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New interactive map turns Manhattan’s population into a beating heart

By Clayton Guse

Manhattan spans 22.96 square miles and, according to U.S. Census data, is home to some 1.6 million New Yorkers. But on a typical weekday, the number of people on the island swells to approximately 4 million, according to a 2012 study from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service.

Where those millions of people travel in the borough varies wildly by the time of day and week. Commuters flock into commercial areas like midtown and Lower Manhattan every weekday morning, obviously, but wrapping one’s head around the way that people distribute themselves across the entirety of Manhattan was an act of futility—until now.

This week, New York-based developer Justin Fung released a compelling new data visualization that gives users the opportunity to see the number of people who occupy any area of Manhattan during any given hour of the week. The feature displays estimates of population density on a block-by-block basis, filterable by day or hour. The result is an interactive map that demonstrates how the island beats like a heart. It also contains a slideshow story element, which highlights some of the more intriguing insights found in the dataset.

Fung launched the project while studying at Columbia University under former NYC Transportation Commissioner Lucius J. Riccio. He pulled data from the aforementioned NYU study, the MTA turnstile database and the 2010 Census. The entire thing was completed in several stages over the course of five years.

“The analytics started from a question that I had in graduate school of whether or not there were good estimates of the population of Manhattan for the hours of the day, as I was interested in emergency management as Hurricane Sandy had recently happened,” Fung said. “I asked some contacts in the city’s urban planning agencies if they had this capability, and they actually didn't—which to me was surprising.

So Fung, under the tutelage of Riccio, undertook the ambitious task of creating an analysis of block-by-block, hour-by-hour population of New York’s busiest borough. He completed the bulk of the analytics while at Columbia and finished the interface after honing his coding skills.

Fung says that the powers that be with access to GPS and phone signals are capable of this kind of modeling, but the data is not open to the public. His goal here was to make a version that was completely open to the public. 

“I think what's really interesting is that each of us commuters contributes to the data you see there, and in totality, we make up one giant, breathing, organic life form—the life form of Manhattan,” he said. “It's humbling. Also, I hope people can appreciate the massive job city agencies have in getting everyone to and from every workday. It's an incredible feat of engineering.”

The city might be an incredible feat of engineering, but Fung’s map is surely an incredible feat of data visualization—one that New Yorkers can and should glom over. 

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