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Hidden Feature? Esri CityEngine Dashboards in your browser

Hidden Feature? Esri CityEngine Dashboards in your browser

Update: I had a repsonse from one of the Developers about this on LinkedIn which is at the end of this (I have his permission to post it)

Bless those Esri developers in Zurich and Redlands developing cool new features and workflows!  It seems they work so fast sometimes they forget to document the features they’re working on.  With several releases/updates a year I can’t always keep up so perhaps they can’t either?

Who doesn’t like a good metric in a pretty graph?  This one shows the Graphic Complexity index of a whole bunch of data, useful for assessing future workflows and export sizes.

Those of you who use CityEngine for geodesign will love the dashboard, instead of reporting dry numbers you get these dynamic charts giving you visual and numerical feedback in to you geodesign projects.  It can be very useful bu twhen I use it I’m constantly fighting windows and screens coding and visualising, now where did I put that dashboard.  This tip gives you another option placing it in your web browser!  

wait… what’s that? Double-click on on it.

I only relatively recently noticed a message in the log tab (Window –>Show Log), you do use this window pane/tab right?!  Well probably not, and only when you’re trying to figure out what went wrong. Double-clicking the message that says ‘Dashboards are also available in your browser’ and you’ll get this message…

Dear lord, please can someone look at this UI mess please….

Select and copy that web address that says http://localhost:60288 (or similar it does change each time, perhaps this could be more friendly??).

No I’m not telling you how I changed the thousands separator to something sensible

Ta da!  Now you can have a dashboard in CityEngine’s interface…… and your web browser, sadly it’s not published out to the big world wide web but for local desktop use this could be useful.  Now I’ve tested it and it all seems to work nicely, a change in one window is still reflected in the other.

See??? It works! And no I’m still not telling you how to change the thousands separator…

That’s it, you may have sensed some frustration with Esri CityEngine’s interface design and documentation…. well perhaps you’re reading too much into it 🙂

So I posted this to LinkedIn and one of the developers added this comment which really adds to the information above:

Hi Elliot,There is a reason why we “overlooked” this “feature” in the documentation phase:) We don’t want to support it atm, means we don’t check and make sure that the dashboards render nicely in different browsers. There are other technical reasons that are taken into account and the main use case of it I guess is already covered by the dashboard tab beeing detachable from the main window. Thanks anyway for the nice article and have a good time, Chris 

Christian Iten, Product Designer at ESRI R&D Center Zurich. 
Sedbergh and District The Fallen of WW1: A Cartographic project

Sedbergh and District The Fallen of WW1: A Cartographic project

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on some custom mapping for a range of products (digital and paper) to commemorate 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War here in Sedbergh.

Fantasy mapping using real world data in ArcGIS Pro is fun!

It started with my experimentation of using ArcGIS Pro and the Ordnance Survey’s fantastic Open Zoomstack data product to create ‘fantasy’ type maps.  I soon realised that there was more I could, do and with Remembrance day coming up I had an idea.

Old Ordnance Survey Mapping of the WW1 battlefields notice the red lines of war related infrastructure (trenches, barbed wire etc…) Source: National Library of Scotland  and Ordnance Survey

What if I recreated those old Ordnance Survey (6-inch maps) using modern data and symbolise the natural features of the area as some kind of trench and barbed wire network?  This would represent the deep routed effects war had on the community and highlight the ‘battlefield’ of home, whether that be loved ones not returning, or returning not quite the same, and the ripple effect it had on the valleys around Sedbergh.

Sneak peak at the A1 paper version…

I started by making a basemap I could use in a printed product (a series of A1 sheets), but quickly realised this nice looking basemap (derived from OS data) could be used in some nice digital mapping.

“Streams of Remembrance” in St Andrews Church, Sedbergh
It’s a giant river, valley, and places map of our area.

