Visualizing the Urban Future With Analytics


What if you could visualize the future for your community? Better yet, what if you (as just a community member) could have a hand in designing that future?

New analytics data visualization tools, now emerging for urban planning, are starting to make that possible.

One of the deployments at the leading edge of this technological revolution is the Sustainable Places Project (SPP) Analytic Tool Suite, sponsored by the city of Austin and a coalition of other central Texas communities and public agencies. Comprising multiple components, the system runs on a huge lash-up of processing power provided by the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas.

While it's still a project under development, the SPP Analytic Tool Suite already has demonstrated impressive results in pulling together multiple resources from diverse agencies, processing vast volumes of regional data, and rendering fascinating urban planning products for decision-making. It's taking urban planning to a new level.

What it's now able to do is feed fairly large data inputs (like census data) into a specialized analytics package to forecast the impact of sustainable urban development, particularly in response to dynamics such as rail transit development planned for central Texas, with data visualization as a major product. In other words, planners, politicians, and the public not only can get projections in the form of numbers, tables, graphs, and maps, but also can see alternative 3D simulations of what their communities could actually look like under different scenarios with different assumptions, as tweaked by users.

In a phone interview, Dr. Paul A. Navrátil, PhD, manager of Scalable Visualization Technologies for TACC, emphasized that, even with advanced analytics, there's always some uncertainty because "you're dealing with a lot of unknowns" and variables that could change everything. These could range from natural disasters to economic crashes to political upheavals. But, like weather prediction models, with lots of good data and smart analytic algorithms, you can get some extremely useful results despite the room for uncertainty.

What do these results look like? From an urban planner's standpoint, they're spectacular. Using its database of maps plus templates of types of local construction, the system can render 3D visualizations of what streetscapes can look like under the inputs of data and assumptions -- including local scenes, landmarks, and other authentic features, Navrátil said.

Simulation rendered by the system shows the streetscape as it is currently (top), with moderate mixed-use development (middle), and with high-density mixed-use development (bottom). (Source: SPP)
Simulation rendered by the system shows the streetscape as it is currently (top), with moderate mixed-use development (middle), and with high-density mixed-use development (bottom).
(Source: SPP)

But the SPP analytic tool package also provides other kinds of output -- including tables, graphs, and maps -- presenting calculated results as well as visual simulations. Planners, officials, and the public have more, and more understandable, data about their communities and the potential consequences of their decisions than ever before.

A recent public presentation of sample results focused mainly on several case studies of areas served by a proposed Austin urban rail line. The analytics tool package generated a wide range of outputs, showing features and projections such as population trends, traffic impacts, economic development, tax revenue implications, and more. The presentation (which includes a description of the modeling package) is available for viewing as a PDF here.

The tool package consists of three major components:

  • Envision Tomorrow+ (ET+) -- a scenario-planning tool created by Fregonese Associates and Austin Specific Apps
  • SPARC -- a GeoDatabase server developed by Criterion Planners
  • CityEngine -- a 3D visualization tool integrated with ET+, developed by GIS software giant Esri (for scenario outputs)

SPARC, the core of the system, comprises the central data repository, holding raw, calculated, and output data. While output can take a variety of forms, such as databases, familiar graphs, Excel worksheets, etc., it's really the spectacular 3D CityEngine simulations that tend to steal the show.

The analytics tool architecture shows the key roles of SPARC, ET+, and CityEngine components. (Source: SPP)
The analytics tool architecture shows the key roles of SPARC, ET+, and CityEngine components.
(Source: SPP)

To run this powerful analytics package takes a beefy trio of supercomputers -- named, true Texas-style, Longhorn, Lonestar, and Stampede -- with a breathtaking total of 373 terabytes of RAM and nearly nine petaflops of computing power. This hefty computer firepower includes more than 15 petabytes of what Navrátil described as "spinning disk for intermediate data and maintaining data during simulation runs" -- certainly a Texas-size workbench.

While the analytics suite's capabilities and products are amazing, TACC is striving for something even more impressive: enabling users to interact with the system in real-time, changing data or assumption inputs, and then seeing the results immediately as data visualization -- accessible even to your own PC or tablet. TACC is not there yet, but it's vigorously pursuing funding from the Sustainable Places program of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to move the project closer to that goal.

Would you like to see this sort of urban visualization effort where you live? Share your thoughts in the discussion below.

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Lyndon Henry, Writer/Editor & Transportation Consultant

Lyndon Henry, a writer, editor, journalist, and transportation consultant, holds a Master of Science in community and regional planning (transportation focus), 1981, and a Bachelor of Arts in History, 1964, both from the University of Texas at Austin. In 1973 he presented the original proposals and feasibility studies of light rail for Austin, which led to planning for rail transit in the region. From 1981 to 1985 he served as a transportation consultant to the Hajj Research Centre in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a consultant on various transit projects in the US. In 1984, as a member of the Austin-Travis County Transit Task Force, his recommendation to form a transit authority for the Austin area with a full funding mechanism was accepted, and the authority, now called Capital Metro, was created in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, Henry served as a board member and vice-chairman of the agency. From 1990 to 1992 he taught a course in public policy at St. Edwards University (Austin). From 2002 to 2011 he served as a data analyst for Capital Metro. Among other pursuits, his background also includes work as a programmer and systems analyst, investigative journalist, and creative fiction writer. Currently he is a blog columnist for Railway Age magazine.

