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My OpenStreetMap transformation and it’s impact on Open Source public transportation

“Q66, Q101…no shelter…has bench”


For those reading and raising an eyebrow from the quote and image above please allow me to explain.

I’ve become an OpenStreetMap addict.

Like many of my predecessors I was introduced to OpenStreetMap in the university setting. Volunteered Geographic Information, the bottom-up data created by volunteers. As my previous post explains I was enrolled in a certification program for GIS and graduated in May 2017. Since obtaining the certificate a couple things have happened:

  • The New York City chapter of OpenStreetMap launched an initiative to help map bus stops. You can think of this as a bus stop/route “map-athon”
  • I downloaded a slew of apps like OSMand and Mapillary to improve my experience with OpenStreetMap
  • The 2017 Hurricane season and my 2018 trip to San Juan

New York City hosts some of the best minds in the geospatial industry. Check out the Meetup pages for GeoNYC and Maptime NYC to get a sense. Several months ago I connected with Alyssa Wright at geonyc. She mentioned that the OpenStreetMap NYC meetup was planning to address the lack of mapped bus stops around the country. That meetup was hosted at Pratt’s SAVI in Brooklyn, NY. Thanks to the power of delicious food, a couple friendly faces (including Bryan Housel and Janine Yoong) I acquired a hefty sack of tools to get started.

Then the 2017 hurricane season shook the Caribbean and the United States by storm.

On September 20th 2017 the category 4 Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. Prior to this eventful day the Island of Enchantment was suffering from a stark economic crisis and Hurricane Irma. This culminated into one of the worst humanitarian crises in 2017. I cannot imagine how terrible the experience was for my family and friends on Puerto Rico at the time but being cut off was definitely one of the worst feelings for those watching from New York, Florida and elsewhere. With no phone contact we only saw the aftermath on news stations and occasionally a tweet or instagram post would go viral. The feeling of hopelessness and despair set in.

That is until OpenStreetMap presented an opportunity to help.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) along with the American Red Cross and FEMA coordinated an effort to map buildings pre-Maria to help first responders reach poorly mapped areas in the interior and assess total damage. The HOT task manager page listed the different parts of the island with an urgency and skill level to help match mapping needs to expectations. Also listed were tasks in Mexico that were affected by the catastrophic earthquake and other Caribbean islands impacted by the hurricanes. HOT volunteers got busy drawing building footprints at college campuses, cafes or at home. Several weeks later every single building on Puerto Rico was mapped.

As I reflect on this experience I want to stress was how much I learned about the different communities and seeing the diversity of urban design on the island. Aerial imagery reveals so much about place as well as seeing it firsthand on the ground. I would later use this experience to help me when I visited several months later.

Now fast forward to February 2018. My friend Lorena Matos graciously invited me to her town of Santurce to see the island and spend money at the local businesses. I went from the computer screen to the Luis Muñoz Rivera International Airport. As the plane made it’s descent you could see the blue replacement roofs everywhere. They served as stand-ins for roofs that had been heavily damaged or completely removed from the gale force winds.

Before leaving from Newark International airport I was informed that phone and internet access would be limited. One of the impacts of the storm was extensive damage to the telecommunications infrastructure and power lines. So I downloaded an export of Puerto Rico OSM data onto my OSMand mobile app. This allowed me to interact with OpenStreetMap data offline. All I needed was a charged phone and I was set.

I want to talk here about Transportation in Puerto Rico. Uber is very popular and buses are not. For many residents driving is the first choice for transportation and other options are not widely used. As an avid cyclist commuter in New York City I wanted to try my hand at biking in San Juan. Luckily for me, Lorena had a spare bike that I could use while she was at work. Unlike past visits to Puerto Rico I had complete freedom to explore. Old San Juan and Santurce no longer felt cut off. Puerto Rico is perfectly suited for bicycle commuting and tourism as destinations are densely packed and the temperature is pleasant year round. The only thing you really need to worry about are the unpredictable downpours.

While I was there I decided I would contribute street imagery for the local Puerto Rico OSM community. Mapillary and OpenStreetCam are two tools available to provide street view coverage of places for anyone to view. Much like Google Street View you can take photos and then share. What is nice about Mapillary is the time travel feature. As long as the area had been covered before you can look at views and see how they’ve changed over time. Google already has this feature but doesn’t update their street view often enough. So that’s what I did. Check out this link to experience it yourself. Also experience the drive of @4004young 10 days after Hurricane Maria.

