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Miller Bill ThumbThe convergence of design tools with the analytics and data aggregation capabilities of GIS is an ongoing process. With Esri’s GeoDesign concept and conference, they have served to provide a springboard for accelerated innovation with dialogue that will frame a new more holistic design practice. Bill Miller, director of GeoDesign Services at Esri, has been one of the visionaries to frame the concept and the requirements for new tools. Matt Ball recently spoke to Miller about the goals and progress as well as the competitive marketplace.

Miller BillThe convergence of design tools with the analytics and data aggregation capabilities of GIS is an ongoing process. With Esri’s GeoDesign concept and conference, they have served to provide a springboard for accelerated innovation with dialogue that will frame a new more holistic design practice. Bill Miller, director of GeoDesign Services at Esri, has been one of the visionaries to frame the concept and the requirements for new tools. Matt Ball recently spoke to Miller about the goals and progress as well as the competitive marketplace.

Ball: The concept of GeoDesign is a culmination of a lot of work that has taken place at Esri, but it seems to me that with your background as an engineer, an architect, and teaching architecture, that it’s your passion as well.

Miller: It’s been both Jack Dangermond’s and my passion for I’d say ten years at Esri. In the beginning, Jack wanted to carry GIS technology into the design dimension, so it’s probably been his idea longer than it’s been with me.

Ball: GIS went more the system route first, in terms of quantifying assets and attributes, and now it’s coming back to design?

Miller: There are three major segments of GIS evolution, and technologies to point out. One is data, with maps that bind, secure and use data. Esri started out developing geodatabases, and the big question was, “where is the data?” As that mission was fulfilled, it migrated to the second segment of analysis and feature processing — you analyze geography for various purposes and reasons. The third segment is design, and that’s the most recent segment. Once you have data and you analyze it for a purpose, then you do creative work with that analysis.

That creative work hasn’t been supported by GIS technology until recently. GeoDesign is about building the support infrastructure of tools, services, technologies, and education. The focus is on the design workflow, so that our customers can harness their data and analysis and use it in their creative process.

As they create their designs and plans in a geographic space it is automatically referenced to all the information that is there. It’s informed by the GIScience that is available about that geographic space. That’s the third GIS segment, to allow people to do their design in geographic space, supported by the preceding work and science that have gone into understanding that geographic space.

Ball: I’m really interested in the combination of the indoor design tools, with CAD tools being the leader there, and the outdoor design tools made available through GIS. It’s also an interoperability story as these worlds come together.

Miller: I think that’s a classical view about the difference between CAD and GIS, that CAD is indoor and GIS is outdoors. I believe both of those premises are being challenged. CAD is moving into site planning, and GIS is moving into the building space. Many large buildings, such as campuses and airports are being managed using GIS. There are also many site design tools being overlaid with CAD systems. There’s an overlay and blur, and a collision zone between CAD and GIS. There are also interoperability questions, if you’re used to working a particular toolset whether GIS or CAD, you want to do everything in that environment because you’ve invested in the skills to work in that area and you don’t want to learn new technology. But I think that this will play out over time, and there will be room for CAD in geographic space, and for GIS in the CAD space.

Ball: The CAD vendors speak to model-based design, and the full lifecycle of a project. It seems that GeoDesign is focused in that space as well, although maybe now focused more on the design side than on the ongoing maintenance of infrastructure?

Miller: Well, I’d say that the phase that we’re in right now in GeoDesign is the two-dimensional phase. We’re building a lot of tools and workflows to assist in the making of regional plans and building sites in two dimensions using GIS technology for design and facility management. In the long run, GIS will move into multidimensional space, in what I refer to as the geoscape. The geoscape is defined as the zone above and below the surface of the Earth that supports life.

It’s a new definition of geographic space, and as GeoDesign moves into that new geographic space it has to become three dimensional. Not three-dimensional in the sense of a building where you need to represent walls, floors and ceilings, but in the geoscape sense. We want to represent climatic conditions and how that activity reaches the surface of the Earth with particles in the atmosphere penetrating and percolating into the soil and then the aquifers. That would be an example of 3D geographic space. GIS will move more into that 3D geographic space rather than in the building sense. I don’t see GIS being used to build 3D BIM models.

