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Sep. 9, 2013 10:30 am

Jim Querry: 5 ways the city’s former mapping chief changed City Hall

Jim Querry ran GIS for the City of Philadelphia for nearly two decades, spanning a period of enormous change -- and opportunity to shape the future of the city. When he started in 1996, the city had only one Apple dial-up Internet connection. When he left this summer, the city had set into motion an open data movement that has gotten national nods.

Jim Querry presenting at an event from Esri, the mapping software giant. Courtesy of Esri.

Jim Querry was in charge of all the dots on the maps for the City of Philadelphia for nearly two decades, spanning a period of enormous change — and opportunity to shape the future of the city.

Despite all the technology that has flooded the GIS field in the last half century, those in geographic information systems still the historic art of mapmaking their foundation. It’s still hard to ignore what has changed.

When Querry started in 1996, the city had only one Apple dial-up Internet connection. When he left this summer, the city had set into motion an open data movement that has gotten national attention.

Querry, who lives in Chestnut Hill and worked in landscape architecture before he started in city government, left his post this summer to become a professor at Philadelphia University in East Falls. He’ll focus on the school’s new geodesign master’s degree, the first of its kind in the country. Querry said he chose to leave because it’s an exciting time to teach in this quickly emerging field.

Like his time at the city, he’ll have the ability to shape geodesign and how it’s taught. But it’s hard to ignore that the future of Philadelphia’s transparency and digital direction has a lot of work to be done, despite the remarkable acceleration Querry has overseen. Quietly, long before open data came into political stump speeches, many in city government say it was Querry, among others, who were moving Philadelphia toward more open data sharing — he’s widely respected by those who know him.

Querry believes that during his tenure at the city, the gap between public sector technology and private sector technology has “narrowed considerably.” It has to do with technology itself, he said, but also city leadership.

In terms of technological advancements, “Philadelphia should be proud of what it’s accomplished,” Querry said, adding that it’s more of a challenge to adopt technologies in the public sector than in the private sector — particularly across a generation’s worth of administrations and priorities.

“There’s a lot more at stake,” he said.

Under his watch, the city won a prestigious GIS award — the Esri President’s Award, from the mapping industry software giant Esri — twice. No other government or private sector organization can boast the same. Here are five other major city GIS projects that Querry is proud to say he managed.

2000: Gave city agencies access to data

Before 2000, there were only about five agencies that had access to all of the city’s GIS data. If you didn’t work in those agencies and you wanted to get to that data, you had to go “above and beyond” and “run discs around the city” to get it, Querry said. Querry’s team implemented a central data warehouse that gave all agencies access to city GIS data, saving the city time and money wasted on jumping through hoops to get to it.

2003: Got the open data movement started

Under Querry’s leadership, the city shared all its GIS data with the public, and still does, through a state portal called PASDA. Many insiders point to this step as a watershed in the open data movement that has garnered more public attention of late.

2004: Made each agency’s data speak the same language

Each city agency had its own way of treating data before Querry’s team built a system that unified them. Some databases were sophisticated, Querry said, while others were “less than optimal and ran on people’s desktops.” The disparate systems meant that property data could get confused: For example, two agencies could use different addresses to talk about the same property. Querry’s project used GIS data to make links between these different addresses so agencies could communicate with each other.

2004: Mapped the city’s built environment

The map of the city’s built environment — “anything you can kick,” Querry said — acts as a base for redistricting, tax reassessment and other city processes.

2005: Made apps and maps for the people

Today, we have phila.gov/map, where Philadelphians can see maps of the city’s bike lanes, vacant properties and crime. In 2005, Querry’s team built the first iteration of these public maps and apps. Users could input their address and find resources like the closest library or police station.

For more, check out our 2011 Q&A with Querry and his staff here.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technically Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

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