Avenida Juan Ponce de Leon as seen from a bike – @daalso

Drive through Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria – @4004young

Sadly, I didn’t stay long enough to contribute more than the occasional bike ride. The green dots and lines show coverage. If you are planning to visit Puerto Rico in the future be sure to spend money and also consider contributing street view imagery. It really does help.

So I’ve touched on the three points from before. But how is this all related to the opening phrase and weird drawing? I was getting there. The OSMand app allows you to add a vast array of points of interest like a coffee shop, a mailbox and many others. I primarily use it for bus stops, bike racks, survey benchmarks, drinking fountains and public toilets.

The voice recording feature is the best feature for mapping on the go. For bus stops simply press and hold a spot on the map, press the voice record option and state what you want to add at a later time (ie route info, presence of a shelter and/or bench and handicap accessibility). This turns out to be perfect as bus stops tend to occur at corners in dense urban settings. Most of the time bus stops posts will be about 15-20 feet away from the corner, its name will be the same as the street it is on followed by the perpendicular street. This is the New York City model. In other places I learned it isn’t as intuitive. You’ll be greeted with an unhelpful ‘Bus Stop’ sign with no additional information. What does that even accomplish? NOTHING!

In closing OpenStreetMap is an incredible opportunity to add your knowledge for the larger community to use. The effort to map buses and public transportation stops has come a long way thanks to a coordinated push by the community and an impressive array of technology. However we’re still far away from a complete public transport map. Many public transport stops have not been added yet or updated with attribute tags to make them useful. Simply adding a name helps with indexing and performing SQL queries in a database for future analysis. As more volunteers create accounts and add their knowledge I see a bright future for the map and bus service nationwide. Companies are investing capital to make buses work better. In fact as I was preparing this post a CityLab article published by Laura Bliss shares the community effort taking place at some university campuses. If you want to see bus ridership improve then get started and help map bus stops in your neighborhood.

Check out this overpass turbo snapshot of Manhattan bus stops.


But of that collection here’s how many have a Manhattan bus route tag associated with it. Let’s change that!



An Injection of life blood and a cramped wrist

Far Rockaway

I thought I should get back on “A Geographer’s Tale” since I started at Hunter College for the professional certification in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The aim is to enter the GIS profession with up-to-date skills. But before we get there we need to explore the journey. A geographer is interested in change over time.

Yes I’ve got some catching up to do. Since my last post in 2013 I began work as a Reading Literacy tutor at a Far Rockaway school. I was working with about 5-6 tutors and providing a reading intensive workshop oriented towards students in the sixth and seventh grade. I enjoyed working with the school but the pay was too low for what I was tasked with. The turnover was too high for a regular job. People didn’t stay long with the high stress conditions at the school. Stress and low pay. Not a good combination for long term work.

Around the same time I joined forces with the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a local non-profit that seeks to connect the community to the environment. Rockaway is a peninsula that separates the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay and the rest of Long Island. I was a Living Classroom educator that would periodically visit schools and share STEM based material with the local school kids. It was a lot of fun and allowed me to teach things that I enjoyed teaching. If that doesn’t already sound like the coolest thing then there is more coming. My boss, John Cruz, saw that I studied abroad in the Netherlands back in 2011. He invited me to take the lead on the Global Exchange program. In July 2015 I would be leading 11 students and 2 other adults on an adventure into Rotterdam and Amsterdam, NL. In the months leading up to the trip I was responsible for developing a curriculum that introduces important concepts pertaining to flood water management and culture. RWA Global Exchange. That was a lot of fun and I even got to see old friends my Erasmus.

As I write this post Hurricane Joaquin is making his way north up the Atlantic coastline. Meteorologists report statte the storm path is diverting away from New York but I don’t want to rest until I know that for certain. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy caused a mess of problems and the aftermath was nightmarish. For two weeks we didn’t have electricity and the temperature was dropping. I cannot imagine what the storm was like for the Rockaways.

In the summer of 2014 I enrolled for summer classes at Nassau Community College. I biked from North Woodmere to Garden City (12.5 miles each way). At the school I took three courses: Meteorology, Physical Geology and Oceanography. The Oceanography course was the worst because it was a distance learning course that I did little in until the last two weeks. My favorite part of that experience was going to school again. I realized that I miss taking some courses in subjects that I am interested in. The best part was that my professors didn’t mind that I brought my bike into class every day. I got praised for being the crazy bike man who always bikes to work/school/whatever. Meanwhile all my classmates were driving to a parking lot every day and blowing money. The visitor pass cost $50, gasoline was bordering $3.50 a gallon during that period and you lose time to look for a parking. Meanwhile I rolled into school and had no problems. That a sad summer for me because I had got a bike from a friend for free. It was a old green hybrid bike. The mechanic said that the owner had rode the bike to death. There was so much gunk building up it wouldn’t make sense to invest money into fixing it up.

