Chart showing seismic activity in the central Pacific area

+ Data manipulation presents designers with powerful new possibilities since it’s available from such a wide variety of sources.

The creative and productive possibilities offered by manipulating the data generated on engineering projects is now considerable. For designers the challenge is to engage with data and seize the many opportunities it offers to do more innovative and higher value work. 

Engineering or construction projects typically comprise a wide variety of data sources, from geotechnical to materials costs, structural specifics to qualitative evaluation. Traditionally, this data has stayed in silos, and regarded only as relevant to the narrow task at hand. As a result designers have typically come to view data as ‘just spreadsheets’, missing the creative potential of combining data to generate higher value insights or outcomes on client assets. 

Yet the possibilities are almost endless – data is everywhere. And once you see data as malleable and versatile, you can combine data sets to generate a more detailed picture of how an asset can be operated and maintained. Data manipulation helps clients to make better decisions about an asset before and during the design stage. And by combining data within a building information model (BIM), engineers can automate the detection of clashes, thereby de-risking a project, and saving time and money. Data-sets can also be combined to generate innovative and valuable new outcomes or services. 

Tools now exist to bring data together in these new ways. Feature Manipulation Engine (FME), for example, is a software environment that allows for swift, complex and creative data restructuring. You import your spreadsheets of data, decide how you’d like the content to behave or relate differently via a series of programming elements within FME, and the software produces the resulting new dataset. 

An Arup team used FME on a flora and fauna survey for a new road project in Australia. FME automated the integration of 32 separate data-sets from eight different sub-consultants containing environmental information for the road project. The result was a rapidly built, unified model that could demonstrate the likely effects of new development plans on the environment.

And it’s fair to assume that this imaginative approach to data will increasingly come to characterise a designer or engineer’s work. Work at the city scale, where data sets are massive and disparate, will definitely require this kind of approach. 

In 2015, Arup was engaged to produce a reference design for the central business district and South East Light Rail (CSELR) project in Sydney, Australia – a 13km extension to the existing rail system, in a heavily congested area. The team used FME to combine data about the wide variety of existing utilities already in the ground, into a single 3D clash detection model, allowing the team to precisely identify each potential clash before work on site began. This is safer, quicker, cheaper and impossible without data manipulation.

So how can designers overcome their reluctance to engage more fully with data? Case studies and demonstrations can build interest and understanding. But data also needs to be seen as a common resource, one that might have many uses, users and combinations across a project’s duration, not as ‘dumb spreadsheets’ used once and then ignored. It’s time designers changed the way they view flat data. The potential is now too big to ignore.

What examples do you have of projects where data manipulation has driven innovation and delivered unforeseen benefits as a result? Please share in the comments section.