Through the 1990s, emergency service workers trying to respond to calls in New York City faced significant obstacles. Buildings were sometimes listed under as many as seven addresses, and reports on the physical structures often could not be accessed with any reliability. The city lacked a unified map of all of the buildings in the city, relying on antiquated systems that focused on individual streets or boroughs. Information was usually kept within single agencies and not shared between all interested departments. With incomplete information, unsafe structures and strange street patterns could jeopardize the safety of the workers themselves, as well as that of the people they were rescuing. The difficulties associated with responding to the 9/11 attacks only underlined deficiencies in the government's knowledge of the physical plant of the city.
This cumbersome system had negative effects for all levels of city government. Public health planning and emergency response services had to collect buried information in order to do any effective planning. City services frequently inspected the same building for similar safety goals without realizing that their efforts were being duplicated. Lack of easy access to information about what neighborhoods were served in which ways led to public reports that were confusing and vague. For instance, citizens wishing to understand the Mayor's Report on city services might find vital data reported only by borough.
By the beginning of 2002, the city had developed a streamlined and easy-to-use implementation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to combat all of these problems. The automated, web-based map arranges information by geographical location. The maps cover buildings, streets, and water and waste structures to provide a total picture of the city. All city agencies can access the data provided by other agencies. The GIS system is very easy to use; city employees not specially trained as experts in GIS report use the system frequently.
Citizens can now access reports on the activities of city services by neighborhood instead of by borough, greatly increasing public accountability. Emergency services can pinpoint the dangers they are likely to encounter when responding to any given call. Health services, police, city planners, and others can look at data to help craft strategies to improve their performance. Inspection agencies do not need to duplicate efforts because they can easily access the records of fellow agencies. Strategic planners can make more informed plans. The daily operations of the city have benefited greatly across the board from the implementation of a single new technology.
GIS technology has the potential to be a powerful tool for many American cities besides New York. After New York's adoption, several other large metropolitan centers, such as Chicago and Boston, have beefed up their abilities to use GIS technology to respond to public health situations and other disasters. New York officials are eager to help other cities, traveling to other states and even overseas to speak at conferences or offer aid.