NYU CUSP’s Capstone Program brings together student research teams with government agencies, industry, or other research partners to address real-world urban challenges through data. The capstone presentations are the culmination of their six-month projects and mark the final presentation of the students’ work during their studies at CUSP.

CUSP spoke to several of this year’s capstone teams to understand more about their research, and how their projects could help improve urban life, both in New York City and other cities around the world.

Economic Impacts of New York City’s Investment in Water Supply

CUSP Students: Asnat Ghebremedhin, Angelia Lau, Ross MacWhinney, and Pratik Watwani

Capstone Sponsor: New York City Department of Environmental Protection

CUSP Capstone Mentor: Huy T. Vo

Please give a brief overview of your capstone project.

The New York City (NYC) Water Supply System provides one billion gallons of drinking water to New York City’s 8.5 million residents every day. With an investment approaching $3 billion from 1993 to 2019, NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is interested in understanding the economic impacts of source water protection. This project recommends a visualization approach to understanding the relationships between DEP investments and its returns. Specifically, an interactive web data visualization interface is proposed to facilitate the observation of correlations between DEP actions in the Catskill/Delaware Water Supply system and economic outcomes of the West of Hudson (WOH) towns and counties.

Why did you choose to work on this capstone project?

An interest in this project centered on the sheer grand scale and ecologically-friendly systems in which New York City’s water is supplied. Unlike many municipal water systems, the protection of lands north of the city, through the work of the DEP, allows for a filter-free system that produces some of the cleanest tap water in the United States. Knowing that an integral part in the work of data science is the visualizations, it was an interesting challenge to develop a visualization that communicates DEP impacts over the past two decades.

How are you collecting and analyzing the data needed for this project?

The DEP provided us spatial data outlining the watershed basin boundaries as well as land cover data and DEP investments per year across the 5 watershed counties. To account for socio-economic factors we are utilizing open data.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your project?

COVID-19 did affect our project in that due to transitioning to remote work, the DEP had been unable to access/share relevant and essential data for our proposed research question. Having already been delayed in receiving data, the setback triggered further discussion and ideation as to other research questions that could be addressed with data available online, while being supplemental to the data already provided to us.

How does your research relate to CUSP's mission of helping cities around the world become more productive, livable, equitable, and resilient?

Assessing impacts of initiatives, programs, and investments centered around technology, such as a natural watershed, that supports lives in cities through providing affordable, drinkable water that is essential to life makes way for better decision-making, sharing learnings, and political accountability. This relates to CUSP’s mission as access to clean water is a human right, and part of UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals. As urbanization continues and cities become more populated, demand for clean water will continue and sustainable systems must be in place ahead of time to meet the need. Examples of successful or failed investments in such systems are critical learnings that should be shared among cities, but this can’t be done if investments are not assessed for impact. Lastly, cities become more equitable spaces when political leaders are accountable to tax-payer supported investments and transparent about the economic impacts on employment, education, housing, etc.

How could your research be used in NYC or other cities after your project has concluded?

Our project could support city agencies embarking on a new investment or initiative by exemplifying how important baseline data is when aspiring to reflect upon a project’s impact. The research in our capstone project could be used in other cities when looking to conduct an ecosystem valuation, our research outlines several methods which provide examples using different types of data.

What did you wish you knew before starting this project?

It would have been helpful to know that the DEP would be unable to provide data more granular than at the county level, although we knew going into the project that several city agencies are less inclined to provide data, we didn’t expect data surrounding the Catskill/Delaware Water Supply system to be so sensitive.