Crowdsourcing New York City’s High Speed Broadband Data While Building A Broadband Marketplace

When it’s time for your high tech business to move to a New York City address, one thing you’ll need is a high speed Internet connection. Looking at websites of available properties won’t help you learn which buildings have that service, but the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) New York City Broadband Map will.

NYCEDC Broadband Web App - top portion

The map-based application envisioned by NYCEDC is both an information portal and a marketplace for broadband services. The first version went live in December of 2013, and AppGeo and NYCEDC have been collaborating ever since to study and improve it, incorporating crowdsourcing and a new mapping platform along the way. This is the story of how vision became reality.

Step One: Gather Data From the State, City and Internet Service Providers

NYCEDC partnered with AppGeo in 2013 to build the application and the first order of business was data. NYCEDC and AppGeo tapped the NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT) and the City’s Open Data Portal for its building footprint data to provide information at that level of detail. NYCEDC was happy to use Google Maps for roads and other features as it provided a familiar, detailed view of the city as well as a well-known user interface. NYC programs WiredNYC and ConnectNYC, and the New York State Broadband Map also contributed data.

Collecting data about the existing state of broadband in the City was a bit more complicated. AppGeo reached out to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to obtain their authoritative data for commercial city buildings in whatever format they were available. This was not a one-way transaction; ISPs would receive value in return for sharing their data. When ISPs provide data they can receive requests directly from businesses using the application that want new or enhanced service.

Nearly a dozen ISPs stepped right up. After cleaning and enhancing the raw data, AppGeo loaded the ISPs’ data into a Google Maps Engine (GME) instance. A later update to the site enabled ISPs to sign up on the site to add or make changes to their coverage data on their own (see Step Two).

Step Two: Create a Crowdsourcing Capability

To fill in remaining data gaps, NYCEDC and AppGeo set out to ask those who know firsthand about broadband availability at the building level in the city, namely, those who own, manage or have businesses in New York City commercial buildings.

The application design allows landlords/building owners and tenants/businesses to contribute information on broadband services in the buildings they occupy, manage or own. And, as with the ISPs, there is an incentive. When landlords and business owners register they can make requests for broadband service and add comments. When tenants and businesses register, they can make requests for service expansion and upgrades.

NYCEDC Broadband Web App - providers information

When building owners and businesses express demand, it entices ISPs to participate. When a business requests service, not only are those requests added to the map, but they are actively sent to multiple participating ISPs. That way, ISPs get leads, and owners and businesses can make their needs known to providers creating a local broadband marketplace – potentially saving businesses from the task of googling ISPs in their area, going to websites, or making phone calls.

Step Three: Use the Right Technology

At the time of application development, the City of New York had an existing GME implementation which it used for a variety of mapping applications. To build the broadband application, AppGeo took advantage of GME to store and display data while using the Google Maps Application Programming Interface (API) to customize the data’s look and define the user experience. AppGeo’s experience with GME and its status as a Google Enterprise Partner sped up that work. Always seeking best of breed tools to each solution, AppGeo also mixed in open source tools, including Ember.js for designing interfaces to create a unique, clean interface.

Step Four: Upgrade and Enhance

Just as some application enhancements were launching at the beginning of 2015, Google announced that GME would be phased out at the end of the year. New York City’s information technology leaders spoke with a number of vendors and selected CartoDB as a replacement solution for some of their existing GME applications. NYCEDC was happy to learn that the change to CartoDB could add some new features to the application, but also pleased that the Google basemap would remain, so the look of the maps will not change.

As a certified CartoDB partner, AppGeo began preparing an update of the application that will run on the New York City CartoDB instance. The AppGeo team is looking forward to taking advantage of some of CartoDB’s features to add new data visualizations once the transition is complete.

Throughout the Project: Start Agile, Stay Engaged

Agile is a programming practice that involves lots of quick iterations that help ensure the final product meets the client’s needs. AppGeo chose to use collaborative agile methods to insure NYCEDC had lots of flexibility to tweak the application as it evolved during the early months of development and post-launch.

At the beginning of the project, the AppGeo team conducted a design workshop with NYCEDC to determine the core functionality of the web application. The team developed a number of mock up views of the user interface. Regular feedback from NYCEDC allowed AppGeo developers to build up application functionality through a series of iterations.

“A client’s vision for an application at the outset of a project often changes during the development life-cycle,” said David Breeding, Project Manager for AppGeo. “An agile development approach allows clients the flexibility to refine or even redirect the development process to help arrive at a final product that aligns with their vision and meets their needs.”

Staying engaged and “agile” from the outset right through launch meant that both NYCEDC and AppGeo were committed to continuous improvement, monitoring and experimentation. The goal was to learn what was working and make adjustments that maximize the utility of the application for all the stakeholders including NYCEDC, ISPs, businesses, building owners, consumers, the city and the general public.

“The collaborative development process was a great way to ensure that the site met all of our goals,” said Kat Lau, Senior Project Manager on NYCEDC’s Media and Emerging Technology team. “We couldn’t imagine all of the capabilities and features of the Map in a vacuum; similarly, AppGeo couldn’t anticipate all of our needs and preferences on their own. Working together with frequent meetings to review progress, approve mock-ups, and suggest adjustments allowed us to combine our respective expertise for some great results.”

Now: The App Today and Tomorrow

After a big spike in page views at launch, the New York City Broadband Map usage has settled down to between 75 and 100 visits and one or two data updates and comments per day. ISPs are still adding data. In fact, Bway.net recently used the data update tools in the app to add 500 properties where it provides high speed broadband.

“NYCEDC is pleased with the Map as it stands today, but we’re looking forward to continuing the collaborative process with AppGeo,” said Lau. “Tweaking and updating the site as our users’ needs evolve will help us make sure that the site remains a valuable resource for the business and telecom communities for years to come.”

With a migration to the CartoDB platform expected before the end of the year, NYCEDC will be ramping up for a marketing push to entice even more ISPs, building owners, and business users to visit and update the map. AppGeo is proud to have worked with NYCEDC on this important application and is excited to roll out a new version in the next few months.

“AppGeo has been a fantastic partner — always responsive to our needs and feedback, thorough and clear in their explanations, and diligent on following through with great attention to detail,” said Lau. “We have benefited greatly from the partnership and are excited to continue to work together.”

Summing Up: A Change in Thinking for Web Mapping Applications

The NYCEDC project reflects a change in thinking about traditional web mapping application design. It pays specific attention to the motivations of different audiences.

The thought process behind the website goes beyond technology choice, beyond user experience (UX) design considerations, and attempts to address the core information needs of different constituencies, in this case broadband providers, broadband consumers and building owners/managers.

The give and take of information through the Website creates immediate benefit to the participating parties, and wider benefits for the City in the form of better and more useful broadband service information Citywide. Now that is a Win-Win.

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