Company preparing map app of Pittsburgh's steps

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ESRI is a mapping services company whose software is used by governments, corporations, institutions and disaster relief organizations around the globe. But it is going hyperlocal in Pittsburgh.

That's how Lauri Dafner ended up at a cookout on Brian Oswald's patio one recent evening in the South Side Slopes, where a group of residents was planning this year's Step Trek.

Ms. Dafner, a solutions engineer from ESRI's regional office near Philadelphia, is working with the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association to create for Step Trek a "story map," a combination of mapping, with contextural information, photos and video. It will be available with a smartphone application. The tour of the hillside steps is Oct. 5.

The city, which uses the company's software in all of its mapping services, is getting an even bigger gift -- the Pittsburgh Steps Project. Mike Homa, the city's manager of Geographic Information Systems, said ESRI is creating a larger map on which all the city's steps will be plotted. He expects that before late summer.

Sixty-six of the city's 90 neighborhoods have at least one set of hillside steps. There are 716 sets in all, and the Slopes has the most with 66.

Step Trek is in its 13th year as a fundraiser for the neighborhood association. As many as 1,100 people have taken tours of the hillside steps in past years.

In 1999, Bob Regan, a consultant and educator in geographical information systems, created the most complete modern map the city had ever had. He chronicled and mapped the city's steps after daily bicycle rides around the city. He also came up with the idea that led to Step Trek.

A user of ESRI software for more than 20 years, Mr. Regan told ESRI's regional manager, Jim Higgins, about his own project in the early 2000s.

"We've always been interested in sharing that," Mr. Higgins said, "but at the time, Web applications were kind of clunky. Now it's not just about a map, it's about pictures and making everything accessible to whatever device people are using. I was looking for an example of how we could do that regionally, and Bob and his work came back to mind."

As part of the Pittsburgh Steps Project, the South Side Slopes "really bubbled to the top because that group is the most active, and Bob directed us toward them," Mr. Higgins said. "We thought that by starting with one group, it would allow people who are not Pittsburghers a way to digest" the city's steps culture.

The steps project is pro bono, he said, adding that it is less a gift than a chance to innovate, "to communicate how geography can be used to solve problems. We do this kind of work all the time."

Ms. Dafner's maps are not ready for online viewing yet.

The relationship between the Slopes association and ESRI is "symbiotic," each helping the other, said Mr. Oswald, chairman of the Step Trek committee. Its members are supplying Ms. Dafner with updated information and photographs, and in return they will have a mobile walking tour for use on a smartphone, with links to Instagram so people can post their own photos.

For participants who do not have smartphones, a brochure with each route marked will be distributed to all who register.

The Slopes association has done a lot of work on its own, creating a color-coded map of the neighborhood's steps. They have step counts, the dates of the last rail paintings and photographs of step conditions. Committee members say they hope the new map will encourage the city to be more proactive in its step maintenance.

"Generally speaking [public works] is awesome when they have the funding and time," Adam Jette, a member of the association, wrote in an email. He and other residents regularly clean up and weed around the steps. They also paint the hand rails and document their conditions.

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For more information about Step Trek visit Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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