GIS Guides New York City Travelers — Literally

Try to get around a major metropolitan subway system. Typically you get a map that looks like some colored strands of spaghetti aggressive tossed down onto a board, often with confusing loops and intersections. And often when it comes to correlating the subway map to a surface one, the ease of use disappears and you’re lucky to know whether you should have taken the A train to reach your destination address.

Although GIS databases and visualization are mature technologies, making hardware work predictably in a subway is harder than it might seem.

Now try going to New York City. A new GIS-powered touchscreen system has begun to appear in railway stations — 18 kiosks in Grand Central last month. They’re a concrete example of how geographic and geospatial information systems can make a difference in so many different ways — and why GIS training can open doors for a career in virtually any industry.

Visitors will find them a boon, as anyone who has casually tried to navigate the transportation system in New York will know. Experienced and world-weary (and commute-weary) citizens already know where they’re going, but even they will be able to benefit from the systems. The 47-inch screens “will display departures, arrivals, delays and outages, as well points of interest.” In addition, there are safety and security reminders.

According to a Gizmodo writer, there was a long delay before the Metropolitan Transit Authority — the city agency in charge of the subways — began deployment. One trial deployment showed some shortcomings. Although GIS databases and visualization are mature technologies, making hardware work predictably in a subway is harder than it might seem. An initial design didn’t work because it depended on sensing vibrations from touch. People had to touch them more aggressively than a phone or tablet, plus there are plenty of vibrations in a subway station that confused the system. The user interface also needed work to be more intuitive.

The new version reportedly works far better, though still could be smoother in dragging the map and faster in calculating and displaying a route. People will also take some time to get used to the systems and actually begin to consult them on a regular basis. At least germaphobes might take comfort in a statement from Control Group, the company that designed the system:

One of the principles of our design was to minimize touch and gestures with one click navigation. Also, the DST display works with any object — finger, nail, pen, etc. And the screen is in [a] waterproof enclosure to enable regular cleaning. And just like the thousands of Metrocard machines in the NYC subway system that feature a touchscreen, the MTA will maintain the new kiosks.

There are a few lessons to draw from the design and roll-out so far. There are many ways that GIS can be employed, from complex analytical decision-support systems to information visualization systems for consumer. Those who design the systems will have to employ many types of expertise — geographic, computer, and usability design, to mention a few — for success. GIS experience and knowledge will only become more valuable in the marketplace as time goes on.

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