Bldgs = data: how location services can drive design

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New York-based building information consultants, Case, held a one day conference to examine how data can impact positive change in the building industry. AEC magazine looks at how two location services — Foursquare and iBeacon — are being used to improve user experience, interior and exterior building design. By Martyn Day

In our Internet-enabled, mobile-phone owning world, data is geolocated, has relevance, is social, and can indicate how buildings and cities are used or see how people live their lives. Buildings can also produce a lot of data. Embed them with sensors and you can get data from motion, temperature, video, etc. Not only are buildings defined by design data, they can now create data when being used and are even starting to react in real-time to the information they gather.


Mobile app search and discovery service Foursquare has been at the forefront of geolocation services since 2009 and is now experimenting with in-store location services as well.

The app uses geolocation and members’ reviews to make recommendations of the places to go to around a given location. Users can get recommendations from others and, with spin-off app, Swarm, can see friends’ locations in real time and arrange to meet up.

The company now boasts a database with over 60,000,000 places of interest and as of January 2014 had 45 million registered users.

Foursquare’s Head of Data Science, Blake Shaw gave a fascinating insight into the company’s ‘Project Gotham’ research, which looks at how, by tracking their New York-based customers they can identify trends and monitor reactions to big events, such as the recent flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in Manhattan.

Foursquare analysis revealed that, despite well-organised evacuation procedures ahead of Hurricane Sandy, tens of thousands of people were still in lower Manhattan, trapped by the failed power grid. Over the next few days the company’s maps exposed a network of informal social interactions — crashing on couches, uptown oases of hot showers and where to find live power outlets.


In the future this kind of data collection could be used by emergency services to better plan disaster response or be fed into a live feed of people in need.

Real time

Foursquare gathers all its data in real time and has incredible insight into human behaviour within a city. This has huge potential for urban planners and retailers interested in learning which areas are popular, overcrowded or underutilised.

Shop owners could use it to explore where they should set up the next store or restaurant, or to research what happens when a certain brand, or competitor, moves into an area. Its data can inform businesses of the likelihood of success in an area.

Mapping real world places to social media data, it is also possible for Foursquare to see how word spreads throughout social networks and identify key influencers or ‘experts’ in various categories.

Building profiling

Foursquare can determine a unique radio frequency profile for every building that its customers use. It does this by mapping variations in signal strength from floor to floor, due to factors such as building materials and proximity to a signal tower. Mr Shaw showcased the 3D signal of various buildings in New York.

Using this information, mobile networks could better plan their urban coverage, which would impact mast placement.

Building owners could also be made aware of how their building negatively impacts coverage and may want to improve this for their customers.

Foursquare is also using the data to create markers, which it calls, ‘venue polygons’, for each business or place, and can be used to create markers for ‘geofences’ that will be used to identify when its customers have entered a specific location, without draining the batteries of smartphones, as Foursquare can use its own signal strength map.

From macro to micro

Foursquare is experimenting with tracking shopper’s interactions down to product level. This will enable stores to ‘push’ location-based (down to the aisle) messaging to shoppers with offers. By moving products around the store and monitoring browsing trends, Foursquare can advise retailers on optimum layout and product placement.

Digging deeper into this geolocation monitoring, Case’s Andy Payne and Steve Sanderson talked about their collaborative project with Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology looking at post occupancy usage.

Case deployed Apple iBeacon tracking within their own office to understand how workers move and interact. Many buildings are designed with an assumption of usage, yet fail to live up to their utilitarian ideals.

Using Case’s single floor office as a test bed, Mr Payne and Mr Sanderson placed a number of iBeacons around the office and, with their permission, monitored employees’ movements over a six-week period, generating over seven million data entries.

The results were surprising. Employees were multi-tasking, moving, meeting a lot more than they actually thought they were during the day. It turned out that Case only used one third of the office space effectively and areas that the team thought would be popular, such as the kitchen area, were little used. What is more, the majority of meetings did not necessarily happen in designated meeting rooms. Case is now revaluating the layout of its office.

Post-occupancy usage data could be transformational for businesses that need to maximise the number of people using a space, such as coffee shops and restaurants. Retailers could use it to see if parts of a site are underutilised in order to create a design that improves usage figures and, ultimately, sales.


The sheer amount of data gathering that is already going on in the world really is mind-boggling, much of which could be relevant and useful to office and retail developers. While the link between social media and buildings may appear skin deep, the collected data can be put to great use.

But the world of big data requires new skills. ‘Data wrangling’ is an art form and the industry needs to upskill to get the benefits of accessing, overlaying and correlating these different data types to assist core design and operation decisions.

We will try and convince Case to bring the event to London and will look forward to tracking everyone’s movements and interactions!

Standard deviation

Bldgs=data was held at the impressively cool Standard Hotel, which sits astride the wonderful High Line, a 1.45 mile park that is built on an elevated section of disused railroad in New York.

Attendees were organised by table and half-way would swap to another pre-designated table, which helped everyone get to know each other for coffee breaks, lunch and end of day drinks

There were 12 speakers in total, who talked across a range of data-centric projects using data capture and processing to benefit the design and construction businesses.

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