Staff at Garsdale Design had been involved in the ‘Streams of Remembrance’ display in St Andrew’s Church in Sedbergh and had a list of names given to them by Sedbergh and District History Society.   What I’ve done with this is create a geographic point file of where all the soldiers lived and their biographical details, then I constructed a web link to feed their details into the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website so you could click on the link and find where they are buried.

My feeling was that more viewers can relate to an age than they can to rank, status or anything else. 

Symbology – I’ve wrestled with this for a while, I knew each soldier had to be represented by a poppy symbol of some kind.  Was age important? Was rank? Was where they lived or died significant?  I could not and did not want to answer, every death is a tragedy and significant.   I did think however, that age might be a good way to group these people in the storymap.   My feeling was that more viewers can relate to an age than they can to rank, status or anything else. 

Badly drawn poppies by me from an image I found using Google at different life stages….

So I drew some poppies, single flowers, flowers on stems, and finally I settled on a collection of symbols.  Single poppies when close together overlapped too much and you couldn’t make out individuals and I didn’t like it.  I tried resizing the poppies based on age but was unhappy… so I asked for help.

so I asked for help.

After much deliberation I reached out to Kenneth Field**, if it’s one thing that those who know Ken would agree on is that he has an opinion!   I gave him some background and asked for advice on displaying the poppies, I won’t repeat all of what he said (it was long and very kind) but basically my idea of sizing based on age was brought into clarity when he said:

…you could ditch age altogether. Is it important in the context of the map? Isn’t the fact each poppy locate a fallen soldier enough (mass of poppies = more in this sense cognitively). A larger poppy might also be seen as being ‘more important’ because it’s more visible. Is a soldiers age relevant to their ‘importance’

Ken Field 2018
Overlapping poppies at different stages…

A poppy at various life stages is an interesting and beautiful thing.  I liked the idea and in the end after much thought I used all the symbols on my map (with the bottom of the stem being where the point is on the map).  Each poppy symbol would be distributed randomly, age would not be a factor, this also allowed me to avoid some of the overlapping symbology issues I was having.  I know it’s not perfect and the image above looks a bit too delicate, but I think I’ll never be truly happy with any solution.  Artistically I like this compromise the best.  An unexpected outcome is actually the 3D view of these poppies looks much better than the 2D.

The symbology I settled on….

I didn’t want to write so much in one post, I do have a technical blog post about the making of this coming as well.   I’ll end by saying I’ve created a number of maps paper A1 sheets, 2D webmap, StoryMap, 3D Scene, and a custom 3D mApp using the Esri JS API.

A link to the StoryMap and 3D mApp (this custom app allows you to get screenshots of an area and download them with a custom title) are ready and linked here below (click on the images).

** Shameless plug but Ken’s book “Cartography.” it’s a valuable resource for those who want to make better maps. 

Loading the OS Open Zoomstack Geopackage into ArcGISPro (with OS styling).

Loading the OS Open Zoomstack Geopackage into ArcGISPro (with OS styling).

OS Open Zoomstack in ArcGIS Pro with symbology created by the Ordnance Survey

This is a quick write up that’s related to the blog series I’m doing on custom symbology in ArcGIS Pro.  Well sort of, it just so happens to be the perfect dataset to use to use for UK based mapping projects where you don’t want to use a costly licenced dataset (maybe the forthcoming Open MasterMap may change that?).   Now, I know I normally write about 3D and CityEngine related stuff but I do love a good 2D map as well!  This post assumes a simple working knowledge of ArcGIS Pro.   I’m considering making this a video as well so you can see the entire process.

First you need to download the OS Open Zoomstack as a ‘geopackage’ don’t worry whilst ArcGIS Pro doesn’t support direct editing of a ‘geopackage’ it does support native reading of it. * there’s some discussion in the comments at the end of this post, if you’re reading on the front page click here to view

Fun fact: the GeoPackage is an ‘open format for geospatial information’

You can read about it here.