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Re: So cool
  • 10/3/2013 9:15:40 AM
NO RATINGS

I think it's incumbent upon cities to show their tech-savviness, to good purpose. Sounds like Austin understands that fairly well.

Re: So cool
  • 10/3/2013 8:30:56 AM
NO RATINGS

..

Beth asks


Would you expect to see more community involvement now -- bringing people into the process who otherwise wouldn't have been able to visualize development plans enough to be valuable in the evaluation and decision-making?


 

Beth, the data visualization graphics are pretty spectacular, at least, to those of us involved in urban and transport planning, and in comparison to the past. But they're not a 3D IMAX movie. (Maybe that needs to be the next level?)

I don't think the graphics alone will draw in new crowds. Instead, I think better, more democratic public participation modalities would offer a significantly stronger incentive (e.g., real public meetings -- we're currently having a debate in Austin over this issue).

But I do think these new 3D graphic data visualization capabilities will provide members of the community a more pleasing experience and better understanding of plans and options. That in turn could likely entice more people to attend public activities and be less intimidated by the prospect of a barrage of information and choices.

This could particularly happen as the visualization tools are made more accessible and "democratized", so PC monitors and tablets at neighborhood-level meetings would be able to show them, and eventually the public in general could simply use their own PCs and devices to link to, say, the SPP and view them at their leisure. Gaining that capability is definitely on Dr. Navratil's agenda.

 

Re: So cool
  • 10/1/2013 8:32:29 AM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon, impressive! I've never been to Austin, but one day perhaps I'll visit and ride the rails knowing your hand in developing the system. I can certainly understand why you're excited about the visualization capability. Would you expect to see more community involvement now -- bringing people into the process who otherwise wouldn't have been able to visualize development plans enough to be valuable in the evaluation and decision-making?

Objective Fact based decisions
  • 9/30/2013 4:42:21 PM
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Lyndon I love your objective fact based approach-- it takes the subjectivity and opinions out of the planning process. In my neighboring town there has been a debate about opening a Whole Foods for over a year. All of the discussions are surrounding community implications versus zoning. Your type of analysis would certainly save money and put the best interests of the community in the forefront.

Re: So cool
  • 9/30/2013 3:45:53 PM
NO RATINGS

..

Beth asks


So as an Austin resident, do you see yourself getting involved in urban planning thanks to the tool availability?


 

Actually, Beth, I've been involved with Austin urban planning for quite a long time and am credited with having proposed a modern rail transit system for the city and, together with a colleague, conceiving the light railway system Austin now has. He and I also played a pivotal role in helping create Capital Metro, the transit authority.

Currently, urban planning in Austin is strongly anchored around urban rail and regional rail planning efforts.

My MS degree is in Community & Regional Planning so I have a strong professional as well as advocacy interest, and in those roles I've been involved both "outside" and "inside" the official planning process:

• "Outside" proposing light rail and pushing it into the official process, and helping form Capital Metro...

• "Inside" as Capital Metro board member...

• "Outside" advocating different approaches to implementing workable rail transit in Austin...

• "Inside" as data analyst for Capital Metro...

• "Outside" now as community member promoting an alternative approach for urban rail being planned.

I'm actually thrilled by the SPP/TACC analytic tool suite especially because of its amazing visualization capabilities, which truly have catapulted urban planning well ahead for both planners and community members alike. In the bad old days, we had nothing remotely like this kind of capability to use in trying to understand and communicate the potential results of planning decisions.

 

Re: So cool
  • 9/30/2013 12:59:02 PM
NO RATINGS

So as an Austin resident, do you see yourself getting involved in urban planning thanks to the tool availability?

Re: So cool
  • 9/30/2013 11:24:57 AM
NO RATINGS

..

Beth writes


it'll be interesting to see which other urban areas do tap the experience and expertise the team is developing in Austin. Cool stuff. 


 

It may take time, but I think they've established a new higher bar here that urban planning just about everywhere will eventually need to meet.

Lyndon (now back in Austin)

Bring it here!
  • 9/30/2013 11:09:26 AM
NO RATINGS

Yes Lyndon, I would love to see it. I live in suburban NJ and our planning board literally spends months embroiled in discussions about development with both sides hiring lawyers, environmentalists traffic specialists etc. It is truly painful to see these battles continue for months.  This type of analytics could put an end to these types of battles and get towns moving toward positive development that creates jobs, housing and infrastructure.

Re: So cool
  • 9/30/2013 8:19:34 AM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon, it'll be interesting to see which other urban areas do tap the experience and expertise the team is developing in Austin. Cool stuff. 

 

Re: Effective?
  • 9/29/2013 9:19:18 PM
NO RATINGS

Broadway, to extend rbaz's point, many of the best decisions for civic projects and urban development usually take a longer arc than a politician's career. The hard part is timing the consequences during a politician's term. Outside of a scandal, the two rarely meet. But you certainly raise a key outlook, on in this case, lack of one.

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