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Empowering Clients Through Tech: How business intelligence (BI) software is improving our delivery of GIS

Urban-Systems-Cycle_Zone external image-full

Sample of Tableau analysis for cycling zones in Metro Vancouver

In most practice areas at Urban Systems, professionals are often looking at innovative ways to effectively process and communicate information to our internal and external clients. In the last fifteen years, the use of geographic information systems (GIS) has led to a significant leap in how our teams at Urban Systems process, analyze and display data for the public and our clients. Traditionally, GIS outputs consisted of static maps, often displaying the results of some sort of analysis. In the last few years, the technology has moved to the internet in the form of webmaps, which allows us to display spatial data in a way that lets individuals without technical knowledge or expertise in a given field to view, map and understand the information.

In most practice areas at Urban Systems, professionals are often looking at innovative ways to effectively process and communicate information to our internal and external clients. In the last fifteen years, the use of geographic information systems (GIS) has led to a significant leap in how our teams at Urban Systems process, analyze and display data for the public and our clients. Traditionally, GIS outputs consisted of static maps, often displaying the results of some sort of analysis. In the last few years, the technology has moved to the internet in the form of webmaps, which allows us to display spatial data in a way that lets individuals without technical knowledge or expertise in a given field to view, map and understand the information.

Sean Fadum

Just as GIS has ‘risen the bar’ on how we process and communicate data, leveraging BI software along with our GIS workflows, has the potential to raise the bar even further. Seeing the opportunity for providing a higher level of service to our clients, Sean Fadum, a GIS Analyst in our Surrey office, took some initiative to learn one of the industry leading BI software packages called Tableau, in order to become a specialist with what he sees as a vital tool for not only Urban Systems but our clients as well.

At its core, Tableau is a data visualization tool – a way to display both (often complicated) spatial and tabular data, through sophisticated charts, graphs, tables and maps. The real power of Tableau lies in its ability to allow users to interact and analyze information at a very fine-grained level (if so desired) through a simple, single centralized platform in the form of a dashboard. In essence, this creates a “one stop shop” for our clients to answer their own questions and come up with insightful answers.

“From a GIS perspective, our analysis and the work we’re doing is becoming more sophisticated,” Sean explains. “As the data and analysis become more sophisticated, so do the results, and our clients are in tune with that.” Sean sees investing in Tableau as an opportunity to build on efforts to empower the very clients benefitting from his and his colleague’s work.

Jeremy Finkleman is a Transportation Planner in the Vancouver office who has worked with Sean on several large projects and saw the potential for Sean’s newly-acquired skills to really change the game in their project delivery. “We have been working on various projects for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) for some time, so we put our heads together to think about how to take the information we were gathering and make it dynamic using this software,” he reveals. Upon seeing a demonstration of Tableau from Sean, he was instantly wowed by the capabilities and the possibilities for project work.

Looking at data they were collecting for an upgrade to the TransCanada Highway between Kamloops and the Alberta border, Sean took the data they had processed and brought it into Tableau. This included recommended priorities for the upgrade as well as mobility, speed, safety and infrastructure information for the existing highway configuration. The end result was a Tableau dashboard that allows users to quickly zoom in on different maps and interact with various tables and charts to help identify where problem areas exist and what might be influencing them. This is all accomplished quickly, something that historically would have taken weeks due to the large number of data inputs.

“Sean’s really leading the charge here with something different and innovative,” Jeremy emphasizes. While presenting the dashboard to MOTI staff, Jeremy received applause from those in attendance who were very impressed with what they had seen. “There’s been such an evolution in the last five years in terms of how you can communicate information, and for a lot of our clients, at the end of the day they still expect to see more traditional reports and mapping.” Seeing something new, exciting and easy to navigate speaks to a broader need to provide the right tools and software to best communicate the results of the work. “If your exposure is fairly limited, how well are we really fulfilling our mandate with our clients? What I see is that tools like this are on the vanguard of the way information can be communicated to our clients going forward as well as putting as much power as we can back in the hands of our clients.”

While using this software provides Sean with an opportunity to be more responsive to clients, for him, it’s more about knowledge sharing and trying to create new opportunities with our clients. “It’s going to take time, but by supporting each other and finding the right projects to get involved with, we can create those new opportunities.” He is planning to visit the various Urban Systems offices in early 2019 to share the technology with GIS and non-GIS professionals alike and feels there is an opportunity to apply it to all practice areas at Urban Systems. “At the end of the day, our front-line consultants are the ones interacting with our clients and they need to know what this technology is capable of.”

For Sean, the big takeaway is that these dashboards are all interactive and people can really work with the data. “We’re just trying to facilitate a way that our clients can interact with that data and gain some insight without us holding their hands.” As in all project work at Urban Systems, the goal is to give communities and organizations all the tools they need to be able to reach their desired outcomes once our work with them is finished. Sean, Jeremy and their colleagues are always there to answer questions as needed, but as Sean identifies, “We deal with such detailed information, and if we can’t communicate and deliver it in a way that makes sense to our clients then it’s all for naught.”

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