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Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, May 2021
Addressing a longtime concern of both leaders and residents, the city of Salem recently created the state’s first online municipal portal providing detailed information about the location and status of gas leaks.
Launched about two months ago, the online portal offers data, maps and analyses of gas leaks, historical information, and safety tips. The portal represents a collaboration among the city’s GIS department, the Salem Alliance for the Environment, and the Home Energy Efficiency Team, said Jack Nessen, Salem’s GIS administrator.
Arlington now also has a portal, and other communities are exploring similar efforts, but Salem’s site was the first in the state to integrate Home Energy Efficiency Team data, according to HEET Director Dominic Nicholas. Salem has focused on gas leaks for a number of years, Nessen said, but concerns intensified after the 2018 Columbia Gas explosions that killed one person and damaged homes and property in three Merrimack Valley communities.
“When the Columbia Gas disaster happened, that just sort of really ramped up everything in the city,” Nessen said. “We’re an older city — old infrastructure, old buildings. People were really afraid of something happening in Salem.”
Legislation enacted in 2014 requires gas companies to report gas-leak information annually to the state. Through those disclosures, HEET has been analyzing, geocoding and mapping National Grid’s information, making the raw data more accessible. Nessen has been working on Salem’s portal since last spring, and said the effort benefited greatly from the involvement of HEET, SAFE and other groups.
“So it’s seen a lot of eyes, it’s been across a lot of desks, and so we’ve gotten a lot of good input from various stakeholders,” Nessen said.
The portal includes data summaries, downloadable datasets and maps. Dots on the maps correspond to individual gas leaks — blue dots for repaired leaks, and red dots for leaks not repaired as of Dec. 31, 2019. Clicking on a dot reveals the leak’s address, the reporting date, the repair date (if any), and the leak’s severity.
The site includes background information about natural gas and explains how Salem has addressed leaks.
“There’s a sort of informational side, and a storytelling side of it,” Nessen said.
The portal’s data ends on Dec. 31, 2019, so it’s possible that National Grid has since repaired some of the leaks, Nessen said. But as of that date, Salem had 71 gas leaks that had not been repaired. He said the more concerning areas often overlap with the city’s older sections.
Nessen said he is working on 2020 data, and expects to update the portal annually. Because the city receives the data for free, and uses its own staff and GIS software, the project is fairly low cost, he said.
The gas-leak data work has essentially created two products: the public-facing portal, and an internal portal for departments to consult before undertaking projects.
“It’s really helped collaboration within the departments and alignment of work there,” Nessen said.
Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said the portal reflects Salem’s goals to make broader use of GIS and other tools for planning purposes, and that the portal provides “a data-driven resource for our own infrastructure and public safety activities.” She said it also gives the public the knowledge they need to advocate for better gas-system upkeep and improvements, and informs city operations that intersect with natural gas infrastructure.
“One of the most important take-aways has been having a larger and more clear picture and perspective on what progress is being made by National Grid to address the very serious issue of gas leaks in our neighborhoods,” Driscoll said. “It can serve to better shape our own thoughts around infrastructure projects, tree planting, fire and emergency response, and so much more.”
For more information about Salem’s gas leaks portal, contact Jack Nessen at firstname.lastname@example.org.