CivicMapper is Solving Pittsburgh’s Stormwater Infrastructure, One Street at a Time

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Maps are part of our everyday life, but rarely do we put them to use like CivicMapper. Overlaying location with data, founder Emily Mercurio, and co-founders Christian Cass and Matt Mercurio, aim to change the way we see and solve problems in our everyday spaces.

“We want to be kind of on the fringe of that and pushing the boundaries [of mapping],” says Emily Mercurio. “One thing that we have found that is common to all the projects we work on is that we are trying to help our clients better understand their vulnerabilities and their resiliency.”

From working on a dynamic map of riders and route for Pittsburghers for Public Transit to helping Alcosan and Nine Mile Watershed Association tackle water in Pittsburgh, CivicMapper’s clients and projects vary widely. But, the maps they create, “all have to do with connectivity of some kind of network and helping us understand, ‘How do we make a more resilient community by providing better service to people?’”

With backgrounds in geology, GIS, and mapping CivicMapper works in geospatial development to create new tools that can go beyond simply dots on a map or data points on a page. The team works individually with clients and focuses on developing products like high definition stormwater mapping to solve stormwater issues in cities across the country. Right now, CivicMapper is focusing on using data and mapping to track the movement of stormwater in Pittsburgh.

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But, why stormwater, and why Pittsburgh? “We’re living in a changing climate,” explains Emily Mercurio. “All of the stormwater predictions have indicated that we need to anticipate higher levels of rainfall. We need to evolve.”

Pittsburghers have experienced this challenge firsthand. The city’s stormwater runoff system is combined with its sewer infrastructure which means that during heavy rains, the system becomes overwhelmed. When the system is overburdened, wastewater and stormwater runoff overflow into the river before reaching a sewage treatment plant. That can mean dangerous water quality levels in our city’s rivers, making them unsafe to swim in.

Our combined runoff system is a challenge, as well as aging infrastructure. In repaving and repairing roads, sometimes stormwater infrastructure we didn’t even know existed is obscured, leading to even more limited runoff management. Creating detailed, dynamic mapping can help fix the issue of overburdened stormwater runoff, leading to cleaner rivers, safer streets, and fewer flooded basements.

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What makes CivicMapper’s work different from opening Google Maps on your phone is the specificity of the detail and dynamic data. For example, using information collected from autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, CivicMapper can drill down to the slope of each street, or the height of a foot-long section of a curb, to predict how stormwater will move. Through understanding the issue at such a minute level, flooding from stormwater runoff can be reduced, leading to clearer rivers, and a stronger infrastructure for the city.

While Emily Mercurio draws from her experience of over two decades in the geology world, she’s a self-described data nerd: “I've always been interested in data from remote sensing, from satellites, from GIS. It's not so much the maps, it's the data behind the maps that I'm passionate about.”

Emily Mercurio’s passion for the data and problem solving has been lifelong, but she’s the first to admit that going from technical worker to founder/CEO was challenging. “My two partners are geospatial superstars, they’re as good as it gets,” Emily Mercurio says. “My challenge has been to let go of the wheel on the technical side so I can execute the company’s vision. There's all this amazing data out there that can improve how we live, and I want to make that available to as many stakeholders as possible.”

As CivicMapper learns more about the storm runoff in Pittsburgh, they hope to take the software and mapping they’ve piloted in one city to create dynamic tools to address the issue across the globe. “There's never been a better time to do what we're doing then right now,” Emily Mercurio explains, “there is so much data out there.”