Ball: It’s interesting to see where things are headed in terms of understanding impacts. In the CAD world as it has moved more toward model-based designs there are plug-ins and services to help understand energy efficiency, and to then model again to improve that performance. When you talk about the broader context of the Earth, and earth systems, there are so many other impacts to assess. Do you see it going more toward filtering design through some sort of impact analysis tool?

Miller: GIS might support design with buildings such as in an urban design scenario in two ways. It will help create the contextual set of design guidelines for designing a facility, with environmental and cultural conditions that could affect the impact on that design. Then once it is designed, the output of the design process could be imported into GIS to measure the performance of that design with respect to those parameters, with a classic impact analysis.

GeoDesign isn’t just technology, it provides the context between urban design and the basis for a more holistic analysis and understanding of the appropriateness of the design as they are created.

Ball: It’s interesting that with the planning community, while they may have embraced GIS early on, there aren’t many planners using a digital workflow. Is that one of the objectives, to have GeoDesign used more in that community?

Miller: Yes, I think so. We need to support the classical design and planning workflow, particularly with regional planning. There are firms that do that and use GIS technology quite effectively. O2 Planning and Design in Calgary, Alberta is one of those. They understand the workflow and GIS, and they put the two together quite creatively.

Ball: That was one of the more powerful presentations at this year’s GeoDesign Summit with the level of complexity of a large regional plan and with a strong public outreach component. Opening design to more citizen feedback is also a part of GeoDesign, right?

Miller: You can have people participate at various levels. They can participate by expressing what they want to see incorporated in the design process, they can participate in design by submitting a sketch such as the land use they want to see, and they can also offer criticism to a draft plan. GeoDesign will have to absorb all of these levels and incorporate each of those aspects of participation.

I’d like to comment on our understanding of CAD, as it’s often talked about as you have as supporting the design process. CAD and BIM better support the documentation process, not the design process where you’re doing the initial creation work. The program that is most used by the architectural community in the conceptual phase is SketchUp, because it’s so much easier to use.

People go to CAD and BIM after they have a design concept, and then they flush it out with more detail. Think about the architectural process from concept design to schematic design, to detailed design, to construction documents. CAD doesn’t support the concept design well, and it might not even support the schematic design well, depending on the skills of the user. But it does support the detailed design and the construction documents, and of course it supports the management of buildings.

Ball: Does GIS step into that gap?

Miller: In the long run, you might find GIS tools used to do a concept design in geographic space where you can be informed as you design as to the quality of that design. For example, if I’m drawing a polygon where residential housing is going to go, I could overlay that polygon showing the conflict of wetlands. You can’t do that in CAD or a sketch tool like SketchUp. I think there’s space for GIS technology, if it supports the GeoDesign workflow, to enter into the concept design phase. Once that has been executed, there should be the means to export the results of the concept design to a  CAD or BIM application for further refinement.

GeoDesign with respect to the use of GIS technology is in its earliest phases. Our biggest challenge as tools providers is to create tools and technology workflows that are easy to use and that can compete with pencil and paper. Now this is almost an oxymoron when you talk to a programmer, because they think in terms of feature completion and complexity. Our challenge in building GeoDesign tools is to build tools that are as easy to use as pencil and paper, and that facilitate the flow of imagination rather than interrupt it with steps such as opening a dialogue box or a drop-down menu.

We need to make this really smooth for people. If there is any underlying message to the GIS community in this interview, then it is that. We have to build tools that allow people to go from the figment of their imagination to some rendition of that with zero impedance. If there’s anything to stall that, then they are going to stop using it and go back to using pencil and paper. Or the CAD vendors will be more successful than we are, and they’ll go the CAD route.

