Crowdsourcing NYC’s War on Rats

The Rat Information Portal (RIP)—an interactive public map—and other digital tools will help guide amplified rat extermination efforts in New York City this summer.

Frank Franklin II/AP

As New York City officials prepare to tackle the estimated 16 million rats haunting the city's subways, sewers, and alleys this July, exterminators will rely on a more modernized arsenal—namely, digital mapping and crowdsourcing.

A handful of initiatives and tools will coalesce to combat the city’s colossal rat population this summer, officials with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said. The campaign—dubbed the “Rat Reservoir pilot”—aims to stamp out stubborn rodent populations, or “rat reservoirs,” that are able to feed and reproduce at a lightning pace across the five boroughs. The program has already been buoyed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and nine new staff dedicated to stamping out rats, officials told The Daily Beast.

“The Rat Reservoir pilot will not simply rely on traditional extermination efforts, but will incorporate a more holistic approach to rat management including working with the community… to remove conditions conducive to rats,” health officials said.

In more ways than one, July’s campaign to assault rodents’ homes will be a crowdsourced extermination, an undertaking both financed by tax dollars and informed by the eyes and ears of city dwellers. One of the inclusive tools at the center of the initiative is the Rat Information Portal (RIP), a public site that parses Department of Health inspection data by building, allowing experts to pinpoint which burrows need to be sealed and which streets needs to be groomed. Community boards and neighborhood associations will also be pitching in and working alongside city exterminators, health officials said.

While apps have long allowed users to avoid the undesirable—whether pot hole-riddled roadways or unseemly pizza joints—granting vermin an online presence is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s a novel phenomenon, too, said Timothy Wong, the Technical Director of M&M Pest Control headquartered in Lower Manhattan. The extermination industry is generally reactionary, and not meticulously mapping out rats’ whereabouts, Wong said.

The city is also encouraging residents to submit their findings—the number of rats spotted and any other lurid details—via a 311 webpage. Users can share the location of the sighting and ship the report to public employees. Reports are fed into the city’s Rat Indexing program, which also informs the RIP.

These efforts come on the heels of a testimony delivered in May by Mary Bassett, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner, to the New York City Council Committee on Health. Bassett sounded off on the importance of eradicating problem pest areas. She paints the current rodent situation as more than a foul inconvenience, and one that is a particular blight on poorer areas. “Low-income communities in New York City have far greater rates of interior pest and rodent infestation, primarily because of the connection to poor housing conditions,” Bassett said.

The RIP offers a clear window into the intersection of poverty and vermin. Near the East 144 Street and Park Avenue region in the Bronx, shades of red—which signal “active rat signs” or “problem conditions”—are a common sight.

Alternatively, in posh Upper East Side neighborhoods overlooking Central Park, the map is a sea of yellow, marking areas that have passed inspection.

If Bassett’s testimonial doesn’t convincingly detail the city’s rat problem, consider the existence of the city’s Rodent Academy. The free course, intended for building supers and homeowners, centers on rat-prevention techniques and culminates with a “Field Day and Workshop” where pupils put their education to the test in rat-infested areas.

Private exterminators like Wong say the city’s pilot program is an intelligent move, especially when traditional poison bait methods are floundering. “The best thing to do is try to improve the environment so it doesn’t harbor or promote areas for [rats] to develop. [That includes] cleaning up the streets, cleaning up loose soil,” he said.

As for the possible reduction to the startling 16 million figure? The Department of Health isn’t giving any numerical estimates, but remains optimistic. “Every area is different, but by targeting rat reservoirs and working closely with the community, we hope to make significant improvements in areas with chronic rat problems,” officials said.