home to ncc

At the end of the summer I signed up for the 25th NYC Century tour. It is a 35, 50, 75 or 100 mile bike event going through some of New York’s most diverse and scenic neighborhoods. At the end I asked questions like : “why does’t North Woodmer have any bike lanes?” or “Why don’t most people do this activity as their preferred mode of transportation?” That is when I did a google search and found Transportation Alternatives. This group was what I had envisioned when I came back from the Netherlands. People who believe that streets should be redesigned to make the streets safer places for families who live nearby. I asked about a possible bike lane that ran from Howard Beach to the Five Towns shopping center by Meadowmere. I got a lengthy reply from several advocates that today I see often. The most important was Joby Jacob, a biology professor that is passionate about transportation. He told me about the city’s plan in 2000 to make a bike lane extend from Highland Park to Rosedale (my closest Queens neighbor) to Bayside where I used to sell insurance. It would extend 32 miles. This would keep me busy for the long run. Joby and others also invited me to attend the Transportation Alternatives Queens meeting in Jackson Heights. The people get together to discuss campaigns that they have been involved in for years. FOR YEARS. Queens Boulevard earned the reputation as New York’s most dangerous street. Community newspapers dub it the ‘Boulevard of Death.’ With the hard work of activists and progressive thinking elected officials the city allocated 100 million dollars towards the redesign of Queens Boulevard.

I got so inspired that I started Southern Queens Greenway. The group (my other WordPress page) wants to expand pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in Southern Queens. South of Jamaica and East of Howard Beach there is no subway service while buses are slow and often overcrowded. When I don’t ride to the city I hope on the Q111 to Jamaica and get squeezed by the South Jamaica community along Guy R Brewer Avenue. If a bike lane could bring people in Southern Queens to their destination then buses may get some relief and biking to nearby trains could improve the multi-modal character of the region. Though I don’t think the original route drafted by the DOT, City Planning or Parks Departments is a gold standard I think it is good for starting a conversation with the community and elected officials. It has been slow thus far since we don’t have a strong volunteer base yet but I am confident that as people begin to see the benefits of biking in NYC they will slowly want to make Southern Queens Greenway happen as much as I do. If you’re interested in learning more about send me a message!

Lastly I am a Youth Counselor at the Queens Library for Teens in Far Rockaway. The funny thing is I haven’t moved out of Rockaway yet. First I was on Nameoke St then Beach 60th St and now Cornaga Avenue. The main difference between the Tutor job and the youth counselor is the $25 dollars an hour. That’s not bad. Only wish that it was a 40 hour per week job.

I will end here because I want to give your eyes a break from all the reading you have done already. I’d like you to come back and visit again when new content gets uploaded. I was inspired by all the great blogs that I saw on GIS, on travel, on photography and decided that I’d like to get on the keyboard once again. It’s good to be back!

Long Island geography trivia gone wrong!

Hello WP. Today I will share an embarrassing story about what I learned about Long Island geography today. Embarrassing story? Losing a game of town boundary trivia to your mother. We argued over where the boundaries for Far Rockaway, Queens (NYC) and Lawrence, Nassau County meet on Long Island NY. To orient yourself this is located just a few short miles Northwest of Long Beach, NY and on the farthest South & East of NYC.

As we were drove from B. 9th Street towards Central Avenue and then Rt. 878 (Nassau Expressway) I mentioned we are leaving Queens and will be in Nassau after crossing the main road. My mother, in the drivers seat, said I was mistaken and that we entered Nassau before crossing the expressway. She is so sure of her knowledge that she makes a wager. $20 if she is correct about her claim. As the geography student I gladly accept this challenge. I know what I am doing, right?

5 minutes and $20 later I realized I made a fateful error. My Android phone which pulled up the appropriate map of the Jewish settlements and synagogues also happened to include a boundary line running directly down the center in between Lawrence and Far Rockaway. Take a look at the two maps. One is a screenshot of the Synagogue map and the other is a screenshot of Google Maps. What do you notice? Its painful to admit but I was incorrect.ImageImage

Breakfast recipe


Taking a short break from the birthright series to show you this doodle from today.  I’m big on food and an artist from time to time. Here you have a basic bagel and egg sandwich recipe.Recently I discovered that not a whole lot of people enjoy eggs with ketchup. It’s eaten often enough at our house. The recipe itself is as straightforward as preparing a bowl of cereal but with my own ‘artistic’ touch I made an an original piece. Bon appetit!

