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A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Spreadsheets (Industry Perspective)

San Francisco and a number of other cities have discovered that information becomes more intuitive and comprehensive when it can be visualized in 3-D models.

by Oliver Keane / November 19, 2015

People now produce petabytes of data every year, and much of it is collected by cities. The dream of big data is that by harnessing all this information we can dramatically improve services, city government operations and citizens’ lives. Making cities more responsive and data-driven is the goal. But given that 95 percent of data is unstructured and mostly goes unused, local governments are far from reaching that goal. As cities are learning, open data only goes so far.

The challenge right now is how to use the data cities already have — how to turn data into meaningful action. Cities are huge and made up of interrelated social and economic systems; the data generated is commensurately complex and difficult to understand. So how do we move from tabular files and basic dashboards for urban data to a system where that information informs decisions on a daily basis?

We need to change how we deal with data, and we need to make it easily and directly accessible to users. Public officials should be able to take a look at information in context and really see how the systems of a city fit together and how it impacts both decision-making processes and the decision itself.

Visualization is key. Humans aren’t particularly good at understanding or dealing with problems unless we can see them for ourselves. It’s telling that the environmental movement really took off after the Apollo program published photographs of the Earth from the moon. Once people got their first real look at the only home we will know for some time, they realized it was worth preserving.

Illustrating an issue goes some way toward solving it, but it is not and cannot be the magic bullet. An overview isn’t worth much without specifics or the ability to take action. You need to be able to use the information behind the image.

When San Francisco opened an online open data portal for building energy efficiency and emissions monitoring last year it received little traffic. This is not an insubstantial problem. A majority of the city’s emissions and power usage stems from commercial properties, and industry compliance with regulations is a core part of the city government’s plan to meet its 2030 climate goals. Just putting the data online didn’t work. Something more was required.

By visualizing individual building energy-efficiency and emissions data across the city within a simulated, interactive 3-D model, the city can now pinpoint problem properties and work with building owners to improve performance. This represents a massive step up in their ability to ensure compliance and helps put the city on track for 2030.

“Data has the power to inform, to motivate and to accelerate the realization of San Francisco’s goals for greenhouse gas emission reduction from the built environment,” said Melanie Nutter, former director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

San Francisco is not the only city to realize how the power of visualization can generate real-world change. Barcelona, Chicago, Amsterdam, Washington, D.C., and many other cities are taking similar approaches to solve a variety of issues they face from underground infrastructure monitoring to wireless network coverage.

Simply changing the way users interact with information — rendering it in an intuitive and comprehensible format — makes its conclusions impossible to ignore. Open data was a decent first step. This is what's next.

Oliver Keane is the director of communications for Cityzenith, a company that provides data visualization platform software and applications for the Internet of Things and smart cities.

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