Spatial data: cracking the code for planning success

Our built environment is complex, and understanding how it functions is critical for future development. Two vital aspects of gaining this understanding and supporting decision – making are good data and good skills in spatial analysis.

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Analysing spatial data provides unique insights for the planning of urban infrastructure.

Spatial data and spatial analysis has the power to transform research. Information organised in a spatial frame, along with detailed analysis, can add value and reveal patterns and stories of our real world experience. Spatial data and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are particularly powerful in representing the complexity of our real world towns and cities. Analysis using GIS can be applied across disciplines and display relationships across sectors.

GIS researchers are highly skilled and the software and data they require can be expensive and tricky to access. One organisation working to provide access to quality data and GIS capabilities is the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN).

Funded by the Australian Government, they have developed the AURIN Map – a free resource for the broader community, available online at map.aurin.org.au. This online interactive map can show Australians how our suburbs compare across a range of indicators of disadvantage, including unemployment, income, access to health and financial services, education, potential mortgage stress and others.

Australia is the lucky country, but when it comes to social disadvantage, how does Applecross compare with Orange? What suburbs suck more petrol money as a proportion of income? And what level of access to public transport do they have? Are there geographic trends in level of education: do nerds of a feather flock together?

The AURIN Map unlocks a host of government and research data, and maps and visualises how and where people live and work, and a range of other socio-demographic information. The spatial data has already been mapped so users can easily “switch” layers on and off and watch the spatial story of our built environment unfold.

Anyone can use the AURIN Map, be it a family with teenagers wanting to check the public transport access of areas they’re considering moving to, a business seeking hotspots of high income but low access to financial services, or even a charity wanting to know the areas where children are at a risk of social exclusion.

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Comparing education and occupation levels: Orange NSW (27th percentile) – based on ABS SEIFA Index of Education and Occupation data for the year 2011.

But for researchers, the AURIN Map simply offers a taste of what’s possible through using the AURIN Portal. The AURIN Portal – a free resource for the academic and government research community, online at portal.aurin.org.au – is an online GIS system with direct links to data from a broad range of institutions and organisations across many disciplines. Powerful data that is cleaned, spatialised and ready for research can be easily accessed and analysed, and all you need is an internet connection and browser.

Data includes population statistics, census data and the patterns of social trends, and how they vary geographically. The AURIN Portal provides analytical and modelling tools to analyse the data and model and test policy ideas and urban planning decisions to make our cities more liveable and more equitable. Mapping this data can help policymakers target effort and funding to the areas with highest need.

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Dr Iain Butterworth is using AURIN to help plan healthy neighbourhoods.

It can help researchers understand the relationships between social issues and, for example, health and educational outcomes. And it can help governments and corporations identify new business opportunities and areas to target investment from the public purse.

This is something Dr Iain Butterworth can attest to as Manager Liveability and Sustainability, Eastern & Southern Metropolitan Health, in the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

“Many people might think that urban planning and health policy come together just to decide where to put hospitals,” said Dr Butterworth. “That’s a focus on treating sickness once it emerges. I’m more interested in reducing people’s need for these services in the first instance.”

The department’s Place, Health and Liveability research partnership with the University of Melbourne has identified seven key policy domains that can help keep the whole population well. These are: transport; walkability; food; housing; public open space (including the natural environment); employment; and social infrastructure – including local access to health and community services, leisure facilities and education.

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Comparing education and occupation levels using ABS data: Applecross WA (95th percentile).

“In line with Plan Melbourne’s commitment to creating ‘Liveable Communities and Neighbourhoods’, my focus in on planning good, healthy places that keep people well and out of the acute health system.

“The AURIN Map and the other resources on the AURIN platform can help planners do this. The AURIN Map in particular is a really important development because it visualises how things like inequality or liveability influence health. And it makes this information accessible, which is helpful for engaging other stakeholders and sectors outside my own.”

Currently the map includes:

  • Population statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
  • Data on accessibility to core services (such as health, education, financial services and public transport) from the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide
  • Social vulnerability and unemployment data from NATSEM at the University of Canberra
  • VAMPIRE Index data, providing a snapshot of vulnerability to financial stress from changes in petrol prices and/or mortgage interest rates

All of these resources are available through the AURIN website www.aurin.org.au, and tutorials are available to help researchers get the most out of the data and tools. Boosting GIS and spatial analysis capabilities across disciplines is ultimately improving the lives of all Australians.

Funding for AURIN has been provided by the Australian Government under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and associated programs.

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