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January 27th, 2015
Why does geodesign have to start with authoritative data?

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The 2015 Geodesign Summit, the sixth in the series, took place last week at the Esri campus in Redlands, Calif. The event continues to draw a consistent and passionate crowd who have evolved from defining the art and science of geodesign to applying it and making an impact.

Geodesign is about more holistic planning that takes into account a myriad of site details with the goal of more efficient and sustainable urban places and built infrastructure that is more in tune with nature. The practice of geodesign involves the collection of a variety of site details, the crafting of an informed design (actually designs), and then an interactive and participatory feedback period to select the design that best fits with many objectives.

Today’s design and planning process requires far less of a time and dollar budget up front thanks to advancements in modeling software and readily available data. Getting the data right is key to believable plans that lead to action. With proper data inputs, and the ability to morph and adjust as feedback comes in, our designs can begin to address the urgency for adaptation.

Provisioning a Platform

Esri has been amassing data from their beginning of GIS, but the disk, CD-ROMs and then DVDs of data have become a cloud-based repository. Datasets include those they have created alongside a marketplace for their partners to sell their data and a mechanism for users to share their data. This three-pronged approach has provisioned their platform and greatly reduced the pain of compiling accurate information before planning and design can begin.

Other vendors have taken similar steps, which has meant that users are more productive more quickly than ever before. Esri has taken it one step further by compiling several global datasets and coining a Living Atlas approach that will be constantly updated with more data. Of note are the detailed population map of the world with demographics and statistics about all countries alongside a detailed global ecological land unit map of the world. They are also working to add community segmentation data to recognize human patterns. Together these data provide a great foundation for geodesign with a start that understands our environment alongside socioeconomic and demographic details.

Ensuring Authority

In a time when national map agencies are underfunded, and in lieu of a global spatial data authority, it’s good that a company with a mission around knowledge sharing and creation has stepped up to compile these datasets. Not only does Esri have a conduit to both data creators and users, they also possess the knowledge to develop an accurate and statistically valid data source.

Esri teamed with the U.S. Geological Survey on the Ecological Land Unit (ELU) map of the world. The map provides a better understanding of ecological diversity and the patterns of our planet. Similarly, Esri employed advanced techniques on the population data for the world, with sociodemographic details that go beyond the typical census data. The added step of normalizing for the globe (130 countries to date and counting) means that it can help to explore issues of society. Together these two data sets also allow us to drill down into the impacts between humans and the environment, and to explore ways to design to lessen that impact.

Enhancing Insight

Socioeconomic and ecological data at this new granularity make it possible to ask some profound questions. With both a standardized and normalized model of humans and nature, comparative studies can be done for similar geographic units, ecological areas, population densities, etc. The ability to contrast and compare is a key ingredient for new insights. Geodesign is about sketching, modeling and ultimately simulating designed outcomes where there’s a plasticity in the modeling to allow for comparisons that are key to achieving the optimum design.

These data hold a promise to help us explore and reach consensus on smart paths forward that are informed and that can be visualized and shared. Ultimately there’s an element of accounting in it all, with a price put on the ecosystem services that sustain life. When we can quantify and values for nature and a design that’s in tune with these services, then planners and developers can apply a different design. Valuing nature in dollars and cents provides a path forward that helps cut through philosophical arguments to provide a quantitative comparison that we all understand.

There’s a legacy feeling about Esri’s investment in these global datasets, and the accelerated development of geodesign tools. If you’ve listened to Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri, over the last few years he has remarked repeatedly about a growing urgency to address issues of climate change and the limited resources on Earth. The tools that he fostered have gained momentum globally and for a myriad of applications where they help add order and improve outcomes, but they have not scaled at the same speed as population and environmental pressures upon our planet. Perhaps now with a platform primed for outcome explorations, we’ll see an increase in more thoughtful design aimed at adaptation.

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