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"Junk Mail" and the GeoWeb Shine Light on New Orleans Recovery

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Denice Ross (City of New Orleans), James Fee (RSP Architects)
Location: Regency Ballroom

How many people have returned to New Orleans? What is the current population of flood-damaged neighborhoods? The answers to these questions change every month as New Orleanians repopulate their city—even three years after Katrina. Businesses, city planners, and neighborhood advocates all desperately need these answers to determine where more grocery stores should be reopened, where additional schools should be placed, and where volunteers should be deployed. But, with five years between Katrina and the next U.S. Census, no answers were in sight.

The staff at found counts of households actively receiving mail provided a solid monthly view of neighborhood repopulation. Pre-Katrina and current address-level data were provided by direct mail marketing company Valassis.

To make this data accessible to an audience that includes neighborhood leaders from the Lower Nine to Lakeview, as well as policymakers, researchers, developers and media, GNOCDC enlisted mapping Sherpa James Fee of RSP Architects. In phase 1, they developed a process for taking data created through SPSS, MapMarker, ESRI ArcGIS Desktop and Arc2Earth, serving it from Amazon S3, and integrating it with Google’s simple visualization tools (Google Maps and Google Street View). Rigorous field usability testing in neighborhoods led to an interface that makes this complex geospatial data easy-to-use for the general public. The result was a powerful tool for assessing citywide patterns of repopulation, as well as individual blocks across a neighborhood.

At six months post-launch, the map has been used more than 10,000 times, by neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, which was able to deploy summer volunteers to rebuilding homes rather than having them collect basic data through time-consuming door to door surveying. Emergency planners have used the data to plan for evacuations. Dutch planners used the tool to understand our repopulation patterns so they could give us reality-based advice on mitigating flood risk. Hospitals have used the data to scout locations for new clinics. And it was relied on by media and emergency planners as Gustav approached New Orleans this past summer.

For phase 2, GNOCDC is re-engineering their 86-step workflow for quarterly processing of the Valassis data to take advantage of spatial ETL software, web apps, and cloud computing that will allow for business continuity during evacuations and support registered users who want to download the source data.

Though the situation in post-Katrina New Orleans is extreme, the lessons learned are universal – how to be responsive to a rapidly changing environment, nimbly scale when demand for data spikes, store and process data remotely to maximize collaboration, and streamline workflows so a small staff can do big things with minimal error. Learn how the local staff at GNOCDC and James Fee worked together to create an agile mapping system that takes advantage of the best GeoWeb technologies to deliver highly usable content to support the myriad decisions that need to made in post-disaster New Orleans.


Photo of Denice Ross

Denice Ross

City of New Orleans

Denice Ross has fifteen years of experience in user-centered design and specializes in creating large web sites that convey complex information through an intuitive user experience. When Denice joined the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center in 2001, data from Census 2000 was being released and there was great promise of using the Internet to democratize federal statistics so they would be easy for non-data-experts to access and use. She designed the web site with data for all 73 New Orleans neighborhoods – from the Lower Nine to Lakeview – and built a loyal following of 5,000 unique monthly visitors. When Katrina hit, the site received 120,000 visits in one month; three years post-Katrina, has a wide audience that includes neighborhood leaders, national media and the White House as they all track the recovery of New Orleans. Denice has been a long-time contributor to the field of “public participation GIS” and is an active member of the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicator Partnership.

James Fee

RSP Architects

James Fee is widely seen as a leader in the rapidly growing field of geospatial and web based mapping technologies. As the Geospatial Technology Manager for RSP Architects, he is responsible for creating tools and integration technology to enable decision-makers to visualize their data using the web’s most immersive technologies such as Google Maps and Earth, Virtual Earth, and Flash. He has been a certified GIS professional since 2004 and has extensive experience in GIS Development (ESRI, Autodesk, OSGeo) as well as developing GIS implementation plans. James blogs about geospatial technology at his blog ( and has worked hard over the past 2+ years to develop a GIS community on the internet culminating in Planet Geospatial ( which aggregates Geospatial conversations from around the world.