A word of warning this is a UK national dataset, so naturally the size is large (10.1 Gigabytes!).

To help as well I suggest you download the Ordnance Survey’s custom symbology for this dataset which you can get from github.

As you can see there are some instructions on what to do with style sheets if you’re an ArcMap user in that PDF linked above… well I do not use ArcMap much anymore more so I’ve pretty much made a complete transition to ArcGIS Pro so here’s what you do next.

Step 1: New ArcGIS Pro project and then ‘insert’ a new ‘map’.

Step 2: Convert the Geopackage into a File Geodatabase… as far as I am aware you don’t need an Advanced licence or FME or the Data Interoperability Extension (if I’m wrong comment below on this post) you can drag in each layer manually into a Map in ArcGIS Pro and then right-click the ‘export data’ function.  Or better yet, you can use the copy features GP tool (using the Batch function). *I’ve created a toolbox with two tools that simplifies this process for me.  I will share this as a separate blog post soon…

Step 2: Remove the prefix ‘main_’ from all the feature classes you imported into the new file geodatabase, otherwise you can’t use the lyr file on them….

Step 3: Find your “OS-Open-Zoomstack.lyr” (link to download it here) and drag it in to your Map, notice all those red “!” marks, this means it can’t find the data these symbols are linking too.   Click on one of these red “!” to fix them all.   It will ask you where the data layer is located ( in this case ‘names’).  Find the data in the new file geodatabase you created.

Step 4: Well it should all work and all those “!” should have gone and you have a nicely symbolised OS Open Zoomstack data set courtesy of the nice folks at the Ordnance Survey.

A final note this workflow unbelievably helped me find where Esri hid the ‘repair data’ function went, basically they built it into the “!“… d’oh.

Coming up in a future blog post: How we can use OS Open Zoomstack with our hand drawn custom symbology.

Creating and using Custom ArcGIS Pro Symbology – Part 1: Stuff I use to help me.

Creating and using Custom ArcGIS Pro Symbology – Part 1: Stuff I use to help me.

You’ll have seen on social media I’ve been ‘playing’ with techniques to create custom mapping styles.   This is a direct result of me attending EsriUK’s Perth conference and getting all inspired by John Nelson.

Firstly if you haven’t read or seen John Nelson’s blog, go look at it now (I’ll wait): There’s more obviously around but I’ve been using ArcGISPro for all our 3D GIS and Esri CityEngine content.  However I’ve wanted to do something more artistic, more in-depth and one that pushes my comfort zone a little.   John Nelson’s cartography using ArcGIS Pro are a master class in the art of what’s possible.

So this is the first blog post in a few and maybe even a video (yes I do that occasionally) on the lessons I’ve learnt from using ArcGIS Pro to make some unique maps that look hand drawn (and sort of are).   Can you do this in a product like QGIS?  Yes I think you probably can, can you apply some of what I write here to QGIS, I hope so!

Equipment and preparation

I’m aiming to make this repeatable and consistent, therefore I’ve done some preparation which I will share with you here.  You don’t have to purchase anything of course! I just wanted to record what I had done here.

The glorious Staedtler triplus® fineliner 334

Pens. While we will be using ArcGIS Pro we will also need to do our own drawing, and no I don’t believe you have to be very good at drawing just consistent and willing to try new things.  I’ve settled on the Staedtler triplus fineLiner 334-9 a nice pen with a good line quality. Unsure?  Go to a good pen shop and try some out, for me we’re doing symbology of lines and symbols so it needs to be crisp and good for scanning.

Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box set of 12… is nice to have and small!

Paints.  Well I like watercolours and I also wanted to replicate some what John Nelson has done, so I’ve chosen a simple set we got my eldest child from Winsor & Newton.

Paper. Honestly 80gsm everyday paper for simple pen work it has a nice crisp white perfect for scanning.  If I was to improve it so you didn’t see anything on the back or to stop it curling, 90gsm is better.  For watercolour work obviously you need watercolour paper (190gsm to 300gsm) just ensure any scanner can handle it, if you intend to use a scanner!

