New York City has more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities in the five boroughs, but how many accessible bathrooms are there? In the confines of Community Board 8, there are 11 comfort stations while two are accessible for people with disabilities.
“You don’t need to do a research project to know which bathroom meets the needs of your family,” said Councilman Eric Dinowitz. “If you’re a parent of a child or you’re in a family where someone has a disability, you’re probably facing a lot of challenges to begin with. Finding space for your family to play shouldn’t be one of those challenges.”
In a parks department hearing last year, he initially brought up the issue that such information should be as available as possible.
The councilman wanted to set park data on one website to illustrate which playgrounds are accessible to people with disabilities. The park department’s website already offers basic information, but it does not offer search engine filters.
That’s where BetaNYC came in.
“Councilman Eric Dinowitz’s office came to us (last year) and said we see this data here and here, is it possible to put it on a map,” said Kate Nicholson, director of partnerships, programs and events at BetaNYC.
The civic tech organization runs open data literacy programs, student fellowships and civic innovation lab for New Yorkers.
“We wanted to essentially make it easier — New York City Parks has a list of playgrounds and it could be made more accessible to the public by turning it into a map,” said Zhi Keng He, civic innovation lab manager at BetaNYC.
“I know families are going to use this tool to see which playgrounds in the area they’re visiting have comfort stations,” Dinowitz said.
He collaborated with members of the disability community to ensure that it was formatted in a way that was accessible.
Dinowitz has shown a history on advocating for people with disabilities through his legislation and advocacy. For example, in 2018 when he was the chair of the Aging Committee of Community Board 8, he and the president of Tracey Towers Tenant Association Jean Hill gathered more than 2,000 signatures in a few weeks for ADA improvements at Mosholu Parkway subway No. 4 line.
During that time, the transit system announced they added $300 million to the 2015-2019 capital plan for improvements at up to five additional subway stations, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz announced in 2018.
Less than a quarter of more than 400 subway stations in New York City comply with federal ADA requirements.
On the map created by BetaNYC, users can filter other details such as inclusive play elements, ramps and play elements.
Keng He has previously analyzed data from the parks throughout New York City. However, while exploring data for this project, he was surprised that some playgrounds had physically specific labels for sensory play items or play structures.
Some sensory elements are trumpets, where children can yell into it and sound transfers to the other end. Several others, like tactile elements, are good for children with autism because it helps them interact with the space.
There are 722 playgrounds with inclusive play elements in the city while 905 have accessible ramps/transfer stations or play elements.
“New York City Open Data is a public service,” Nicholson said. “We like to use it to meet the needs of New Yorkers.”
BetaNYC runs a civic innovation lab that trains and employs part-time graduate students in New York City to provide data service to mission-aligned organizations and offices.
They call it RADAR, short for Research and Data Assistance Requests. So far, the team has responded to more than 200 support requests. Their work resulted in tools and maps like Boardstar, a tool for community boards to view 311 requests in their district, or maps like OpenMaps, a community-driven response to a lack of information about store hours during the pandemic, Nicholson explained to The Riverdale Press.
This past winter, fellows mapped public amenities, from public bathrooms to wheelchair-accessible play equipment and park benches on OpenStreetMap.
The data will be used to identify where more equitable public spaces are needed in the city.
“The team of students recently led a public mapping event during New York City Open Data Week,” Nicholson said. The event is an annual festival produced by BetaNYC, the NYC Open Data Team at the Office of Technology and Innovation and Data Through Design.
The plan was to fill in the details that were not publicly available to the public, such as benches and how many people can fit on them. The data documented the amount of public seating in the city parks.
The assemblyman funded $20,000 to the Fund for the City of New York, under the Digital Inclusion and Literacy Initiative. BetaNYC’s Civic Innovation Lab, which builds an open data literacy curriculum, benefited from those funds. It was able to offer open data classes to the public.
“I think all boroughs have their kind of disparities. I’ve never done the official analysis, but I think that’s a further analysis that we would love to do,” Keng He said. “Just to kind of explore those neighborhoods where there’s disparities of those sensory play items or accessible bathrooms.”
“I’m a dad of twins.” Dinowitz said. “They’re 8 years old and any parent might make a choice of which playgrounds to go not based on the equipment but based on what is available.”
“You can be there all day, especially the spring and summer days and the weekend. You want to be able to spend a significant amount of time at a playground (and then) the ice cream truck comes.”