Toronto, Now in Glorious 3D
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Toronto, Now in Glorious 3D

With the latest Open Data release, Toronto City Planning hopes app developers will find creative uses to model the city in 3D.

open data image

A 3D model of Toronto, from the City’s Open Data files. Courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Toronto’s City Planning office has released data files that will help architects, designers, app developers, and laypeople better understand and interpret the built landscape of the city.

This newly released data is called 3D massing, and includes the specifications for every building in the city, and the context of its location. The data, which the City uses to create 3D maps for testing new building plans, opens up interesting possibilities. It can be used to create a digital model of Toronto, developers’ proposals can be put into a physical context to see how they would look on the street, and neighbours can see what kind of shadow a proposed development would cast.

There’s no end to the ways that 3D massing data can be presented, says Carolyn Humphreys, Program Manager of Graphics and Visualization for City Planning’s Urban Design group.

“The exciting part is you can map the [building] data onto other data,” she says. “We map it to aerial photography, for example. We map it to parks data, you can map it to census [data].”

City Planning staff have used the now-publicly available 3D massing data to visualize Toronto’s zoning designations, types of terrain, heritage-protected buildings, and more.

For the data to be more useful to the general public, though, City Planning is looking to members of the Open Data community—app developers and entrepreneurs who can turn the raw information into something digestible.

“Anyone can access [the open data], but, because it’s super technical, it’s typically [app] developers and other professionals who use it,” says Daniel Fusca, a special projects and engagement coordinator in the Chief Planner’s Office. “The way the average user can access it is through what the developers do with it. An app developer could take the data and develop an app through that data, and then the casual user can access the data through the interface they develop.”

Humphreys points to OpenStreetMap (a crowdsourced, open data mapping service that’s used by third party sites like Craigslist) and Vizicities, which has been heralded for bringing all kinds of urban data to the public via 3D modelling (and which already has a 3D model of Toronto available online).

City Planning uses the analogy of harvesting a natural resource. “We’re extracting that natural resource, and we have no idea what beautiful things designers are going to make with that,” Humphreys says.

She invited members of the public to submit their ideas for data-using products via Toronto’s city planning or open data Twitter profiles.

The 3D massing data is available on the City’s Open Data portal in three file formats. “Shapefiles” present buildings as basic blocks—the CN Tower, for instance, would just look like a tall rectangular box. But additional data can be attached to each building block, meaning that models created from shapefiles can reveal more information about the built environment.

CADD files (computer-aided design and drafting) are based on actual architectural drawings, and create “articulated” buildings—realistic models, with recognizable design traits like the CN Tower’s tapering spire. Only 10 to 15 per cent of Toronto’s buildings are articulated in the City’s files, primarily heritage buildings and structures in the downtown core whose profiles are identifiable with the Toronto skyline.

“Multipatch” files combine the two previous formats, resulting in relatively true-to-life visualizations of buildings onto which additional data can be attached.

About 60 new buildings are added to the 3D Massing model each year. As the built environment of the city continues to grow and change, it’s a neverending process to keep on top of it.

CORRECTION: January 9, 2015, 10:25 AM The post originally supplied the word “building” instead of “app” to describe the kinds of developers who typically access the 3D open data in the quotation attributed to Daniel Fusca. We regret the error.