Arup Thoughts: Data manipulation means better design

Once data is seen as malleable and versatile, data sets can be combined to generate a more detailed picture of how an asset can be operated and maintained.

By Josh Symonds, Arup, Australia January 24, 2017

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

Typically, engineering or construction projects comprise a wide variety of data sources, from geotechnical to materials costs and structural specifics to qualitative evaluation. Traditionally, this data stayed in silos and was regarded only as relevant to the narrow task at hand. As a result, designers have come to view data as just spreadsheets, thus 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. Once data is seen as malleable and versatile, data sets can be combined to generate a more detailed picture of how an asset can be operated and maintained. Data manipulation helps clients make better decisions about an asset before and during the design stage. 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. Spreadsheets of data are imported, decisions are made on how the content should behave or relate differently via a series of programming elements within FME, and the software produces the resulting new data set.

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 subconsultants 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.

It’s fair to assume that this imaginative approach to data will increasingly come to characterize 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-a 13-km 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 3-D clash-detection model. This allowed the team to precisely identify each potential clash before work onsite 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. 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 spreadsheets that are used once and then ignored. It’s time designers changed the way they view flat data. The potential is now too big to ignore. 

Josh Symonds is a spatial data specialist for Arup. He provides GIS support for the transport and resources teams across various offices and is responsible for GIS implementation on infrastructure-related projects. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts blog. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at