Concrete Data Sets: New Online Map of Building Construction Metrics Across New York

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There is an age-old expression among New Yorkers that their city will really be a great place one day if someone ever finishes building it. I have heard this many times during my life as a native and lifelong resident of this remarkable place.

Public and private construction goes on each day on a vast scale throughout the five boroughs of NYC. Over the past several decades under successive political administrations, many areas have been re-zoned to facilitate and accelerate this never-ending buildup and built-out. This relentless activity produces many economic benefits for the municipal economy. However, it also results in other detrimental effects including housing prices and rents that continue to soar upward, disruptive levels of noise and waste materials affecting people living nearby, increased stresses upon local infrastructure, and just as regrettably, steady erosion of the unique characters and spirits of many neighborhoods.¹

In a significant technological achievement intended to focus and consolidate the massive quantities of location, scope and cost data about the  plethora of structures sprouting up everywhere, on August 22, 2018 the New York City Buildings Department launched an interactive NYC Active Major Construction Map (“The Map”). Full coverage of its inauguration was provided in a very informative article in The New York Times entitled A Real-Time Map Tracks the Building Frenzy That’s Transforming New York, by Corey Kilgannon, on August 22, 2018. (Here, too, is the Building Department’s press release.) I highly recommend both a click-through and full read of it and further online exploration of The Map itself.

I will also summarize and annotate this report, and then pose some of my own code compliant questions.

Home on the [Data] Range

Construction on Lexington Avenue, Image by Jeffrey Zeldman

As the ubiquitous pounding of steel and pouring of concrete proceeds unabated, there is truly little or no getting around it. The Map is one component of a $60 million digital initiative established in 2015 which is intended to produce an “impressive level of detail” on much of this cityscape altering activity.

The recent inception of The Map provides everyone in the metro area an online platform to track some of the key details of the largest of these projects plotted across a series of key metrics.  An accompanying grid of tables below it lists and ordinates the largest projects based upon these dimensions.

The Map’s user interface presents this “overview of the frenzy of construction” dispersed across the city’s communities using the following configurations:

  • Each project’s location represented by a blue dot that can be clicked to reveal the property’s contractor, history and any violations.
  • Cumulative real-time totals of square footage under construction, permits and dwelling units involved. This data can be further filtered by borough.
  • Scrollable and clickable Top 10 lists by project square footage, size, cost and dwelling units

As well, it provides residents a virtual means to identify who is making all of that real-world blaring construction noise in their neighborhood.²

If I Had a Hammer

Executives, organizations and community advocates representing a diversity of interests have expressed their initial support for The Map.

Second Avenue Subway Update, Image by MTA (2)

The NYC Building Commissioner, Rick D. Chandler, believes this new resource is a means to provide transparency to his department’s tremendous quantity of construction data. Prior to the rollout of The Map, accessing and processing this information required much greater technical and professional skills. Furthermore, the data will be put to use to “improve and streamline the department’s operations”.

According to Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the non-profit advocacy group Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, he finds The Map to be both useful and “long overdue”. It is providing his group with a more convenient means to discover additional information about the proliferation of project sites in the Village. He also noted that under the previously existing municipal databases, this data was far more challenging to extract. Nonetheless, the new map remains insufficient for him and “other measures were needed” for the city government to increase oversight and enforcement of construction regulations concerning safety and the types of projects are permitted on specific properties.

Local real estate industry trade groups such as the Real Estate Board of New York, are also sanguine about this form of digital innovation, particularly for it accessibility. The group’s current president, John H. Banks, finds that it is “more responsive to the needs of the private sector”, raises transparency and the public’s “awareness of economic activity, jobs and tax revenues” flowing from the city’s construction projects.

Plans are in place to expand The Map based upon user feedback. As well, it will receive daily updates thus providing “a real-time advantage over analyst and industry reports”.

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My Questions

  • Does a roadmap currently exist for the projected development path of The Map’s content and functionality? If so, how can all interested parties provide ongoing commentary and support for it?
  • Are there other NYC databases and data sources that could possibly be integrated into the map? For example, tax, environmental and regulatory information might be helpful.
  • Can other cities benefit from the design and functionality of The Map to create or upgrade their own versions of similar website initiatives?
  • What new entrepreneurial, academic and governmental opportunities might now present themselves because of The Map?
  • How might artificial intelligence and/or machine learning capabilities be, well, mapped into The Map’s functionalities? Are there any plans to add chatbot scripting capabilities to The Map?