The grid. I wanted to inject some consistency in to the process and left to my own devices just sketching on a piece of paper will get messy pretty quickly so I created a series of A4 grids for the different symbols.  I’ve made this a PDF which you can download below (see resources heading below).

Scanner or Camera. I’m using an iPhone 7 camera and the dropbox app to quickly upload to my PC (you could equally use a cable or other app).  For the most part I would recommend to use a scanner this allows for clear distortion free scans/images of your drawing.   If you use a camera I find without amazing light quality when taking it you will end up doing additional processes to clean and brighten your image.  The scanner i’m using at home is an Epson Stylus Office BX610FW, I can scan directly to a memory card or via wifi straight to my PC using their Windows program.

Sedbergh-on-sea created with hand drawn elements placed using ArcGIS Pro

Software. Well I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop Elements, but you can also use GIMP (which is fantastic!).  Oh yes and ArcGIS Pro….  

I like it.

Books and inspiration. Well John Nelson and his blog I’ve already talked about but I’ve been looking at a wide variety of books and maps to see what works.  I don’t 100% want to copy (especially if newer material!) but also you don’t have to re-invent the wheel..  From my perspective I really like “Great City Maps”, but then I’m a sucker for urban mapping, I recommend finding a style your’re passionate about and trying to replicate elements of it.

Other publications are available (this is not an endorsement)

Conclusion. So that’s what I’ve been using, I haven’t finished everything yet but Part 2 of this series will look at a workflow for the various elements of a map in ArcGIS Pro you may want to replicate.  I haven’t decided whether to do one giant post about all types of symbology creation or do individual posts for points, lines, polygons etc…


CityEngine 2018.0 beta and beyond (a sneak peek?) UPDATED

CityEngine 2018.0 beta and beyond (a sneak peek?) UPDATED

Is this technically a sneak peek? – probably not

NOTE: This post has been updated to include response from Pascal Mueller Director of Esri R&D Zurich and the creator of Esri CityEngine, scroll to the end to see his response.

CityEngine 2018.0 beta has been out for a while now and is pretty much over, I’ve been lucky enough to have been using it in anger for a bit too.   Building on the CityEngine 2017.1 release there are some small improvements, new CGA code as well as a couple of new features, but essentially this feels like a minor release which is not a bad thing.  Just because it’s minor doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like progress , it will be well worth the update!   

The Confession

Firstly a confession, the title is a bit of a click-bait (hey if respectable news organisations can try it why can’t I?) I can’t show you a sneak peak this time or really talk about specifics, well because of um beta stuff and all that…. (last time I had a special agreement).  What I can tell you is that if you want to participate in the future CityEngine betas you can sign-up here .  If you like CityEngine and are interested in where it’s going and of course helping out the team at Esri then I thoroughly recommend you sign up!

I can assure you that some bug fixes have happened and a couple of new features added which complement the analysis side of things.

Where next for CityEngine?

The real interesting thing here is how Esri CityEngine is moving very much in the direction of the urban design / geodesign space now.  As is much of Esri’s push at the moment, 3D is a natural fit for planners and planning departments.  The discussion on cities/urban (smart or otherwise) is a clear market strategy for Esri and the push towards BIM having been resolved through a ‘partnership’ with Autodesk fits nicely.   

Planning, designing and development must take the full picture into account. Create, visualize and share in 3D to make better designs and present your work more effectively. Source: Esri

This I guess poses a question for Esri, does it continue CityEngine long term with so many products that seem to tick the urban space box?  As someone who has trained many clients in CityEngine and offers consultancy services over the last 5 years I certainly have an interest in its future!  There are big questions of whether it will be just consumed by ArcGIS Pro or placed in some cloud container and interacted with via ArcGIS Online.   

