Why New York City spent a year converting its 500-page hazard plan into a website

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Like nearly all cities, New York maintains a detailed hazard mitigation plan to help the city prepare for and react to dangerous situations, but until recently, its potentially life-saving information was tucked away in a 500-page physical document that officials say was tedious to access. But on Monday, the city’s emergency management department announced it had finished updating and converting that document into an online format that anyone can explore.

The new website provides emergency management officials and the public with maps showing where various resources are located, official procedures, and recommendations for handling a wide variety of hazards such as fires, flooding, extreme heat, disease epidemics and cyberthreats. If printed out, the website makes for an even longer document — about 600 pages — but it’s now presented in an interactive and visual format that Melissa Umberger, director of the department’s hazard mitigation and recovery unit, said makes the information far less intimidating.

“While we thought the information in the [old] plan was very useful, the information the way portrayed was not very user-friendly and was kind of hard to digest,” she said.

Umberger said the website also provides a platform that encourages the city to update the plan more frequently and that her office intends to make those frequent updates. Previously, she said, the city went five years without updating its plan. The first edition was published in 2009, in order for New York to be eligible for disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and was only revised in 2014 in order to meet a minimum federal requirement. But even then it was seen as an incomplete solution.

“In 2014, it was very daunting to find specific information because we have so many neighborhoods in NYC,” she said.

That particular problem is addressed by the new website’s “community tab,” which includes information on the emergency management department’s pilot project with Columbia University’s Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation that aims to curate neighborhood-specific hazard plans.

Around 2016, Umberger said the city began to get positive reviews from people for an abridged version of the plan it had published and talks began about how to build on that success by putting it online. In December 2017, Umberger’s team began meeting with more than 40 other city departments, private companies that maintained various critical elements of the city’s infrastructure, local community groups that had their own plans, and academics who could ensure the city was being informed by the most current research on hazard mitigation.

In early 2019, after more than a year of planning and development, the city published its new plan online for 30 days to meet a FEMA requirement allowing public review. Umberger said the feedback her office received and the ability to make updates remains one of her favorite features of the website, compared to the regretfully indelible paper version.

“It was definitely worth it,” she said. “I love the fact we have the ability to make enhancements, make changes.”

Though state and local governments have been digitizing their processes and documentation for years, its most critical functions are often the last to be updated because administrators are loathe to create disruptions to sensitive operations like emergency management. But New York City’s hazard mitigation website could signal a trend — New York State happened to come up with the same idea around the time the city was building its website and, in fact, beat the city to the punch, launching a web version of its plan last December.

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digital government, Emergency Management, hazard mitigation plan, IT Modernization, New York City
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