been plowed at all. Additionally, many of the local business that had managed to open had cleared the sidewalks in front of their storefronts, but many residential property owners had not, making travel by foot difficult.
One thing I immediately noticed while trying to get around in midst of the dig-out after the storm was the state of pedestrian crosswalks. I experienced this obstacle at every intersection I crossed during my short walk through my own neighborhood and got to thinking about how a tool like Orbitist could be effective in sourcing data that municipalities don’t collect.
PlowNYC is a fantastic tool that demonstrates the utility of harnessing data and making it available to both the necessary governmental departments and citizens alike. On the site, you can learn about the designation of your street in terms of priority and whether a plow has come through during and in the aftermath of a storm. While this is a good resource, it doesn’t give you a complete picture of what the conditions on like the ground.
While PlowNYC displayed that primary routes such as Bushwick Avenue had been plowed many times during and after the storm, it also showed secondary routes that intersect with Bushwick Avenue had not received the same level of attention, suggesting difficult travel in those precise locations. As I walked up Bushwick Avenue and took note of the conditions on secondary routes, it became clear that pedestrians and drivers would struggle traveling through here due to piles of snow on side-streets and crosswalks that were created as primary routes were plowed.
From personal experience at Bushwick Ave and Ainslie Street and many other intersections, I can tell you that crossing the street was particularly treacherous for pedestrians, and remained so for a number of days after the storm.
One conclusion you could draw from this problem is that the decision to prioritize snow removal for vehicular traffic among primary routes caused some mobility problems for pedestrians, particularly the disabled and the elderly. I believe that demonstrating this issue on a large, yet local scale, in an easy-to-contribute and easy-to-consume fashion could lead to better action in the aftermath of future storms.
By the time I returned home, I had a better understanding of the conditions in my backyard, as well as the opportunity to document the state of my neighborhood, which I could combine with all of the other information streams regarding the storm that I would normally consume anyway.
This all leads be to believe that empowering people to report what they experience with geographic accuracy is the next step in citizen journalism and could inspire others to get outside and share what they're experiencing from the precise point in which they stand.
VIncent Quatroche is Senior Explorer at Orbitist. He hails from Western New York but has called New York City home since 2010. Have a New York City neighborhood that you want explored on Orbitist? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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