Ball: GIS certainly has a great deal of complexity, and it has been a bit of an issue even from just the standpoint of talking to people about GIS and relating the concept. That’s an exciting frontier to drive down the complexity. Are the new tools also enabled by new environments, such as the cloud-based environments that Esri is creating?

Miller: I think the issue isn’t so much the cloud or the platform, but with the user interface. You can have a difficult user interface on the cloud or the desktop. I think the real issue for the people that design the GeoDesign tool is to make it wonderfully convenient and maybe even inspirational to use.

I think we’ve seen the inspiration for these in the types of applications that are coming out for the iPad and iPhone. These are made for mass consumption, but they handle a lot of things in the background. Why can’t GIS tools providers do the same thing?

Ball: There are a lot of academics at the GeoDesign Summit, and certainly some excellent ideas from that community in terms of the process. Is there also the need to bring us beyond the concepts to actual practice with engineers and architects?

Miller: There are a couple of things there, where the attendance at the GeoDesign Summit has been skewed more toward academics with the time and resources to come to a conference. They also like to talk about things in their early phases, to expand and evolve ideas. The professional community, where they are doing work and getting paid for it, don’t often have the time and resources unless there is some compelling reason for them to be there. Right now, the conversations that we’re having around the GeoDesign Summit are centered on what should be done rather than what is done now. As we start talking more about what is being done, and is available now, the reference value to professionals will increase and we’ll see a shift toward the professional focus.

The interesting part about the academics is that they also represent the science with respect to the information that is manipulated by GIS or GeoDesign. They will be there because they represent hydrology, or sociology, or some other aspect of our environment. They will see GeoDesign as a way to incorporate the values represented by their disciplines so that they can be included in the design process. You’ll see them continuing to be involved, regardless of the number of professionals that are there.

Ball: At the event, it’s been good to see some of the custom tools from some of the large environmental design firms, where they have been taking GIS functionality and incorporating it into their own branded process. Is there a danger there with that competition?

Miller: They’ve done it in part because we haven’t provided it for them, so they developed their own. They have a proprietary interest in those tools because they invested a lot of money to develop them. It’s been a good thing, because it’s put the thorn in our flesh and also provided good examples.

I think most of the firms that have built an application for the work of their firm won’t sell it as a separate software package to be used, because they don’t want their competitors to have it. In time, if we can produce applications that are more powerful and easy to use than what they have done, then they will switch. Many years ago Weyerhauser had their own GIS system that they developed over time,and it was quite a good system. Eventually they saw that ArcGIS had grown and evolved and could do things that their system couldn’t, so they made the switch.

Ball: Are we moving toward a GeoDesign tool? CityEngine is an impressive tool for its flexibility and ease of 3D modeling, as that gets more connected with GIS does that become a more holistic environment for GeoDesign or do people put together the pieces that they need?

Miller: I think we’ll see pieces for a while. CityEngine isn’t intuitively easy to use, it’s very capable, but it’s designed for a more deeply thoughtful workflow rather than quick sketching. I think that in the long run, GeoDesign will do two things. It will address workflows, where there will be GIS understanding of the overall workflow and with different domains such as agriculture, urban planning, disaster management, etc. As we understand the workflows, we’ll provide tools from data to analysis to design for those in ways that are easy to use and reuse. That process will give us job security for the next decade or two. 

Ball: It’s been interesting to see the concept of GeoDesign be adopted by some areas where you might not expect it, such as with utility network design and other more engineering-focused areas that are centered around designing a more efficient process.

Miller: One of the domains that will consume more GeoDesign workflow and technology than any other is disaster planning, response and recovery. Because, when you are assessing risk it’s a process that includes data and analysis in the context of plans to mitigate or respond to an event. How you respond and recover are design activities that will consume all aspects of GeoDesign.

Ball: It’s a challenging time right now with so many aspects of global change that will have disruptive impacts on how we live. It seems an exciting time to be developing these technologies that will aid our understanding and mitigate the impacts.

Miller: One of the powers of GeoDesign and the GIS workflow is the ability to integrate spatial information from many disciplines into one integrated system. That is a very powerful capability.

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