NASA applies GIS to its inner spaces

The geographic information systems team at NASA's Langley Research Center is applying geospatial tools to the relatively mundane — but extremely important — task of finding more efficient ways to allocate space at the research facility.The team has developed a tool — so far tagged with the unglamorous name of Space Allocation Optimization — that can be used to perform complex analysis on factors for efficiently assigning workspaces. It also can display potential scenarios for managers to consider in making plans.

The team first developed optimization algorithms that take into account any factors considered important in allocating space, including the proximity of key personnel, amount of space required, cost of utilities and relative cost of new construction.

However, GIS team leader Brad Ball was aware that the algorithms alone — although a source of pride for the team — were not enough. The application had to find effective ways of collecting data and displaying it to nonspecialists. That job was complicated by the wide array of data coming from different sources.

The first step was accomplished by developing an Extensible Markup Language schema to pull in data from numerous sources. Ball said the XML schema reduced the data preparation time for bringing in datasets from as much as two weeks of intensive effort to an automated process that takes approximately 30 minutes.

The second step was accomplished by connecting the data to the visualization tools offered by ESRI's ArcGIS application.

"We could run the optimization algorithms against nothing else other than Excel data if we chose to," Ball said. "The real power of that is getting that in front of a vast array of managers so that they can understand what the possible scenarios are and what the impacts on their organizations can make. The visualization tools that ESRI provides give this incredible power."

The resulting application allows space utilization managers to construct and evaluate various what-if scenarios.

The effort received a boost in 2004 when the Langley Research Center was preparing for a major reorganization that would involve relocating as many as 3,000 personnel and reducing average office space from 190 square feet per person to 125 square feet per person. Managers hoped to free 100 facilities for closing or demolition.

"We saw that space utilization had huge potential to do things better," Ball said. The old method involved physical drawings and a lot of office politicking. "What I did was mount a campaign to move that to GIS. No precedent existed to manage that data in GIS," he said.

Thanks in large part to Space Allocation Optimization, a project that was originally estimated to cost more than $1 million and take as long as five years was accomplished in less than two years and at less than half the estimated cost.

Ball's team has plans to further enhance the tool by giving it a dashboard-style Web interface that would make it more accessible to non-GIS specialists.

So far, the team has met with enthusiastic responses and has been asked to implement the project at the Johnson Space Center.

But Ball said he needs more funding to squeeze the full benefits from the program. "It’s not ready for prime time yet," said Ball. "That’s why we have engaged so much with ESRI. Because we thought that they may be able to help develop its capabilities. We are constrained for resources and I have to develop partnerships to make the next step in the plan occur."

More information on the project can be found at: http://gis.larc.nasa.gov/spaceopt

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