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City Slicker

  • Andrew Newell ’10 in the City of Brotherly Love, where he’s the GIS Manager of Licenses and Inspections for the City o...
    Andrew Newell ’10 in the City of Brotherly Love, where he’s the GIS Manager of Licenses and Inspections for the City of Philadelphia.
January 23, 2017

As GIS Manager for Licensing and Inspections for the City of Philadelphia, Andrew Newell ’10 is guiding Philly into a new era of structure modeling that can help make the city safer.


Andrew Newell ’10 thought he knew what career he wanted and was working toward that path as an undergraduate at Washington College. But then, like a lot of liberal arts students at WAC, he took a little turn, allowed himself some exploration, and found something he didn’t even know he was looking for.

That turn, from being an anthropology major with a deep interest in archaeology, to exploring the College’s GIS Laboratory, ultimately led him to where he is now—GIS Manager of Licenses and Inspections for the City of Philadelphia.

“It has literally been a whirlwind of so many changes, but I love the city because they are always looking for the next thing that will make them more efficient,” says Newell, who landed his new job last October. “GIS is giving data spatial context. It’s taking spreadsheet data that you can get lost in and don’t really understand how it relates to other data on the spreadsheet, and showing how it relates. When you see it spatially, you can see trends, issues, areas of concern. It makes decisions a lot easier.”

Newell and his team have created a residential structure assessment model that is giving city managers and inspectors a completely different vision of potentially dangerous and vacant structures in the city. By overlaying other departmental data and public information such as crime rates, fire data, even whether water bills have gone unpaid, they can present a potential problem building in a much broader community context. And, using LIDAR (light detection and ranging), they can pinpoint specific trouble spots visually.

“We’re using predictive analysis of where we think vacant houses are, where they are based on crime and fire data, socio-economic data that we’ve incorporated into the model,” Newell says. In a Dec. 13, 2016 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Newell’s team and the new model, Rebecca Swanson, Licenses and Inspections planning director, said officials believe there are as many as 13,000 vacant properties in the city, as many as 4,800 of them are unsafe, and 230 are imminently dangerous—meaning that they need to be demolished before they fall on somebody.

The story focused on a house on Irving Street that looked a little rough around the edges but not particularly dangerous—until Newell’s teams model flagged it because the water bill hadn’t been paid for more than four months. Using LIDAR to view the building from above and map height disparities in the roof, officials could see that its roof was in danger of collapsing. LIDAR can see through a tree canopy, for instance, that would obscure a traditional aerial view.

Swanson said the model that Newell’s team is developing “allows us to be more proactive” about locating such buildings and analyzing their condition before committing an inspector to risk entering the building on foot. Further information from the model—such as proximity to a school or a high crime area—helps inspectors make even more informed decisions. And in many cases, like the house on Irving Street, L & I wouldn’t even have realized it was a potential risk until the model pointed it out (the house was demolished shortly after officials realized the threat it posed).

Newell says he loved his anthropology classes at WAC; he was also on the men’s rowing team all four years (which he credits for keeping him “on the straight and narrow”) and a member of the Lambda Alpha, the anthropology honors society. But he took the advice of his father, who was familiar with the growing field of GIS and suggested he look into the College’s GIS Lab.

“I just fell in love with it,” Newell says. “For someone who didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do after college, it was an incredible opportunity.” He took all the classes he could, worked in the lab for a time, and helped former lab director Stew Bruce with the summer GIS camp he ran for local high school kids. He landed an internship with McCrone Engineering in Centreville, which gave him more hands-on experience.

After graduating from WAC, he entered the Master of Professional Studies in GIS program at the University of Maryland, graduating in 2014. During his time there, he got an internship at the Department of Veterans Affairs in which he developed an interactive spatial campus map of the VA facility in Loma Linda, California. For a time he worked for the City of Philadelphia as a Lead GIS analyst, and ultimately, it was his boss in that position who recommended him for the job as GIS Manager for Licenses and Inspections.

Last modified on Jan. 23rd, 2017 at 1:52pm by Marcia Landskroener.