Using Geospatial Data to Support the Design Process
18 Mar 2019

Using Geospatial Data to Support the Design Process

Emily Constantine Mercurio, PhD, PG

18 Mar 2019

Geospatial information has always been central to the workflows of urban planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering projects. Typically, these kinds of projects begin with geodata collection, including: gathering drawings, field data collection, digitization of analog data, collecting available digital data, and creating maps. In the digital era, using spatial data typically involves using GIS software to organize, manage, and derive information. Regardless of whether the project is the scale of a long-term city plan or a detailed design for a green stormwater infrastructure project, geodata collection builds an information foundation to support decision-making.

Achieving an innovative and optimum design in these kinds of projects is an iterative process that involves feedback from stakeholders. Using geospatial data and mapping to support the design process undoubtedly makes the outreach and feedback processes more effective. The maps provide the medium for discussions of quantitative and qualitative aspects of a project.

The major challenge with using spatial data in a design workflow is often identified in the technical logistics of the process. Out-of-the-box GIS software generally aren’t directly configured to support an iterative design workflow or answer the kinds of questions these processes need to answer, and using geodata and GIS-based analysis tools within the iterative, exploratory, creative nature of the design process has a tendency to be viewed as slowing down internal and external feedback loops.

Thought not a new idea, supporting the design process with digital spatial data and geospatial analysis tools has in recent years been called “GeoDesign”. This buzzword has a number of evolving definitions, interpretations, and critiques. Stephen Ervin, of the Harvard GSD, succinctly described GeoDesign as “a design and planning method which tightly couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulation informed by geographic contexts, systems thinking, and digital technologies” during the 2012 Esri GeoDesign Summit. The key sentiment is the tight coupling of technology and process, which suggests an evolution of software to directly support iterative design workflows with feedback mechanisms.

GIS software and computing capabilities continue to evolve since that 2012 summit and design professions continue to rely on geodata. As a result, more software tools to directly support the design process are becoming available.

That said, a critical and fundamental issue remains in these projects: the quality, vintage, and management of these data at the foundation of the process. The evolution of the software tools is for naught if the quality, portability, and maintenance life cycle of the underlying data remain unresolved. These things can pose serious challenges to organizations that want to take their design processes and outreach to the next level.

For example:

  • If data are of unknown quality and age, bringing uncertainty to the decision-making process.
  • If data come from many sources, making it hard to identify a trusted data source.
  • If “data” come in formats that are not directly consumable by the software, (e.g., embedded in static PDF reports), affecting the willingness to rely on it.
  • If the data are not directly accessible, but are interpreted through an owner or third-party.
  • When it’s assumed that all new data created must be of higher precision (e.g. survey-grade data), even when the decision-making doesn’t require that level of detail, project costs and time requirements unnecessarily increase.
  • When it’s assumed that any missing data must be created from scratch- even though a “good-enough” source may already exist.
  • If data are view-able and interactive during the project (e.g., through some app or proprietary software) but are ultimately unable to be extracted, or are available only in a non-standard or proprietary format, then they are probably not going to be useful or used.
  • If the data are being used to inform decision-making beyond the end of the project, and maintenance of the data has not been addressed, then they are probably not going to be useful or used.

CivicMapper is familiar with each of these challenges and has experience helping organizations address them in planning, design, and engineering projects. Almost every organization that we’ve worked with builds upon data of unknown quality. Our philosophy is to start by thinking about data as a living product, not just as a deliverable, and build from there.

This approach includes:

  • Using GIS in a web-first, desktop-last manner;
  • Planning for the long-term hosting of the data at the beginning of the project; and
  • Regarding data like software- it needs maintenance and updates, or else it becomes obsolete.

In this manner, we help organizations take what they have and intelligently build strong, resilient, and reliable data stores upon which we can help implement sustainable business processes that support better planning and design workflows.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn

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