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GIS and big data in development transport planning

GIS and big data in development transport planning

It has been 10 years since I started using geographic information system (GIS) software.

GIS is computer-based software that allows the user to create interactive queries, store and edit spatial and non-spatial data and visually share the results of these operations by presenting them as maps. The production and presentation of maps using GIS software is common in many disciplines, including environmental science and architecture.

Historically, the transport sector has been a hands-on, paper-based industry. However, with the technological advances over the last 30 years, the sector has had to quickly adapt to the new opportunities that GIS has to offer, which is mainly the production of digital, accurately geocoded maps.  

My first experience using GIS software was as a first-year Civil Engineering student, when I did my first summer internship for a mining company in Athens. The mining company wanted to use technology to improve its operations and move away from hand-drawn maps of their mines in Greece and around the globe, so I took a bunch of old maps and digitised them using GIS software.

Fast-forward to 2015. As a young transport planning professional, I re-discovered some of the basic applications of GIS in development transport planning. I was able to create walking / cycling isochrones from a proposed development site location. I worked on planning applications for several school extensions, where I circulated survey questionnaires to existing students/staff to identify their home postcodes and therefore, to evaluate whether there was potential for modal shift towards sustainable modes.

Moving to Markides Associates, I continued developing my skills and built the GIS capability within the company (which was still new at the time), resulting in today having seven staff being competent in using GIS software. In the process, the company quickly shifted away from using purely graphics software tools to produce illustrative mapping and moved towards using GIS software which made it easier to share or use publicly available data to undertake various types of analyses as well as often useful numerical outputs, when required.  

Since then, my colleagues and I have undertaken various exercises using GIS data, including the following:

  • Identified the potential to reduce vehicle speeds by reviewing speed data in GIS
  • Evaluated the alignment of a new bypass road by identifying environmental constraints in a local area
  • Predicted new travel patterns of supermarket customers as a result of the proposed relocation of the supermarket
  • Evaluated walking environments using GIS tools
  • Combined GIS data with 3D building data

…and the list goes on…

As an avid promoter of GIS, I have been trying to think what new applications of GIS I could apply in our work.

I ask my say if, as development transport planners, we have exhausted the capabilities of GIS systems. Are there further capabilities we have not explored as professionals? What are the anticipated impacts from ongoing technological advances such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and the growth of cloud computing? Can we explore further capabilities to add value for our clients and also contribute to sustainable development?

At present, there are certain limitations with the use of GIS. There’s a lack of consistent, good quality public data, challenges in obtaining data that is fit for the purpose of transport assessment, software monopolies, and local authorities not all being able to provide digitise their data due to the lack of funding or expertise.

My verdict is that with the increasing demands of our profession and availability of data, there will be a greater need to develop new capabilities by transportation professionals. Also, my general view is that there will be an increasing need for transportation professionals to collaborate with software engineers and programmers to develop new tools which will make the operations of companies more efficient. Transport planners can and should utilise emerging datasets and technological advances to add value to their work and clients. The transport planner of the future will need to have basic programming skills, whilst being well versed in the type of analysis that transport and urban planning rely on.

By Panos Floros

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Example GIS