The GeoDesign Industry Needs Your Students

by Doug Walker – June 27, 2011

(Doug Walker is president and principal of Placeways LLC)

“Oh good, the college students are here.”  My colleague Amy whispered it to me as we walked into the room, and I smiled.  Things were going well already.

We were in Galveston, Texas at the Texas A&M University campus, arriving to help set up for a public planning workshop the next day.  Our firm, Placeways, sells and uses geodesign software for land use planning projects all over the world, and we were there as consultants.  Our hosts were Prof. John Jacob and Steve Mikulencak of Texas A&M University’s Texas AgriLife Extension and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.  This was their project:  an extension initiative focused on, in their words, “enabling coastal communities in Texas to improve quality of life in cities and towns while preserving and enhancing the natural coastal environment.”  Not only had they lined up some graduate students to help, they had come up with a great project name:  Coastal CHARM (Community Health and Resource Management) https://sites.google.com/site/galvestonbayresilience/home .

The workshop was designed to engage local stakeholders (municipal planners, resource managers, community leaders) more deeply in the regional planning process for the Houston-Galveston area.  It was part education, part participatory planning.  On the one hand, we wanted to teach participants about pertinent topics like jobs and housing, climate change, hurricane risk, and water quality.  On the other hand, we wanted to gain insights, opinions and local knowledge from them, who as local residents had unmatchable knowledge of life in their community.

Enter geodesign.  The centerpiece of the workshop was a hands-on tabletop sketching exercise using CommunityViz http://placeways.com/communityviz/index.php , the ArcGIS http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/index.html  extension for planning and geodesign that our company makes.  The interface was projected on a low-cost “light table” set up using SmoothBoard software and Nintendo Wii remotes. Participants broke into small groups and gathered around tables displaying a live map of the region.  Using marker-like infrared pens as cursors, they pointed, clicked, and drew on the map to sketch growth plans for the next 35 years:  high-density housing here; a new job center there; preserve this as open space; etc.  As they sketched, charts and graphs tracked the likely implications of their plans on all those pertinent topics like hurricane risk and water quality.  I wrote more about it on another blog, which you can read here http://www.orton.org/blog/tabletop_planning_with_community_viz . It was fun, it was educational, and everyone—including the organizers—learned something about how the region works and what the future may hold.

The CHARM system is one of the niftier examples of tabletop sketching I’ve seen lately, but it is not the only one and the practice is growing and improving fast.  We had the chance to support a similar project on Cape Cod, for example, under the auspices of the FHWA, EPA, and a number of other federal agencies working with the Volpe Center http://www.volpe.dot.gov/publiclands/projects/capecod5_interag.html .  Another example, which appeared recently in ArcNews, is from the Netherlands, where Gustavo Arciniegas of the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University in Amsterdam uses similar approaches http://placeways.com/communityviz/gallery/casestudies/pdf/Bodegraven.pdf .

So why did the presence of university students at the set-up session make Amy and me smile?  Setting aside the happy certainty that someone would be around to eat any leftover food, there were about four good reasons:

  1. Most prosaically, we knew the technology would be in good hands.  ArcGIS, CommunityViz, the light table setup—none of them is especially hard to use once it’s loaded and ready to go, but it’s a pretty tall stack of technology and that means there’s a lot to keep track of.  We could assign one student to provide technical support to each table and be confident they would be comfortable, savvy, unflustered should anything go slightly awry. Everyone else at the table could stop worrying about the computers and start focusing on the planning tasks at hand. This is a specific lesson for this particular kind of workshop, but it is also a more general lesson about a valuable role students can play in almost any kind of academic service or extension program that is using newer technology like geodesign that may be intimidating to the general public.
  2. The workshop would have better age diversity.  The average age at most public meetings we attend is well over 50 years.  Citizens over 50 seem to have more time or inclination to participate in activities like community planning, but they represent less than a third of population.  Even in professional meetings like the CHARM workshop, most attendees are well beyond their college years.  Students in their twenties bring a fresh and important perspective to the discussion, so we’re always glad to see them, even if it’s a homework assignment that forced them to show. 
  3. The students would be learning how this stuff works.  As practitioners who promote innovation, we at Placeways have a vested interest in the next generation.  We want them to know about our latest technology and—as importantly—how it applies in the real world.  After graduation, they’ll take that knowledge and those new methods with them into their jobs and practice, eventually making approaches like geodesign a standard part of how planning is done.  Here’s a corollary, which I guess I’ll call Reason 3a:
    1.  As an employer of geography and planning graduates, I can tell you that even a perfect classroom record won’t guarantee a new graduate a job interview unless there is some real-world experience to go with it.  Geodesign is not just a technical exercise.  It’s about making GIS, models, data, and science available to ordinary people in a way they can actually use.  A student who hasn’t worked with that part of it hasn’t really learned geodesign.
    2. We knew we would learn from the students.  We work with students in contexts like this, and we also see them in CommunityViz classes or workshops we sometimes teach at high school, college, graduate, or continuing education levels.  Well-taught students ask questions and have suggestions of their own.  They draw ideas from their own life experience—social networking and video gaming, for example—as well as the breadth of their coursework.  Speaking at least for ourselves at Placeways, but also I suspect for other vendors and practitioners around the industry, these student perspectives are a valuable source of innovative thinking.

Geodesign is still emerging as a field and as a practice.  At Placeways we’re in the middle of it, so it’s a good bet I don’t have perfect perspective.  But from here on the front, I see it bursting out all over.  Geodesign today is where GIS was 20 years ago—finally reaching a stage where the technology is powerful enough to be easy to use, arriving just in time for an audience that is hungry for better ways to connect what we as communities know with what we as a communities decide to do.  The education of today’s students—our society’s next generation of geographers, planners and designers—will be incomplete without geodesign technology, geodesign processes, and geodesign philosophy. 

Plus, Amy and I might be doing a workshop near you, and we’re kind of looking for some college student volunteers…?

(Post submitted by Doug Walker, June 27, 2011. Posted by Tom Paradis)

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One response to “The GeoDesign Industry Needs Your Students

  1. Pingback: Hands-On CommunityViz for Public Workshops « Placeways, LLC – News & Updates

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