Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Building Ottawa’s digital twin | Ottawa Citizen

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City of Ottawa planners have a powerful new tool to see the city’s past, present and future with just the click of a mouse.

Ottawa’s “digital twin” harnesses high resolution aerial imagery, page after page of bylaws and technical specifications, geological studies and countless other data sets to form a 3D virtual duplicate of the city.

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From the tip of its tallest buildings to the depths of of its deepest infrastructure, the digital twin shows Ottawa as it has never been seen before.

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“If you’ve ever done a home renovation, the first thing you ask is ‘What will it look like?’” says Randal Rodger, program manager of geospatial analytics, technology and solutions with the city.

“That’s the real power of the digital twin. We can immerse you in a 3D environment. You can see what it will look like, but also see a new proposal it its context and in a realistic fashion. That’s very powerful for people.”

Building the digital twin began in conjunction with Ottawa’s official plan, which was adopted in 2022, and the comprehensive zoning bylaw amendment, which is now under review and is to be completed by late 2025.

Want to see what your neighbourhood might look like in 20 years if the city continues to build denser and taller? The digital twin can show you.

How will a proposed development affect the view to the downtown? What would Bank Street look like if all overhead wires were buried? How close is that underground parking garage to the main trunk sewer? When were all the houses on your street built?

The city “presents policies in a lot of charts and numbers and they’re not always easy for humans to understand,” Rodger says.

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To demonstrate, he shows a table of numbers that lay out the requirements in a particular city zoning. The computer uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to translate that data into a visual representation of what those regulations look like in the real world.

“When you look at it, it’s just a lot of numbers — it’s like a cook book for policy and planners — and it becomes an exercise in math and thinking,” he says. “But if I take that table of numbers and convert it to a model, then I begin to understand intuitively what it means.”

Residents don’t like that planned 40-storey high rise? Click, click, click. Here’s what it would look like at 25 storeys.

Users of the digital twin can put on virtual reality head sets to immerse themselves inside the virtual world. Or city staff can use 3D printers to produce a physical model residents can see and touch.

Rodger and geospatial strategist, Jean-Françoise Dionne, headed up the city team along with Esri Canada, a geographic information service company, to develop the digital twin. They used aircraft to map the city with lidar (light detection and ranging, which uses lasers to measure distances), obtaining maps accurate to within six centimetres in the urban core and 13 centimetres in the rural areas.

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On to that base model, any number of other data sets can be added: soil types, tree cover, storm water permeability, building shadows, flood plains.

The city has long collected data like that, Rodger said, but it wasn’t always very useable.

“It existed on a server somewhere and it was very difficult to access. The concept of the digital twin is to bring that information to the people, to the staff, and then add the analytics.”

One overlay analyzes the city in terms of the “15-minute neighbourhood” — the concept that everyone should have easy access to amenities and essential services. Rodger manipulates the map to Westboro, where individual buildings are colour coded according to their 15-minute rating.

“For 15-minute neighbourhoods we need to understand if there are services. Is there a school? Is there a daycare within 15 minutes? And if there isn’t, how can the infrastructure be changed? Adding a pedestrian bridge across the canal, for example, might open up an entire neighbourhood to amenities they were restricted from before.”

Another overlay shows the downtown core with the maximum allowable building height marked in red. Another shows how much roof area is available in a neighbourhood for solar panels. One shows the tree canopy and the city’s heat islands.

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Faced with a housing crisis and rapidly changing provincial and federal rules regarding housing means the city must be able to move quickly to respond. Some of the $176 million Ottawa received from the federal housing accelerator fund in February is being used to support the digital twin project, Rodger said.

“A lot of the things we did in the past were over long time frames. We were looking at one to five years to update a land use plan,” he said. “Those time lines are too slow now. We need the information in real time. We need to know, is it shovel ready?”

The city expects the digital twin will be available for public use on Engage Ottawa by May 31, the same day it presents its first draft of the comprehensive zoning bylaw amendment.

Not all the data will be available for public use because of privacy, proprietary and security concerns, but Rodger said a slider feature will allow people to see the city as it looks today and how it might look in the future under the proposed new zoning bylaws.

“We can see the numbers and the density that are being proposed, but what does that really mean?” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do — to engage people so they can see what the impact will be as the city develops out over time.”

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