Insight from 30 years in business: You need more than generic data to understand and solve societal issues

Posted November 18, 2020

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This year we turn 30. It got us thinking about the next 30 years and how we can continue to help understand and solve pressing issues using ever-evolving datasets and digital technologies.

Australia’s cities, regions and policy challenges are becoming increasingly complex. Thankfully, we have more data tracking activities in our cities than ever before, which has helped improve how we understand and model what might happen in the future. However, data alone does not deliver the insights required to understand and solve pressing issues.

In our experience, generic technology-led solutions can look impressive but do not inform good decision making. What’s needed is a collaborative team of data scientists who understand the policy context and who can transform the vast amounts of data available into tailored and useful solutions.

We’ve worked hard to stay at the forefront of digital innovation over the last decade, hiring team members with data-science skills, such as GIS, coding and database management and integrating them into our consulting team. As a result, everyone at SGS has broadened their skills. We teach our planners and economists the basics of coding and GIS, and we make sure all our coders have an appreciation of the fundamentals of planning and economics.

This multi-disciplinary team-based approach means we tackle projects differently. Our team has built a common language and shared understanding about the tools, approaches and frameworks we can deploy to client problems and opportunities. It means we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and exploring new approaches in ways which remain true to the social, economic and environmental problems we are aiming to solve.

— Julian Szafraniec National Lead, Data and Spatial Analytics
SGS Economics Planning Julian Szafraniec round

Our 30-year journey has been an interesting and rewarding one. We kickstarted our data and economic modelling approach in earnest in the 1990s. Soon after, we were applying more data and spatial analytics capabilities and diverse skillset across economics and planning to many important and impactful projects throughout Australia and New Zealand. Below is a map showing the location of our completed projects between 2008 and 2020 [cumulative].

We went through a company restructure in 2011 from a traditional partnership to an employee-owned business and launched our very first web-based interactive outputs the same year. Fast forward to today, and we're embracing new and more innovative ways of working in response to our team and clients working from home during the COVID-19 health pandemic. The diagram below shows a brief snapshot of some of the key milestone in this data and digital innovation journey.

We highlight a few milestone projects in the diagram above. Some of our more recent projects where we have used digital technologies such as interactive maps and dashboards to explain a narrative are:

As well as visualisation of complex data and information, we have developed data models and custom digital solutions which informed policy decisions. These tools give decision makers additional evidence and insights in a dynamic and fluid environment. Four tools that we have applied to projects over the last decade to help shape more sustainable places, communities and economies are:

  • TIM is a transport impact model that forecasts land use impacts of major transport infrastructure investment. Spatially, it demonstrates the link between accessibility, employment and housing demand.
  • SAM is a small area model that provides the fine grain data needed to provide the evidence base for integrated and locally focused planning and investment decisions.
  • ShapeVIC is a digital solution that makes it easy for local councils to plan, fund and monitor public infrastructure in Victoria. Developed and tested in consultation with local councils, ShapeVIC makes developing, monitoring and adjusting development contribution plans straightforward.
  • School Planning Assistance Tool is a simulation model that helps the NSW Department of Education efficiently plan investments for each school cluster.

We'll continue to invest in technologies to customise digital solutions into the future such as SQL databases to scripted algorithms, using open and big data, web-based interfaces, dashboards and interactive reports.

While we were reflecting on the past 30 years, we started thinking about how we can use data and spatial analytics to scale our impact and shape a brighter future over the next 30 years. That's why we've focused even more energy into this space – which I am very excited about. This focus reflects our passion for influencing positive policy outcomes through new and emerging technology and tools.

— Alison Holloway CEO
SGS Economics and Planning Alison Holloway

Being curious about and embracing emerging technology throughout the decades has helped our team to stay true to its purpose: to provide the very best independent public policy advice in the public interest. And it continues to be our focus for the future.

To discuss how we can help on your next project, contact Julian Szafraniec.

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    Julian Szafraniec

    National Leader for Data & Spatial Analysis | Principal & Partner I Executive Director

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