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Public Involvement Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participation

4.C — Finding New Ways to Communicate

4.C.d — Visualization Techniques

What are visualization techniques?

Visualization techniques are methods used to show information in clear and easily understood formats such as maps, pictures, or displays. The results can be simple or complex and include graphs, pie charts, photo composites and photosimulations, artist's renderings, wire-frame illustrations of 3D forms, interactive maps, and animations such as walk-throughs and drive-throughs.

Visualization techniques use a variety of technologies, including photography, photogrammetry (geographically referenced data derived from aerial photographs), digital imaging, GIS, CAD, computer graphics, and specialized planning applications to create simulated views of proposed changes to an existing situation.

Animating data is a visualization technique. Charts and diagrams can be presented in video format with important data highlighted by simple animations. Animation has been used to illustrate large quantities of data such as those gathered through remote sensing applications such as weather systems (See Remote Sensing Applications).

Technology is evolving rapidly. Simple visualizations can now be created in widely available office software, while more specialized software (and more robust hardware) is needed to create complex visualizations.

Why is visualization useful?

Visualizations immediately convey the appearance, extent, and location of a design or concept and lead to better understanding of the project and its impacts. They enable the public to better understand and respond to a potentially complex project or plan. They help answer questions such as "How will this project design blend in with the existing location? How do these design drawings translate to a finished project?"

Showing a simulated new facility in a familiar, existing context enhances understanding. Integrating proposed features with photographs helps overcome misconceptions and serves as a check against distortion or misrepresentation by either promoters or critics. Visualizations help bridge the gap between the project engineers' vision and the stakeholders' understanding. Digital before and after photos have been used by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT), the New York State , and the Massachusetts Highway Department to demonstrate how high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes would look if applied in specific corridors. The Finnish National Road Administration has used this technique in developing its master plan for Helsinki. New York's Urban Development Corporation used animated simulations to show community members that the Riverside South residential and park project could be enhanced by altering the elevated Miller Highway between 57th and 72nd Streets in Manhattan. A video kiosk with multiple choices showed the project from a variety of perspectives. Its use helped the agency and the community move the discussion beyond conjecture and toward concrete issues. (See Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks.)

Visualizations are useful both within the project team and in presenting a project to the public. They can illustrate and compare before and after views, alternative build-outs within the same view, or sequential changes within a view. Impacts to the environment, cost, and aesthetics can be conveyed and studied to facilitate better decision making throughout the planning and design process. Visualizations can be prepared by an agency to illustrate a project as designed, or they can be a dynamic public involvement tool used to immediately illustrate suggestions made by participants.

Visualizations provide the capability to display multiple visual design alternatives for discussion and possible selection. Not only do visualizations of alternatives help get the discussion started, they can help finalize the design choice. Community leaders explore "what if" scenarios and investigate the potential for change. Constituents who fully understand a project's appearance and function are more likely to understand and possibly support the project itself. Geographers at the University of Illinois have developed GIS systems for use by county planners. The system employs an interactive planning system that coordinates related information. On a computerized county map, users gain access to detailed maps or photographic images of a site. They sketch in suggestions and make copies of images, attaching text, audio, or graphic annotations. Users' suggestions are then compared directly to the original image.

People discuss projects or plans based on visualizations. The University of Miami's (Florida) Center for Urban and Community Design used a simulation model to help a community task force generate recommendations for a new residential design code. Concerned that a hurricane protection policy requiring new buildings to be raised 6 to 8 feet above street level would result in the replacement of traditional bungalows with larger houses, the task force viewed a simulation to understand how changes in building height and setback would shape the character of new development.

Visualizations reach a variety of audiences. The Portland, Oregon Metro holds an annual Winter Transportation Fair with speakers, booths, and computer-generated exhibits and simulations about transportation. Child-care services for small children are available and include a popular computer simulation game about city planning.

Does visualization have special uses?

Design teams use visualizations internally to ensure they are in agreement with the improvement as planned. Designers are relying more on visualization to improve their understanding of their own designs and to communicate more effectively with their colleagues. Understanding how a design will function as well as what it will look like is essential to project designers and planners as well as to the public.

A digital visualization with narrative description on a DVD or website ensures that the public can see and hear the same information about a project whether they come to a public meeting or view the presentation on their own. This ensures that people who miss a meeting do not miss the information.

Photo-based visualizations can be a useful aid in resolving conflicts. New York's New School for Social Research used simulations to resolve a dispute between the Newark Water Commission and several New Jersey towns about growth in the city's watershed. The Commission, state, city, and town representatives and local civic and conservation groups reviewed computer models of various scenarios for preserving the watershed lands.

Who participates in visualization? And how?

Almost anyone who is not visually impaired can see and understand information presented visually, either at home or at a meeting. Agencies using this technique should consider alternate methods for involving people with visual impairments. Written and spoken components of the visualizations and simulations may require translation if the constituents have low English proficiency or low literacy. (See Tailoring Outreach to Underserved People.)

