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The Elbert Files: Virtual Des Moines


Exploring interactive maps of Des Moines is my new default diversion, along with playing Spider Solitaire, when I go online these days. 

I began looking at city maps after asking Al Setka, Des Moines’ public information officer, about a street closing in my neighborhood. Setka, whom I’d known in a previous life when he was news director at WHO-TV, sent a link to an interactive map of city projects.  

The color-coded map shows street, sewer and other capital improvement projects scheduled for work between 2019 and 2021. 

The improvement that interested me – 42nd Street between Grand Avenue and the freeway – was highlighted in purple. When I clicked on it, a pop-up box said that section of road will be rebuilt beginning this spring and ending this fall. It also listed the contractor and a city contact person, email and phone number. 

I noticed that Ingersoll Avenue between 42nd and Polk Boulevard was also highlighted in purple. When I clicked on it, a pop-up box said it would be rebuilt, beginning in the spring of 2021. 

That single online, interactive map is embedded with the type of information that years ago was printed regularly in daily newspapers, but which has not been widely available since the Internet, more than two decades ago, began disrupting the way we gather and consume news.

The map told me about other projects in my neighborhood, like the tree plantings along Grand Avenue and repair of sanitary sewers on Ingersoll Avenue that I’d already witnessed, although at the time I figured the only way to learn what was going on was to talk with on-site workers.

With this new map, I’ll know what is going on months before projects begin, allowing me to become the local expert at neighborhood gatherings and backyard barbecues, assuming we ever have those again. 

As I explored the map, I learned about other projects, too, like the new Animal Control Facility the city will begin building next year on East 14th Street near the Des Moines River and the new playground near Weeks School, where work is scheduled to begin right about now. 

Setka also sent me a link to “Show Me My House,” which produced a satellite view of my immediate neighborhood that can be enlarged to show the chairs on my deck. 

That site also lists garbage-pickup day and recycle weeks. That’s a big deal for me because I can never remember when to recycle and usually follow the lead of my neighbor Jennifer. But one week when she was out of town, I and many of the other houses near us missed recycle pickup. 

After I raved about “Show Me My House,” Setka told me the city had recently won a gold medal for its online maps from Horizon Interactive Awards, a group that promotes online activity. 

In fact, if you go to dsm.city/community/map_center you will find a list of more than three dozen Des Moines maps. In addition to “Projects” and “Show Me My House,” they include “Show Me My City,” which shows where government, police, fire and medical facilities are, and “Crime Mapping,” which shows where burglary, robbery, assaults and weapons violations have occurred, and is sortable by crime, area and time periods for the most recent 180 days.

There are also maps of downtown parking, the skywalk system, snow routes, mosquito control and more.  

“Report a Problem” is a Web page where you can appeal a parking ticket or report a cracked sidewalk, broken street light, potholes or stormwater problems. 

The city’s website even includes an app that translates the information into more than 100 languages.

One difference between Spider Solitaire and Des Moines’ interactive maps: With the maps you don’t have to cheat to win.

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