I think (and I have no insider knowledge here) the answer is all of these things will happen, but also that CityEngine will continue to be a standalone product for the foreseeable future.   Esri is in the movie industry now and I don’t think it will want to leave that, but also CityEngine is a great design tool that fits Jack’s interest in urban and geodesign.

“is a simple-to-use 3D city editing and visualization tool” – “Build Flexible Scenarios Faster” – “Create Realistic Context”

The real worry for me is what form will CityEngine evolve into.  The marketing literature still talks of easy operation and high quality realistic outputs.   Sorry but it’s not easy to learn or use (from a typical planners perspective) and the high quality outputs don’t come instantly (unless you like Redlands building typologies!).   

Handles don’t help with the usability issues of CityEngine as they require coding to implement

CityEngine’s great power is it’s flexibility of format support and usage.  But it has fundamental technical issues/challenges with terrain and roads that need addressing.   Esri also needs to decide whether this is a tool for the drag and drop users among us, or some highly technical development environment for urban planning.   

One glimmer of light and a direction of travel is the ESRI.lib folder, promisingly for new users it shows a path of drag and drop produce something now.  Unfortunately this seems to have gone a little stale, anyone who does CGA coding in CityEngine knows organising and keeping up to date rule files is difficult especially if projects vary like ours do.    The ESRI.lib has some great rules I use over and over again, roads and trees, in fact the more generic the better!   Give me more of those tree assets!   These smaller rules enable a greater freedom and I can write rules that work with these easily because I know they are installed with every CityEngine workspace.   

In conclusion, and I’m not good at concluding thoughts so forgive me, CityEngine is here to stay but has some challenges to overcome.   Like all software it has to evolve as it’s users ask more of it.  Currently I worry that CityEngine as a tool is too technical for widespread adoption this means that businesses will be reluctant to invest in it if only a hand full of users (CityEngine professionals) are out there.   On the plus side CityEngine professionals like myself will probably have some consultancy work coming our way! 

Update and response from Esri Zurich’s R&D Director

(originally posted as comments on LinkedIn)

So I posted the link to this blog on LinkedIn and amazingly Pascal Muller (read a post I did called Life Changer to understand why I am honoured to get this) very kindly responded.  I have got his permission to post those comments here, these have been copied directly and no editing has been done although I have tried to keep the paragraph breaks.   What I now need to do is a follow up post to contemplating this response! 


Thanks Elliot, really great read!

I could answer some of the raised questions : ) hmm, maybe we should do an ‘ask me anything session’ here…

Two things:

(1) You are correct, not a ton of new features in this release. Reason is that we changed our release cycle this year and are releasing now 3 months earlier. As a result the time between CE 2017.1 and CE 2018.0 was much shorter. CE 2018.0 comes out next week and you can expect CE 2018.1 in September instead of November.

(2) Yes, CE is here to stay. There are no plans to discontinue it. In contrary: maybe you have heard about our new product initiative ArcGIS Urban which is basically a streamlined urban planning platform (on top of AGO) for the planning departments of cities. It will feature cool web apps/interfaces and it will also work great with CE. It’s all developed under the same roof here (also includes the 3D JS API 4.x team btw). In the ArcGIS Urban context, CE will (still) be required for the more advanced workflows such as for example Devin’s site plans, Bruno’s Masterplanner, or the various greenfield mega city projects of the HOKs and F+Ps.

ohh, and of course Blade Runner 3 will need these off-world cities Batty was talking about : )

Besides all this, CE continues to be one of Esri’s development platforms where bleeding edge technology gets applied before it goes mainstream, see for example the push on game engines (more about that later…).

Pretty exciting stuff and I am extremely happy that all the pieces fall into place finally, but we know that we have to keep working hard and improve things. Huge thanks for your continuous support and wise long-term thinking.

Making the ‘Craftsman Rule’ more interactive….