Birthright to Israel (Part 2/Day 1)

Day 1 – JFK International Airport/Ben Gurion International Airport/Soldiers/Ein Gedi/First Kibbutz:
It’s 3:00PM EST on June 16th,2013 in New York and at last I finished packing for my birthright trip to Israel. So far so good. Now off to the airport. Only twenty minutes later I arrive at my terminal, #4. When the automatic doors slid open the following sight bewildered me: young adults with variously sized suitcases were scattered in random ripples in every corner of the scene. I had no inkling how many people were going to Israel for their free Birthright trip with me. There were over 150 individuals scheduled to leave on the same El Al flight. El Al for those unfamiliar is a Israeli airline that flies directly in and out of Israel to the United States as well as parts of Europe, Latin America and Asia. Prior to leaving I had heard some horror stories. One rumor that each plane comes equipped with missile evading flares suggested that I would witness some dramatic maneuvers to avoid spinning out of control and hurdling fatally towards the ground or water. The other rumor, that indeed manifested itself, was that I would be pulled aside to be interrogated by the El Al staff. Within the first 45 minutes in the terminal I got to experience just that. Security, for obvious reasons, was tight. A bald, suited man leveling at 6’0 (183cm) questioned me for over 20 minutes with subjects such as profiency in Hebrew, the details of my suitcase, who packed it, if and when I had a bar mitzvah. He later asked me to step aside before boarding to answer even more unnerving questions. By the time I boarded the plane I was drained.

Flying was another beast. In the 9 hours we spent in the air I only achieved a record low 10 minutes of sleep in 20 minute intervals. Why? Because the genius authoring this narrative wanted both black coffee and black tea with a little break in between at 11pm – 12am. I like to think I am a smart guy sometimes. With this decision I gazed on with jealous eyes at my new acquaintances sleeping soundly cursing the decision with each passing second. On the bright side I did meet some of my best friends from the trip. Drew Smith, an art teacher living in Virginia, shared some great conversations with me. I thought of her as an older sister. Her older brother, Brett, based in California, slept the entire trip. A part of me wanted to wake him just for kicks. Glad I didn’t. More on the friends later. The plane in this section of the story is landing and will eventually pass the baton to the next scene.

Eventually the torture ended because after those nine hours the plane landed. Disappointingly, Ben Gurion International Airport didn’t seem so different than a regular airport in any other country I have been in. Heathrow (London), Schipol (Amsterdam), Flughafen Bremen (Bremen), Aeroport d’Eivissa (Ibiza), Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (Rome) or any other airport in the United States. The only difference but no less significant is the prevalence of Hebrew everywhere. The neighborhood I live in on the south shore of Nassau has Hebrew lettering there too but this. What the heck do all those signs mean? Unlike in Europe–where I was able to get by with a mediocre guess on pronunciation–here I couldn’t pretend to know what sounds to make. I just silently tagged along with my group leaders for fear of getting separated. When you travel to new places and are not comfortable in new settings the experience can be scary or worse. Fortunately Israel comes equipped with a unique trilingual heritage evidenced by almost every road sign: Hebrew, English and Arabic. English phonetics helped somtimes but Arabic was the closest I could get. I don’t speak a word of Arabic  beyond shokran, afwahn and habibee but I knew enough about the alphabet to pronounce words intelligently. Later on we met our group leader, Pauline and the 6 Israeli soliders. Alex, Ron, Eshed, Nagev, Shir and Nir. 5 guys and 1 girl. In this short introduction we got a taste of the true dry Mediterranean climate. Three things you should know when coming to Israel: apply buckets of sunscreen to your exposed skin every hour, drink infinitely more quantities of thirst quenching water and wear something resembling and acting as a hat. Again I shall repeat these almighty words: SUNSCREEN, WATER and HAT. New to me was the New Israeli Sheqel (NIS) or Sheqel for short, the Israel currency. The exchange was 3.65 NIS to the dollar. “Sounds to good to be true, what’s the catch?” the Israeli mindset that we all soon adapted. My first purchase, a regular bottle of water from a vending machine. The price? 7 NIS. Now for some math. Take 7 then divide (÷) by 3.65 and you already spend almost $2 on one bottle of water. Lets not forget we haven’t left the airport yet and most airports know that your consumption options are greatly limited. My saying for this as well as any following instances in the heat: “Don’t bargain with your basic need for water in the desert”. With a few more rules and provisions we are finally off. We are now in Israel. Next stop is the Ein Gedi towards the south.