Two related Subway Fold posts covering other aspects of construction include:

1.  For a deeply insightful analysis and passionate critique of the pervasive and permanent changes to many of New York’s neighborhoods due to a confluence of political, economic and social forces and interests, I highly recommend reading Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, by Jeremiah Moss, (Dey Street Books, 2017). While I did not agree with some aspects of his book, the author has expertly captured and scrutinized how, where and why this great city has been changed forever in many ways. (See also the author’s blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York for his continuing commentary and perspectives.)

2.  Once I lived in a building that had been mercifully quiet for a long time until the adjacent building was purchased, gutted and totally renovated. For four months during this process, the daily noise level by comparison made a typical AC/DC concert sound like pin drop.

Self-Healing Concrete Due to Soon Enter the Construction Market

"Second Avenue Subway: 96th Street", Image by MTA Photos

“Second Avenue Subway: 96th Street”, Image by MTA Photos

Please see the end of this post below for a related and most interesting December 7, 2016 update on a related new development on an experimental material called programmable cement.

While nearly all new technologies, products and services vigorously try to keep any bugs out, a modern improvement in an ancient technology that nearly everyone in the world still, well, heavily relies upon is based upon deliberately keeping all of its bugs in.

A microbiologist named Henk Jonkers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has created self-healing concrete involving bugs of a biological rather than electronic nature. The remarkable story of how he has accomplished this was reported in an article on entitled With This Self-Healing Concrete, Buildings Repair Themselves, by Emily Matchar, posted on June 5, 2015.

I will sum up, annotate and ask a few additional microbe-free questions.

Taking his inspiration from human biology, Jonkers has created this self-healing material by embedding concrete with limestone capsules. When the limestone is activated by “cracks, air or moisture”, it will then produce one of two forms of bacteria plus another compound called calcium lactate. In turn, these bugs will commence reacting with the calcium lactate to convert it to another chemical called calcite which then seals the cracks.

This advance could potentially solve an enduring problem when concrete is used in construction: Micro-cracks that develop later and, over time, may affect the structural integrity of a building. Moreover, further “leakage” like this in a structure can eventually result in a collapse. Jonker’s creation could put a halt this corrosive activity. The two strains of bacteria that emerge from the limestone can potentially remain “dormant for as long as 200 years”. *

Since 2011, Jonkers has been field testing his self-healing concrete on a lifeguard station which is subject to the corrosive forces at the beach. To date, it remains “watertight”.

The material will be brought to market in 2015 in the forms of “self-healing concrete, a repair mortar and a liquid repair medium”, costing between $33US to $44US per square meter. Because of this relatively high expense, it will only be used at first in structures where “leakage and corrosion” are potentially significant factors.  Nonetheless, Jonkers is working on less costly alternatives to his formulation. He also expects to scale up production of his new concrete by mid-2016.

Self-healing concrete mixtures have also been under development elsewhere at the following universities:

  • In the UK at the University of Bath, Cardiff University, also based upon bacteria (details described here)
  • In the US at MIT using “sunlight to activate polymer microcapsules” to fill in cracks (details described here), and
  • At the University of Michigan by embedding microfibers in conjunction with calcium carbonate (details described here)

Another potentially environmental benefit from self-healing concrete might be a reduction in the worldwide amount of energy used to produce concrete. Currently, it generates 5% of all of global carbon emissions and demand for concrete continues to rise as a result of growing urbanization. Thus, the increasing usage of self-healing concrete may lower the demand for the more carbon-emitting production of new concrete.

My questions are as follows:

  • Can added bacteria likewise bring self-healing capabilities to other building materials such as wood, glass, iron, marble and others?
  • In addition to self-healing, are there other beneficial properties that microbes can add to concrete as well as other construction materials?
  • Conversely, can microbes be similarly and safely somehow used in the demolition of buildings and the clearing of the resulting debris?
  • Are there any possible applications of metamaterials, as covered in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science, to concrete formulations?

There is a common expression among software programmers and developers to try to explain instances when end-users find flaws in their work. They will often, half-jokingly, say “It’s not a bug it’s a feature“. In the case of self-healing concrete, it turns out to be both.

*  For a fascinating journey through the several-millennia history of concrete, I very highly recommend Planet Concrete (Prometheus Books, 2011), by Robert Courland. The author has skillfully enlivened and fully engaged his readers in what might otherwise sound like a somewhat dull topic for a book.

December 27, 2016 Update:

A story was posted on today entitled Scientists Develop ‘Programmable’ Cement Particles to Attain Enhanced Properties. (No author is credited.) Scientists at Rice University have created a new form of “programmable” cement that, at the microscopic level, forms new shapes that make the resulting hardened product more durable while less porous. In turn, this may result in “stronger  structures that require less concrete”. I highly recommend clicking through for a full read of this fascinating news.