GeoDesign Is About Collaboration and Process

By Joe Francica

GeoDesign may be different things to different people but it isn't just about technology or just GIS or just a different way to visualize location-based data. It is about interaction and collaboration. It's about allowing those who are not familiar with GIS to "play" with GIS.  It isn't about collecting data or 3D visualization or modeling. It is about an iterative process to test one method or model and if that doesn't work then try a different process or model. And this trial and error process needs to be done by citizens, politicians and business people because they look at data and processes from a perspective that may be entirely different from GIS people, who absorb information with a different set of eyes.

The demonstrations and presentations that I observed at the third  GeoDesign Summit at the Esri Campus in Redlands, CA focused on how complex models work behind the scenes while allowing the people who plan the roads, bridges, parks and strip malls to virtually "brain storm," using geography and geospatial technology. Significantly, some of the keynoters were quick to point out that some of the methods typically used by GIS professionals may not work in the "real world," such as collecting as much data as possible before considering the true problem to be addressed.

Carl Steinitz, one of the founders of the GeoDesign concept, believes that many types of models can be used to address the same problem and the outcomes are likely to vary. Steinitz also believes that "scale" is a major factor. "Methods change when you change scale. At a minimum the pieces of the model change when you are looking at different scales," said Steinitz. And while engineers look at a problem at one scale (e.g. street level), city planners looking at the same problem may use an entirely different scale (e.g. city block level) because that's what they are used to using. In the end, both must collaborate or the resulting outcome may have unintended consequences.

I have some skepticism about GeoDesign as it relates to the technology demonstrations that I saw. In reality, the demos were just GIS demos. There were no basic differences other than the fact that the model parameters shown by the presenters were expanded to include some different constraints and used somewhat more sophisticated tools, such as sketching, to see the impact of certain changes. For example, ArcGIS Model Builder scenarios result in a variety of iterations that reveal different outcomes. But that's what we do as GIS professionals. We iterate … a lot.

However, some of the more academic presentations focused on process. How do we address the problem at hand? What questions do we ask first? Steinitz said, "I'm particularly interested in the ‘how’ questions."

Keynote speaker Braden Allenby, a professor of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering and professor of Law at Arizona State University, discussed the interaction of "Earth systems" such as the economy, biodiversity and, in particular, water systems. "These Earth systems are difficult in themselves, but because they are foundational, they are coupled to each other, and to many others," said Allenby.  GeoDesign enters the picture because only through an iterative process can you understand how changes to one system impact the others.

Another keynote speaker, Doug Olsen, president of O2 Planning + Design, spoke about Earth systems, as well. He discussed ways to develop vulnerability and suitability plans based on inputs such as habitat, terrain, transportation and ecological structure in which a weighted average vulnerability map could be created. Hearing this for the first time, it sounded to me like just a GIS talk. Weighted averages are part of map algebra and assigning numerical values to layers is commonplace in GIS. There's no basic difference other than the model parameters are expanded to include some different constraints. What's different in the world of GeoDesign is that the model scenarios include real-time interaction through sketching and other interactive tools to see the impact of certain changes. These model scenarios result in a variety of iterations that reveal different outcomes based on the collaboration of others offering different skill sets, profession backgrounds and experiences.

What technology is used to allow this kind of interaction and iteration? Certainly, one reason that Esri purchased Procedural was to acquire CityEngine: a "rule-driven approach will allow users to undertake large-scale civic planning efforts and will provide immediate visual feedback on the impact of planning decisions," according to press statement released at the time of the acquisition. You might think that CityEngine is just a cross between CAD, BIM and GIS. However, in the past, the iterative process of testing one model, looking at the result, then re-running a new model was time consuming; CityEngine does this in real-time and the visualization is quite stunning.

So, GeoDesign is certainly augmented by new technology but it also inspires the technologist to step back from pushing buttons and to think about the process and the users who eventually want to "play" with the technology. Esri’s president, Jack Dangermond, summed up his view of GeoDesign this way: “At a distance, GeoDesign will be looked at as an evolutionary step for humans; we will realize the consequence of our human actions. GeoDesign will be done by society. What is changing at the same time is technology. We're measuring more, resulting in huge volumes of data - some call it big data. We are making this data available. Computers are getting connected. It’s affecting science and how we approach science. Design is becoming more collaborative and information driven.”

Related blog posts:

GeoDesign Summit Illustrates Breadth of Projects

Observations and Insights from the Geodesign Summit 2012

Disclosure: Esri funded part of the travel expenses related to covering the GeoDesign Summit.

Published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Written by Joe Francica

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