When we reached the Ein Gedi two hours after leaving the airport I am immediately reminded of what I had just left behind. Stepping towards the edge of a cliff I think back to when I visited the Grand Canyon as a small boy. Back then I thought of it as a big hole in the ground serving no purpose other than a roadside attraction, which, like many, litter the Western USA landscape. Here I will include my most memorable quote as a reminder to myself–and for your personal entertainment–to appreciate everything that I have. I briefly will take you back many years ago now to a daylong drive from Phoenix, AZ my parents stop the rental minivan in a rocky parking lot next to a large crowd of people. Meanwhile I am playing a Gameboy in the backseat, probably Pokémon Gold version, completely oblivious to one of Earth’s greatest natural beauties. Tens of thousands of people visit the site  each year; some visitors come as far as Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Reluctantly and at the request of my parents I finally stepped outside and scuttled over to where the hype was coming from. I reached the gates barring me from a terrible drop to the Colorado River and stated with indifference, “Okay I saw it, let’s go!” Let’s imagine me now going in a time machine and punching mini me in the face. Only joking. If you go back in time, don’t kill me! I hope that little anecdote has compelled you to continue reading. Notwithstanding my past I can really appreciate the enormity of the United States of America after this trip to the Negev desert. Moving along we got our first lesson in the Torah. I think I can easily speak for the rest of birthright group when I say that standing where many Biblical events was mystifying and emotional. Hearing the Torah like any historical text makes you connect and appreciate with the place you are in. Sorry. I just shed a tear writing that last bit. Forgive me. Lets now move to the first Kibbutz.

Again I am reminded of the USA and again my mind is still in the Southwest. Our motel bears a deep resemblance to the Mesa style housing found in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Pheonix, Arizona. The architecture according to the internet far precedes the birth of Israel let alone the United States. Search Thomas Gifford and Architect on Google Images if you need visual picture. We got acquainted with our roommates and regrouped for dinner. I will spare the detail on the evening as I got a head start with sleep to be better prepared for tomorrow. My first night in Israel: Check!

Birthright to Israel

Organization: The Israel Experience
Dates: 16 June – 27 June 2013

Hah I finally got myself to sit down for a few minutes to write out an experience in full about a life event that began and ended over a month ago. The last time to write an online blog about a substantial trip was two years ago. That was my experience abroad in Groningen, the Netherlands. Initially I was quite active detailing everything, down to the minute. Reading it you felt like a new world opened up to me . Remember the emotion that surged through you when you saw those lifelike dinosaurs parade triumphantly the island in Jurassic park? My words made you believe you were there with me. Slowely, unfortunately, the detail began to wane and deteriorate as one whole day’s detail would later turn to a week of generality. The effort was good and some friends wrote great things to me. After a month…I lost the spirit.

Birthright as some of you already know is a collaboration between: private Jewish foundations, the State of Israel and the people of Israel meant to give young adults of Jewish origin with no idea about their heritage a chance to experience of it in a short 10 day period. With the amount of funds raised and all the agreements made between those collaborations the trip is absolutely free. Not a single penny. All the organization asks is you put down a $250 deposit which is refunded back to you when you return. Like most of my peers I didn’t readily believe this could even be; a trip of this value estimates nearly $3,000. Birthright and all of the organizers including The Israel Experience are in their 14th year and to date are just at the border of sending 500,000 students to Israel. A major feet indeed.

Without further delay I present my own Israel tale. My hopes of writing this are to inspire and to make you smile. You will understand right away how special an opportunity like this is. I did and I hope my cousins Ali Samantha and Warwick all decide give this a shot.

WordPress introduction. My first post

Hello WordPress community. My name is Daniel Alexander Solow but Daniel for shorthand. This entry is for you to learn a little about me and decide whether or not you want to continue reading the rest of this blog. This is my quick ‘elevator speech’ for you, my prospective reading community. I love sharing my thoughts with the world; anytime I: learn something, travel to a place new or familiar, or think up a great idea, it will end up here.

Writing this I am 23 years old and live at home on Long Island in the South East portion of New York State. In 2012 I graduated from the State University of New York at Geneseo with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography. Over that time I learned a lot about New York State, Western and Central Europe, different cultures close to my home and far away but most importantly I learned about myself. Ironically I learned about all this nice stuff and yet there are no jobs available.

I am also an artist in some respects. Using media including: Microsoft Paint, Pencil & Paper, Google Earth, Google Earth is a great platform to see the beauty of the world. Don’t be surprised if you see me also post pictures from websites. I give full citations but I like to show my thoughts about pictures that are great.

Anyways that’s enough bread and butter to wet your tongue. I’ll give you the rest later. Ciao!