Give Tanks: Connecting the Dots with Fulcrum Community

March 17, 2017 by George Todorovic

Seemingly obsolete and prehistoric, more than 15,000 water tanks have been constructed in New York City since the advent of the elevator and they continue to be constructed to this day. The City’s municipal water system can only provide sufficient water pressure to buildings at or below 6 stories. Buildings above 6 stories rely on the physics of water tanks to provide adequate water pressure for faucets, showers, and sprinkler systems. Dotting the city skyline, water tanks proudly stand as independent structures while also being connected to an invisible system of aqueducts and watersheds. They are the lynchpin of New York City’s municipal water system which is revered as being one of the freshest sources of tap water in the nation.

An Opportunity for Crowdsourcing

Although there are thousands of water tanks in New York City, there are only two companies who construct and maintain its water tanks: Isseks Brother Inc. and Rosenwach Tank Co LLC. Neither of these companies, nor the NYC Open Data portal, possess a geospatial dataset for the water tanks built in the City. The only records of the water tanks in the City are kept as paper files by the two aforementioned companies. In addition to already having an Instagram page and a personal appreciation for water tanks, the lack of a cohesive dataset lead to my creation of the Give Tanks Campaign.

The Give Tanks Campaign was an initiative which used crowdsourcing to map pieces of urban infrastructure as well as highlight underappreciated elements of our built environment. The campaign allowed participants to test mobile collection software, receive prizes for contributing to the dataset, and attend three presentations which highlighted organizations who advocate for crowdsourcing and community engagement.

Using Fulcrum

Fulcrum was brought to my attention shortly after I thought of this initiative and I quickly chose it over Esri’s Collector app due to a few essential advantages. I also personally found Fulcrum to be more user friendly and easier to integrate with other applications.

Data Management

The template for Fulcrum was very straightforward and allowed me to create custom forms for data collection without extensive knowledge of coding or Python. The form required users to take a photo and record the location of each tank and allowed optional documentation such as the size, the material, the building height, and whether a tank had artwork.

Since the campaign gave prizes to users who created the most records during each leg of the campaign, I had to keep track of who created each record as well as the time and date each record was created. The easiest way to tabulate user records was by downloading CSV data at the end of each leg and filter using the ‘created by’ field in Excel. I was only able to view user data on Fulcrum’s desktop site but later found out there was a way to display it on the mobile app. User data can be displayed in the app by adding a ‘Calculation’ field to the form and creating a simple expression to pull the user’s name for each record created (USERFULLNAME()). Although this field can’t currently be filtered, it is a good solution to display user data within the app.

Locating Records

An essential advantage of Fulcrum was that it displayed buildings in 2.5D when a user swiped up on the map with two fingers (Google has great building footprint and height data for NYC). This perspective would help confirm the location of water tanks which may have otherwise been difficult to pinpoint due to terraced rooftops or parapets. The crosshair also allowed a data point to be recorded wherever the water tank was rather than at the location of the phone. This seemed to be easier when using Fulcrum than when using other data collection apps.

Locating Records

There were occasional issues with street addresses when the location of the data point differed from the location of the mobile device. Although the triangulated location of the data point was always accurate, the street address would occasionally differ if the address was not recalibrated by pushing the ‘auto-populate’ button in the address field. Since there were only 150 data points collected, this was not much of an issue but could become one with thousands of data records. Once verified, the data could potentially be integrated with PLUTO datasets or other shapefiles which contain building footprints and addresses.

Interactive Layers

Another benefit of Fulcrum was the ability to easily incorporate layers from Mapbox tilesets and easily export Fulcrum data points to CARTO. In addition to the basemap which is integrated within Fulcrum, users can create additional layers which highlight or display specific information.

I created a layer which only displayed buildings in NYC over 6 stories tall. Since water tanks are required for buildings over 6 stories, this ‘hot spot’ map helped users focus their attention on areas of the city with taller buildings where the concentration of water tanks was highly likely – a treasure map of sorts! This was another user-friendly addition to the app and allowed the data to interact with the built environment.

Interactive Layers

Beyond the Data

Acknowledging all the benefits of Fulcrum and the ways mobile apps have streamlined data collection, there was more to the Give Tanks Campaign than simply creating a dataset of all the water tanks in New York City. The dataset could of course be sold to the only two water tank companies in the City and used to optimize logistics, update maintenance records, and help coordinate new construction. However, this crowdsourcing initiative was also an opportunity to highlight essential yet underappreciated pieces of urban infrastructure. The Give Tanks Campaign used water tanks as both physical and theoretical platforms to advocate for crowdsourcing and community engagement.

Tank Art

Although the three month campaign is now over, there is a possibility to continue this initiative. The large presence of water tanks throughout New York City allows for a wide range of participation spanning multiple neighborhoods. To further facilitate this initiative, Fulcrum Community can help encourage a wider range of participation and increase opportunities for outreach. Even though only 150 data points were collected over the course of the campaign, Fulcrum Community has the potential to increase collaboration and improve data collection.

Combining Community with the sheer number of water tanks in New York City can create a platform for advocacy and discussion. Data can be collected for a functional purpose but the excitement and enjoyment of documenting the built environment can unite like-minded individuals who are passionate about a specific endeavor or topic.

Fulcrum Community’s ability to facilitate crowdsourcing and public participation is a valuable tool which can be used to not only create user-friendly datasets but to highlight elements of our local community and our cities which at times go unnoticed.

About the author

George Todorovic is a Brooklyn resident who is passionate about the built environment and currently is a City Planner / Urban Designer with the NYC Department of City Planning. He started a small initiative entitled TanksNYC, which utilizes under appreciated elements of urban infrastructure as both physical and theoretical platforms to advocate for sustainable urban lifestyles.

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