The spatial visualization of transportation and urban planning data: a potential career path?

Reviving an old blog post from 2 years ago from my old blog. I just heard from a friend at UCLA Urban Planning that this post was an assigned reading for a graduate level class. Whoa!

This video was made by the SensableCityLab at MIT with collaboration with students and researchers from Singapore. Here’s the description:

The real-time city is now real! The digital revolution has layered a vast system of cameras, communication devices, microcontrollers and sensors over our environment, enabling entirely new ways to imagine, monitor, and understand our cities. These systems have a value that goes beyond their original purpose: the digital exhaust of cellular networks reveals social and economic patterns, tracking systems highlight global material flows, and digitally managed transportation fleets address a city’s mobility. Taken together, the impact of digital networks on cities will be as significant as any past human undertaking.

LIVE Singapore!, an ongoing initiative by the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, closes the feedback loop between people moving in the city and the digital data generated by their actions. The project’s platform allows for the collection and combination of multiple data streams and provides access to data through dynamic visualizations that offer new insights into Singapore’s urban dynamics.

LIVE Singapore! provides people with access to a range of useful real-time information about their city by developing an open platform for the collection, elaboration and distribution of real-time data that reflect urban activity. Giving people visual and tangible access to real-time information about their city enables them to take their decisions more in sync with their environment, with what is actually happening around them.

I have a strong interest in this area of research and practice because it is a part of my specializations: the spatial visualization of transportation and urban planning data. I am trying to develop a potential career path in this field, given my developing strength in GIS, my love for participatory planning, and a desire to understand how people use, live, work, and play in a city.

Standard map vs. driving time map of Paris: the city center expands from congestion, and the edge is denser. Credit to Xiaoji Chen from MIT and SENSEableCity Lab.

In 2009, the UC Berkeley Tech Transfer released an article titled, Visualization: A Key Tool in Transportation Planning“. The main concept of the article was simply, “Why simply talk about a project when you can show it?” In an era of environmental sustainability,when everybody is encouraged to live closer to where they work and play, as well as use alternative modes of transportation more, engaging the public is key in getting people to support transportation projects which will create sustainable cities.

The Tech Transfer defines visualization as “the practice of using pictures to convey the complex character of data or proposed projects and how they function. Traditional visualization methods include sketches, drawings, artist renderings, physical models and maps, simulated photos, and videos. Advances in computer technology provide a new group of three-dimensional (3-D) visualization techniques to work with, such as computer modeled images, interactive geographic information systems (GIS), photo manipulation, and computer simulation.”

Ultimately, this is a tool you can use to communicate your ideas. In a time of Facebook & smartphones, where everything goes fast and brief, having the perspective of community members are important; being wordy, filled with technical jargon is the path of previous generations.

However, the article notes that “most local agencies and state DOTs do not have a visualization job classification category; instead, agencies typically classify visualization positions as either Information Technology (IT) positions or as transportation technician positions, which require civil engineering experience. These limited classifications make it difficult to recruit and hire employees who possess the appropriate skill sets to perform the job, such as those with graphic or visual design backgrounds. Visualization staff members need to understand transportation design concepts, but they also need to possess creativity.”

Is this potentially an area where innovation can grow? Currently, I am trying to expose myself to as much transportation design concepts as possible, and whenever I am in an internship, creativity is key, even when the task doesn’t require much of it. When I am working with GIS or maps, for example, I often place a very “design-oriented” mindset in my work because I don’t want to communicate the concepts in the maps the same way my professor explains transport/city planning concepts.

Over time, I have developed many transportation and planning interests: bike/ped planning, infrastructure & safety; transport planning & public health; preservation of urban communities; the spatial visualization of transport and urban planning data. However, to be honest, I love a variety of areas of transport and urban planning. Traffic operations, travel demand modeling, public transport operations, transportation planning, parking planning, land use, public health, urban design, livable streets & cities, improving the public realm … it goes on and on and on. I honestly don’t want to be a specialist in one area, but to be exposed in all of these areas one point in my life.

At the same time, what if I specialize in visualization of transportation and urban planning data, with an emphasis on urban design and spatial visualization on GIS? This allows me to learn almost all these things, while going into an area not many people are in right now.

(Below: Another project by the MIT SENSEable City Lab The Copenhagen Wheel: “Smart, responsive and elegant, the Copenhagen Wheel is a new emblem for urban mobility. It transforms ordinary bicycles quickly into hybrid e-bikes that also function as mobile sensing units. The Copenhagen Wheel allows you to capture the energy dissipated while cycling and braking and save it for when you need a bit of a boost. It also maps pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in real-time”)

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