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Uniform spatial datasets are key to smart urban planning

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In early 2020, the NSW Government, in partnership with CSIRO, released its ‘Digital Twin’ of a large part of Western Sydney, providing a data sharing, collaboration and visualisation tool that can be used by everyone, from planners to policymakers.

Developed by the agency’s Data61 arm, this was the first phase of the NSW Spatial Digital Twin, which will focus on other areas of NSW in the coming years to provide integrated datasets across live transport, infrastructure and property boundaries.

As spatial data continues to grow in importance as a key resource for planners, the platform is being developed to advance its role in integrated urban planning.

Away from the Digital Twin tool, however, spatial data in Australia often lacks accessibility, uniformity and compatibility, according to Stefanie Duhr, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of South Australia.

As lead researcher on the report, ‘Evidence-informed’ metropolitan planning in Australia? Investigating spatial data availability, integration and governance, Duhr highlights that in certain areas of the world, particularly the EU, the need for compatibility of national and regional data sources has long been recognised and acted upon.

In Europe, the 2007 directive INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) sets out common rules and standards for spatial data by which EU states need to comply, in order to overcome problems of fragmentation and a lack of harmonisation between datasets.  

However, there is currently no direct correlation in Australia, where a growing number of stakeholders have become involved in spatial data production, including government agencies, private companies, user communities and the general public. And with data collected for a wide range of reasons, this can make its use difficult for urban planners and others.

Duhr argues for a centralised approach. There needs to be regulation of “data quality, data reliability and data access … especially if these data are to be used in public policy-making,” the report reads.

“Bridging the gap between data providers and data users, especially in relation to the requirements of urban planning, will be important if progress towards sustainable development and low-carbon cities is to be made.

“This will, however, first require a political acknowledgement of the important role that spatial planning has in achieving positive societal outcomes – something which may be difficult to achieve given the current emphasis on facilitating economic investment and consequently the scaling back of planning regulation.”

The economic benefits of fully harmonised spatial data infrastructures (SDIs) are predicted to be widespread, with savings forecast in areas as diverse as building and construction, land permit approvals and the management of gas, water and electricity assets, among others.

Equally importantly, argues Duhr, is the need for compatible datasets when it comes to meeting the requirements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Although Australia has a single reporting platform to track progress on the implementation of the SDGs, challenges have been reported as a result of the diversity of data providers across different jurisdictions and the absence of aggregated data at the national level,” states the report.

“In order to support the implementation and monitoring of such comprehensive sustainable development goals at the local level, [Director of Smart Sustainable Development at the University of Melbourne, Professor Abbas] Rajabifard… [has] emphasised the importance of ‘integration, harmonisation, connectivity and scalability of multi-source urban datasets’.”