Analysis

Better city planning through real-time data

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April 21, 2015 │ Drew Turney

Urban planning is usually cut and dried when you know where people live, where they work and how they commute. But one area that brother-and-sister computer scientists Enrique and Vanessa Frías-Martínez realised is under-represented in urban planning is nightlife.

What's more, they think we have one of the richest real-time records of how people are using their city for entertainment and nightlife – Twitter.

"Geo-localised tweets can be a very useful source of information for planning," Enrique Frías-Martínez says, "[It's] carried out by a large number of people who provide information on where they are at a specific time and what they are doing."

The Frías-Martínez siblings, who are computer scientists at Telefonica Research in Madrid, have mined Twitter for geo-location information in Manhattan, Madrid and London.

Because city planning doesn't usually take nightlife into account, the impacts on noise management, security, cleaning and public transport aren't tracked very well, but the pair suggest the data stream could contribute to designing better buildings, neighbourhoods and cities.

It's the latest potential advance in the field of building information modelling (BIM). BIM is a common tool in architecture and urban planning where digital models are generated to help manage the real-world places they represent.

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It's a concept several technology vendors are taking notice of; 3D modelling software maker Autodesk calls the practice "reality computing".

"These new technologies are fundamentally changing the way we make things," says Amar Hanspal, Autodesk's senior vice-president of information modelling and platform group. "Pervasive connectivity lets project teams tap expertise from around the world. We have easier access to complex production methods, supply chains and capital through crowdfunding, and we're seeing the digital and physical sides of products and projects become more deeply entwined."

The sources of data can be as varied as there are sensors and tools deployed in a given area. When presenting reality computing recently, Hanspal suggested city rubbish bins that can report back to sanitation control when they need emptying, streamlining garbage truck routes. Security camera data in large workplaces can build a model of areas that aren't used often, letting building managers turn lighting off to save power.

One of the selling points of BIM is that programmers can tweak inputs to create new simulations, revealing the best changes to make. Cloud computing and big data can then synthesise information from a huge number of sources (such as Twitter in the above example) to build an ever-more detailed picture – of an entire city, in some cases.

In one example, the city of Vancouver, in Canada, is using Autodesk products to understand how new high-rise building proposals will affect views, population concentration and transit needs.

Australian builders and planners are high on the list of BIM users, behind only the United States and South Korea when it comes to users with three or more years' experience, but second only to the US in "very heavy" BIM use (more than 60 per cent of projects), according to a report from McGraw Hill Construction.

Engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services provider GHD Australia recently tendered for the project to revitalise Sydney's Central-to-Eveleigh rail corridor, and 3D modelling was a critical part.

"New software tools that tap into the cloud have just recently made this possible," says Brett Casson, the Autodesk infrastructure development executive who worked on the GHD tender. "Previously, software and hardware limitations prevented us from handling this size and scale of models."

GHD combined a variety of data sets such as terrain, aerial imagery and 3D building models to build a 3D virtual Sydney. It allowed the company to see whether plans proposed could be validated against the actual data. For example, analysing the number of commuters going from Newtown to the CBD in combination with the number of three-storey dwellings would ensure the plans would meet the needs of commuter traffic volume.

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