Interactive Digital Maps Show City's Changing Landscape

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You still see lots of tourists unfolding and refolding paper maps on New York City streets, but most of us use applications on our smartphones to find the closest subway stop or Starbucks.

This week on WNYC's New Tech City, we look at how digital maps are changing the way we interact with the world and understand history.

Thanks to Google Earth and other map platforms, it's easier than ever to overlay your own data on a digital map, says Steve Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research.

But all this open-source mapping means that complex data can be quickly simplified, which can lead to problems.

For more on that, read Romalewski 3,500-word blog post of "cartographic observations" on flaws in the methodology behind WNYC's own map of where guns were recovered during NYPD stop and frisks.  

Romalewski also cites Mark Monmonier's How to Lie With Maps as an old but good reference on the dangers of sloppy mapping.

Meanwhile, as cleanup after Sandy continues, the U.S. Geological Survey and Google have published interactive maps that show the coastline before and after Sandy.

Some of the pictures are pretty shocking, and drive home the sad fact that rebuilding in some areas may not be an option.

Sandy certainly made me think about how our city's topography has changed. My neighborhood in Brooklyn — Cobble Hill — takes its name from a hill that used to sit at the site of the Trader Joe's at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Who knew?

The New York Public Library's Map Division is re-engineering lots of New York City maps for the 21st century through "geo-rectification." That's a process where maps — some of them hundreds of years old — are digitized, layered on top of each other and made searchable.

Cartographer and geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen showed me where the Brooklyn Bridge was built on the Manhattan side and then peeled back some map layers to show me the site of George Washington's home. Pretty cool.

“It allows us to create really a virtual model of the past from a number of old maps,” Knutzen said.