The following post was submitted by Kimberley Sirk, IT Communications Administrator for the City of Raleigh, to provide further detail about  InVision Raleigh, one of the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award winning projects.


As access to broadband and high-speed gigabit fiber increases, there are great opportunities to develop next generation applications that enable new ways to engage with government. One such opportunity is to visualize the existing built environment as well as future potential build-out scenarios. This is the concept behind InVision Raleigh.

In addition, lowering the bar to citizen participation by providing information outside of public meetings helps the City of Raleigh in its ongoing effort to be transparent and inclusive.

After winning the Benton Award, the City of Raleigh and the Center for Geospatial Analytics at North Carolina State University got to work engineering their vision of what a citizen participation tool could look like in the land management and planning arenas. They chose to work with California based mapping and geospatial analytics software company, Esri, to build a prototype that could bring urban planning to simulated life.

The project team wanted to leverage the research and academic expertise of NC State to take advantage of the land management and planning data sets that the city has at its disposal. Key to project success was the ability for planners to share this rich information easily without the need for powerful computer hardware.

InVision Raleigh is a web-based 3D visualization tool that allows urban designers and planners to develop and envision a variety of development scenarios within the City of Raleigh. Changes can include entirely new structures with the ability to allocate individual floors by land use. Users of the tool can add potential buildings by defining location, height, width, and orientation and observe the resulting changes to the physical characteristics of city streets, shadow patterns, and density. By using simple navigation tools, users can see how development or other land use changes impact the character of the city.

Now in beta, this tool could be released in the future for use by citizens and developers. To make it more accessible now, the City has released it to GitHub so that others can adopt and enhance it for their own use.

Reynolds McFarlane is a City of Raleigh GIS Specialist who visited the Esri Prototype Lab in Redlands, CA. to work on the project in a focused hackathon-like working environment. He worked with Makiko Shukunobe, a Research Associate at the Center for Geospatial Analytics, and with Reza Amindarbari, a PhD candidate in Design, with a co-major in Forestry and Environmental Resources, at NC State.

McFarlane stayed for several days, and the NC State researchers spent a full week at the lab. He found that using the leading-edge industry tools helped him to round out his personal knowledge while reaping the benefits of working with a private software design company.

“The on-site interaction with the engineering team at Esri in their Prototype Lab really helped this project,” said McFarlane. “It’s the first time that we were all in the same room – the city, NC State, and Esri. Since we could be in the same space, we could talk through issues as they came up. Direct access to experts really helped.”

“There was a national developer event that just happened to be taking place nearby Esri at the same time. Those professionals redid their conference talks for all of us, which was great to be in the position to take advantage of.”

Perver Baran, PhD, Teaching Associate Professor at the Center for Geospatial Analytics at NC State says that the partnership with the City and Esri taught everyone involved about working across a variety of specializations and organization types.

“This project was very close to our research and education interests at our center,” Dr. Baran said. “Our staff was happy to provide hands-on experiences for our students to engage in solving real-world problems.”

Dr. Baran’s team was instrumental in a recent presentation to the City’s Urban Design Center and Comprehensive Planning divisions. The NC State team sought to query real-world planners and GIS analysts to see if they thought that InVision Raleigh would be embraced by the development community. The feedback was thoughtful and gave the InVision team a great deal of useful information.

At the session, which was hosted by the Center for Geospatial Analytics at NC State, Dr. Baran said that the urban planners in the room couldn’t have been more excited about the potential in InVision Raleigh.

“They were stunned,” she said. “They were able to use the prototype to make changes on the fly, interactively. They called that ability ‘stunning for the profession.’”

The surveyors found that exploring alternatives was by far the favorite feature of the tool. Those asked felt that communication with the public would be enhanced with this new ability to visually explain changes to the urban landscape.

Several great ideas were offered on how the tool could be improved. As with most urban areas, transportation and parking came up, but this time in the proactive context of using the tool to evaluate parking impacts before asphalt is poured. Another suggested a dynamic feature, whereby traffic flow could be evaluated as each change is envisioned. Yet another asked for the ability to save scenarios, and to allow direct upload of project plans. Perhaps the tool could be enhanced with pop-up boxes that could help explain development terms to the public when needed.

Dr. Baran added another important aspect of the local partnership that brought InVision Raleigh into being. “We’re a land-grant university, and part of our charter requires us to give back,” she said. “What better way for our students and staff to give back than in helping envision the future of the city where we live.”

The stated goal of InVision Raleigh is to lower the bar to citizen participation. To achieve this, the team seeks to design a tool that leverages the reach of broadband to tell a story about what the future could be designed to be, right in the comfort of the citizen’s living room. We’ve got a great start!