Making the ‘Craftsman Rule’ more interactive….

In CityEngine you can use a feature called ‘handles’ to add visual controls to your models.  This means you don’t have to interact with specific numbers or values in the inspector.  It also means many more people can use your rules as they were intended.   The real issue here is how much control do you give you users via this method? 

As you can see there is a balance to be had between being highly configurable and being too configurable (i.e. too many attributes to muck around with!).

Early days on the handles, but I’m getting there!

Many people have reached out to me asking whether this rule file will be available for sale sometime.  The answer is probably!  Drop me a message if you’re interested and I’ll let you know how it goes.   Or keep an eye on twitter, LinkedIn or this blog for more updates.  I suspect I will have to stop sometime.

Procedural modelling the UK high-street

Procedural modelling the UK high-street

Some of our latest CityEngine work is looking at the high street and in particular here at home the UK high street.   Commercial buildings in a typical UK town are a mixed bag of traditional older buildings with some often badly maintained concrete buildings and the odd brick built modern monster designed and built in the 1980s.  More recent buildings like glass a lot …  We’ve been creating rules to describe building frontages, not all are pretty but that’s kind of the point! 

This set is early work for a project that we’re helping on for the Transport Systems Catapult based in Milton Keynes who are helping out the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) creating simulated virtual environments to test out way-finding technologies.  Stay tuned for some more outputs! 

Collaboration with Transport Systems Catapult

Collaboration with Transport Systems Catapult

Ryan at the Garsdale Design offices overlooking the Howgill’s and Sedbergh. (Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales National Park)

Some of you may have noticed a post I shared on LinkedIn by a gentleman called Ryan Johnston from the Transport Systems Catapult (based in Milton Keynes) coming to our office here in Cumbria last Friday. 

Getting the train this morning to Cumbria for some collaborative work with Elliot Hartley #Garsdaledesign . Looking at how City Engine can help create fast environments for testing and stimulation.

Ryan was here to gain insight into how we here at Garsdale Design build virtual 3D environments from GIS data.  We use the Esri platform to do this and one of the key tools Ryan was here to get an understanding of was CityEngine and ArcGISPro.  As you all should know by now is that at Garsdale Design is well known for our CityEngine and 3D GIS expertise! 

In any GIS workflow data preparation is vital

This is part of the Peterborough way finding research project for the partially sighted. Helping to understand how spatially correct 3d urban models and VR technology; can help the partially sighted to navigate from the train station to the RNIB Peterborough head office.

Ryan’s visit was in relation to a way-finding project for the partially sighted in Peterborough, home to the head office of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).  Here the TSC has brought together a range of industry professionals (such as Garsdale Design and MK Surveys) to create a virtual environment to test various sensors, beacons and navigation methods around Peterborough town centre and the offices of the RNIB.   As this project progresses more information will be posted on the Transport Systems Catapult website

Ryan was here the whole day (interrupted only by a nice lunch at the Three Hares Cafe), and we discussed various project workflows, for example making all that nice Ordnance Survey MasterMap data 3D, as well as managing terrain data.   We looked at game engine workflows and the exciting possibilities of Unity as well as the new datasmith tool for Unreal.   Of course once we have a dynamic and flexible (i.e. easy to modify) 3D model we also need to look at analytical tools to help in the process of assessing various ‘way marking’ technologies.   Whilst the discussion was focused on the Peterborough project we’re happy to report that many of the issues we were addressing also would come in use for future projects too.

CityEngine 2017.1 beta demoing how the new viewshed tool could be used for bluetooth beacon placement

At the end of the day Ryan and I were able to make a quick mock-up of part of Peterborough to identify where CityEngine tools may help create this virtual environment.  We also looked at the 2017.1 beta version with viewsheds which could be useful in this particular project.

We had a great day and it was fantastic to work with Ryan, I’m pretty sure we could have kept going for a lot longer, but sadly a work day must come to an end sometime!