Visualizations and simulations may be shared over a wide range of media outlets, including the Internet, kiosks, DVDs, display tables, VCRs, TV programs, and similar means. Static displays, such as special display boards, may be used at public forums. A display board or laptop computer on a table provides the opportunity for a project representative to offer an explanation of the technique in one-on-one conversation and solicit comments from viewers. Visualizations coupled with explanation in sound or text may also be presented as a self-standing display, requiring no project representative. Self-standing displays may be used in kiosks, on the Internet, or on appropriate broadcast media (as PSAs, for example). (See Project Websites; Interactive Television; Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks; Information Materials.)

How do agencies use the visualizations?

Agencies may use public response to visual presentations to:

  • Stimulate community reaction.
  • Obtain community opinion on projects and plans.
  • Be a catalyst for further discussion, analysis, or refinement of a proposed alternative.
  • Be the basis for an honest and valid sample of community opinion.

Sophisticated visualizations incorporating large databases may be used in real time at a public meeting to input suggestions and immediately demonstrate the results.

Who leads visualization efforts?

Agencies decide what features to illustrate and provide accurate site and design details. It is important to know the public's concerns and the agency's message about those concerns in deciding the type and content of visualizations. (See Information Materials.) It affects the level of detail, the level of realism, what types of view, what directions of view, as well as whether sophisticated or simple visualization will be most effective.

Sophisticated software requires trained staff. Visualizations linked to large databases are complex to create and require the expertise of staff trained in using the software. Agencies may need to hire professional consultants who specialize in presenting technical data in a variety of applications.

What are the costs for using visualization?

Simple visual presentations can be produced on common software. A set of "before" and "after" photographs or renderings can be displayed in word processing or presentation software. A photo composite that is not based on CAD data can be created in Photoshop. Simple animations can be produced using PowerPoint by showing a series of changes to the same base photograph or rendering.

Visualizations created with specialized software, including CAD- and GIS-linked applications, require special training and equipment. Multimedia, engineering, or information technology consultant services may be required to create sophisticated and accurate products.

Inputting new data adds to the cost of visualizations. The process of loading and manipulating appropriate data, formatting it, integrating it with other data, and meeting other programming requirements may be labor-intensive.

Effective visualizations can save time and money.

How is visualization used with other techniques?

Visualization provides a baseline or common reference point for soliciting public opinion and comment on a project or plan. (See Briefings; Public Meetings; Open Houses/Open Forum Hearings; Conferences Workshops and Retreats.) Visualization may also be used for brainstorming concepts or creative activities such as a design charrette or community visioning exercise. (See Brainstorming; Charrette; Visioning.)

Visualizations are used in surveys. University of California researchers used computer simulations to study the market potential of transit-oriented land development. Four development scenarios were simulated with variations on transit access, commercial and retail services within walking distance, and community open space. They were shown to survey preferences of 170 residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

Visualizations can be presented via an interactive display. Interactive displays for presentations and open houses use touch screens to get or give information. (See Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks.)

What are the drawbacks of using visualization?

Visualizations can mislead or confuse the public. Visualizations that are not tied to engineering parameters may mislead viewers (both agency staff and public) about the true proportions or appearance of a finished design. Care must be taken to make the accuracy of a visualization well understood by the intended audience. Inappropriate visualization techniques may be selected to present a particular project or program, leading to misunderstanding. The Arizona DOT found that early versions of a DVD presentation describing a complex design solution were too technical and created more confusion than understanding.

Professionally produced visual images are powerful and can sometimes be misinterpreted. For controversial subjects, polished computer-produced images may suggest that an agency is biased toward one alternative. If illustrations are perceived as deceptive, the agency or the discussion process is open to question. If possible, an agency consults with people representing many positions prior to developing graphics or illustrations.

Visualizations are costly and potentially time-consuming to produce. Proper use of this technique is required to effectively gather accurate and representative public comment. Care must be taken to ensure that the investment is beneficial to the overall public involvement goals. Agencies must take care to ensure that false impressions are minimized through accurate representations.

Images must be supplemented with non-visual presentations for people who are sight-impaired. Agencies need to consider how to provide information to people who are sight impaired. (See People With Disabilities.)

When is visualization used most effectively?

Visualization is used most effectively when a number of complex plans or project alternatives are under consideration for review and/or selection. The visualization, when used in conjunction with other techniques, provides a context for enhanced public understanding, review, and comments.

For further information:

Washington State Department of Transportation - Visual Engineering Resource Group (VERG) http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/business/visualcommunications/default.htm
University of Wisconsin Forest Visualization Project http://landscape.forest.wisc.edu/Projects/projects.html
Engineering News Record article on 3-D visualization and public involvement www.enr.com/new/coverstry_81301.asp
Taking architectural views to the community with 3D Visualization www.datacad.com/news/articles/hmfhfin.htm
TxDOT Project: Cross-town Interchange Public Involvement Features 3D/4D Visualization www.dot.state.tx.us/insdtdot/geodist/crp/xtown/xtown.htm
Maglev Corridor Transit Project — Baltimore-Washington proposed project using advanced magnetic levitation technologies www.bwmaglev.com/
Honolulu Rapid Bus Transit project — Summary document with maps and photos of the BRT concept and proposed project www.oahutrans2k.com/factsheet.pdf

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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle Noch at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls at FTA (202-366-5362).

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